September 7, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Anticipation and prediction: A conceptual odyssey

John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Crystal_BallA group of us at Making Science Public recently discussed Responsible Research and Innovation and Anticipatory Governance. During this conversation a colleague reminded us that anticipation is not the same as prediction (see also here). This made me think about the meanings of these words and in order to get to grips with them I embarked on a conceptual journey of discovery. I explored some historical and modern meanings of ‘anticipation’ and ‘prediction’, as well as related concepts. After that I went back to ‘anticipatory governance’ and what it could mean. I might of course have got things totally wrong; so I would love to hear what other people make of these concepts.

Going on a conceptual journey

I began by looking up my two keywords in an online etymological dictionary and also the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Let’s start with ‘anticipation’:

Anticipation: “late 14c., from Latin anticipationem (nominative anticipatio) ‘preconception, preconceived notion,’ noun of action from past participle stem of anticipare ‘take care of ahead of time’ (see anticipate). Meaning ‘action of looking forward to’ is from 1809.” Interestingly, according to the OED, one of the first meanings of the word was “The action of taking into possession, actually or virtually, beforehand; the using of money before it is at one’s disposal”, as attested by this quote from 1548 “This payment was called an Anticipation, which is to say a thing taken, or a thing commyng before his tyme”. Now what about prediction?

Prediction: “1560s, from Middle French prédiction and directly from Medieval Latin predictionem (nominative predictio), from Latin praedictio ‘a foretelling,’ noun of action from past participle stem of praedicere (see predict).“ In modern science (and policy) prediction is of course not the same as fore-telling in the sense of prophesising. It can have a variety of meanings. We can, for example, ‘predict’ school attainment from family income or the size of an object from its weight. That is to say, we infer something from something else but we don’t necessarily predict the future. In science theories ‘predict’ hypotheses, in the sense that they imply them. These can then be tested. That’s how we learn about the world.

In another domain of society, where looking into the future and assessing risks is important, market traders have examined the distinction between ‘prediction’ and ‘anticipation’. For some “[p]rediction is about a belief that something WILL happen. Anticipation is being READY for what might possibly happen and having a plan for what to do.” For others “[a]nticipation involves developing hypotheses, or potential scenarios, and preparing to respond to potential scenarios” instead of “getting locked into a prediction.” I think this last distinction is what my colleague might have been hinting at.

Fore-telling made me think of fore-casting, so I threw that concept into the mix, especially after reading a long article about it, entitled ‘How to see into the future’, which James Wilsdon had tweeted on 6 September. Forecasting is now ubiquitous and sometimes disastrous and will become even more common with the advent of big data.

Forecast: “early 15c., probably from forecast (v.); earliest sense was ‘forethought, prudence;’ meaning ‘conjectured estimate of a future course’ is from 1670s. A Middle English word for weather forecasting was aeromancy.” (For more information on aeromancy as divination or science, see here). In addition, the OED tells us that ‘forecast’ now generally means “a conjectural estimate or account, based on present indications, of the course of events or state of things in the future…. A projection”. This brings us to a really interesting word:

Projection: ‘late 15c., in alchemy, ‘transmutation by casting a powder on molten metal’; 1550s in the cartographical sense ‘drawing of a map or chart according to scale,’ from Middle French projection, from Latin proiectionem (nominative proiectio), from past participle stem of proicere (see project (n.)). From 1590s as ‘action of projecting.’” As the OED tells us, the first meaning of the word was “[t]he throwing or casting of an ingredient into a crucible; esp. the casting of powdered philosopher’s stone on to molten metal to effect its transmutation into gold or silver; the transmutation of metals.”

Modern science has moved on from alchemy and the philosopher’s stone. In some parts of science a distinction is made between projections and predictions. To take an example from climate change: A “projection specifically allows for significant changes in the set of boundary conditions, such as an increase in greenhouse gases, which might influence the future climate. As a result, what emerge are conditional expectations (if this happens, then that is what is expected).” In this context projections can become predictions or forecasts.

From alchemy to aeromancy, delving into the pasts of these future-oriented words has certainly been entertaining. But we are not very much more advanced in understanding anticipatory governance, which was the topic of the conversation that had set me off on my conceptual travels.

