Anticipatory governance – Demos Helsinki’s work for a resilient and transformative future

The great crises of our time have one thing in common: they reveal our limitations in navigating uncertainties and the shifting premises of our world. Public administrations, in particular, are increasingly expected to deal with this challenge. Indeed, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity are critical features of the environment in which they operate. In this uncertain environment, governments struggle with seizing future opportunities. Yet, society still expects them to drive immediate and decisive action to deal with today’s challenges and ensure a better tomorrow.


For humans to overcome our biases against the future is not an easy feat. On the one hand, the concrete effects of future events are usually not within our immediate perception in our everyday lives. We cannot truly internalise these effects until they appear on our doorstep. Moreover, there is a general tendency to focus on risks rather than possibilities — frequently in an attempt to maintain stability. With societal phenomena becoming ever more complex, these cognitive biases pose a risk for us: society may become paralysed in the face of uncertainty. For governments, in particular, overfocusing on risk mitigation and stability might make it harder to pursue the simultaneous imperative to proactively steer societies through transformation.


How can the core functions and processes of government operate in a future-oriented way? It takes anticipatory governance, bringing anticipation to the core of institutions, to align our actions today with the future. At Demos Helsinki, we believe that we must think of anticipatory governance in terms of the means to balance between short-term needs and long-term vision: building resilience and driving transformation. The ability to anticipate promotes our capacity to take agency in future events and grasp their real urgency relative to the present.


We have been exploring the institutionalisation of anticipation globally with different government actors and within various contexts. Most recently, Demos Helsinki has built an anticipatory migration management model in North Macedonia in collaboration with UNFPA, UNHCR and IOM. We have recently published a paper on mission-oriented governance, which discusses how long-term missions can become a steering framework for the whole of government. In addition to developing governance models, we provide capacity building for the 21st-century civil service facing societal transformations.


Bridging the impact gap: experimenting with foresight in decision making

The Ministry of Interior is working to improve its capacity for anticipatory governance, aiming to develop a shared strategic vision that it must have the ability to manage going forward. Demos Helsinki has been the Ministry’s foresight expert partner in this work, and for this purpose, we created together a strategic foresight model for the administrative branch and an accompanying experimentation plan for learning how the institutionalisation of strategic foresight can practically be embedded in governance. The new governance model will assess how well operations and resources are set out to tackle the issues and strategic circumstances identified and which changes need to be implemented to achieve strategic objectives.


The foresight model is one example of our work to create wise governments. Luckily, we are not alone on this mission. The OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation has explored how governments can incorporate anticipatory innovation functions within their governance systems. Recently, they highlighted the foresight model developed by Demos Helsinki for the Ministry of Interior in their recent publication Anticipatory Innovation Governance Model in Finland – Towards a New Way of Governing as an example of a systemic driver for anticipatory innovation.


For the past two years, as part of a broader pan-European project, the OECD has been exploring how Finland’s governance mechanisms must be transformed to deal with future challenges. Through an assessment conducted in Finland, the OECD identified critical challenges to anticipatory governance. They found that there is a significant ‘impact gap’ regarding strategic foresight and how it is used in the Finnish government, making it challenging to align strategic foresight with ongoing strategic planning and political decision-making processes.


The challenges identified now by the OECD are aligned with some of the results of The National Foresight 2020 project, which Demos Helsinki and the University of Turku carried out in 2020. The project was commissioned by the Finnish Government and mapped the current state and future of foresight in Finland. There, we presented concrete measures to develop foresight in Finland. We know that the lessons of that work are just as relevant today, and we have continued to build on them in our work towards future-oriented governments.


Way forward: try out, learn and try again

There is no blueprint for anticipatory governance. Instead, we believe that the pathway to institutionalised anticipation takes continuous experimentation. Indeed, the OECD highlighted the experimental policy work done in 2015 by Demos Helsinki with the Prime Minister’s Office, which led to the development of a new framework for experimental policy design. The lessons from that project contributed to our work’s success with the strategic foresight model for the Ministry of the Interior.

Next, we intend to take our work even further. Together with our partners, we are driving the transformation towards wise and future-oriented governments. Our collective long-term mission is to form a worldwide alliance of anticipatory governance. Join us in exploration.

Mikael Sokero
Senior Expert

Vera Djakonoff



Feature Image: yurok/iStock