Anticipatory governance (1)

So let’s look at a seminal article entitled ‘Understanding anticipatory governance’ by David Guston. Here anticipatory governance is defined as “‘a broad-based capacity extended through society that can act on a variety of inputs to manage emerging knowledge-based technologies while such management is still possible’. It motivates activities designed to build capacities in foresight, engagement, and integration – as well as through their production ensemble.” This is one of a number of emerging definitions. I’ll come back to another in a minute. Let us just dwell briefly on one concept used in this definition: foresight.

Foresight: “c.1300, from fore- + sight (n.). Compare German Vorsicht ‘attention, caution, cautiousness.’” In the OED the first definition of ‘foresight’ is: ”The action or faculty of foreseeing what must happen; prevision.” Being on a cautious look-out for trouble seems to be one aspect of foresight and therefore anticipatory governance.

In his article Guston also talks about ‘visions of the future’ that should be constructed more democratically in order to achieve anticipatory governance. So we move from foresight to vision:

Vision: “c.1300, ‘something seen in the imagination or in the supernatural,’ from Anglo-French visioun, Old French vision ‘presence, sight; view, look, appearance; dream, supernatural sight’ (12c.), from Latin visionem (nominative visio) ‘act of seeing, sight, thing seen,’ noun of action from past participle stem of videre ‘to see. This is from the productive PIE root *weid- ‘to know, to see’ […] . The meaning ‘sense of sight’ is first recorded late 15c. Meaning ‘statesman-like foresight, political sagacity’ is attested from 1926.”

Anticipatory governance (2)

Visions can, of course, be made practical with the help of modern (visualization and other) technologies and thus leave the realm of the supernatural behind. In a pamphlet by the Institute for the Future on ‘anticipatory governance’ we find talk of: ‘forecasting, visioning, and participatory processes’, processes that involve the simulation of possible futures: “Sensor data and large-scale collaborative models drive simulations of everything from the micro to the macro, providing increasingly complex and compelling views and even immersive experiences of future conditions—all as input to more distributed choice-making.” This brings us to ‘simulation’:

Simulation: ”mid-14c., ‘a false show, false profession,’ from Old French simulation “pretence” and directly from Latin simulationem (nominative simulatio) ‘an imitating, feigning, false show, hypocrisy,’ noun of action from past participle stem of simulare ‘imitate,’ from stem of similis ‘like’ (see similar). Meaning ‘a model or mock-up for purposes of experiment or training’ is from 1954.” In the OED two citations highlight the importance of simulations for the way humans think and have always thought about the world and their actions within it: “1958  Business Week 29 Nov. 76/3   Men began to raise questions..about their models of the real world. They did this by inventing games such as chess and checkers to simulate battle, games like back-gammon and Parcheesi to simulate racing. H. J. R. Murray, in his History of Board Games (Oxford, 1952), finds that such simulation games go back to the beginning of recorded history and are found in every culture. 1966 A. Battersby Math. in Managem. vii. 159  Simulation enables a manager to study the system which he controls by imitating or ‘simulating’ its behaviour.”

And thus we arrive at ‘model’, model building or modeling, which, according to one important quotation in the OED, is “a way of thinking about the world we live in” and also, of course, a way of thinking about the world we want to live in, now and into the future.


What have we learned during these conceptual peregrinations? It seems that the concepts we have visited all shade into one another and are not easy to separate. They all grapple with our wish to control or govern the future in practical, speculative or scientific ways. We have learned about close conceptual links between seeing, thinking, knowing and talking, or fore-seeing (visioning), fore-thinking (anticipating) fore-telling (predicting) and fore-knowing (as yet elusive). We have also seen that some of these concepts reach back into alchemy and the supernatural and might therefore be tinted with suspicion. However, on the other hand some of the concepts are now strongly linked to modern science and technology where scientific predictions include estimations of uncertainty, where  scientific simulations, modelling and other tools enable us to think about an increasingly complex world now and into the future. They might even make it possible for many people to participate in such activities and become involved in the decision-making processes based on them.

Anticipatory governance and Responsible Research and Innovation stand in a long line of attempts made by humans to gain some control over their future. Both will have to use many of the modern scientific and technological tools available to do so, as well as anticipate and be able to dispel suspicions about them that may be rooted in older cultural knowledge.

Image: John William Waterhouse: The Crystal Ball


Posted in anticipatory governanceresponsible innovation