One of the tools we have to assist is anticipation, through which we can use our assessment of what might happen in the future to direct action in the present. GESDA’s aim is to enable this process of anticipation by laying out in its Science Breakthrough Radar the possibilities scientists envisage for the future. In this way, GESDA aims to act as an honest broker between the scientific community and society to encourage open debates about how we wish to shape the future and what opportunities for action can be taken today.
The natural inclination of human beings is to believe that the future is already baked into the present, and is to a large extent inevitable. For example, when we consider any discrete set of data over time, we usually focus on its incremental nature, whether that’s demographic trends, economic growth (or decline) or climate change. We are notoriously bad at understanding and acting in prevision of unexpected events or large-scale disruptions.
Anticipation, by contrast, gives us the capacity to treat the future as a range of possibilities, empowering us to make decisions in the present which can influence what happens in the future. The original Greek meaning of the word ‘anticipate’, Prolambano, conveys the martial idea to "seize beforehand”. From its earliest meaning, therefore, anticipation has combined a forward-looking attitude with the potential for action, occurring when consideration of the future is used as a deciding factor in the present. Through this ability to act, we are freed to consider aspects of our future as being malleable to creative forces and novelty — as long as suitable enabling conditions are given today.
The need to anticipate and therefore use the future to build the present is more important than ever. In only a few decades, science and technological advances have transformed our societies and continue to have unanticipated consequences on how we function as individuals, how we relate to each other, and how we interact with the environment, our planet and its resources. And there is no indication that the rate of change is going to slow down: the rapid pace of scientific and technological development in the time we are living today may well be more disruptive than anything humans have experienced in the past. As with the Industrial Revolution — but at a much faster rate — this science and technology revolution is affecting virtually every field of human activity. Take, for example, the data and artificial intelligence revolution. It permeates all sectors of science, our economies and our social and personal interactions — and the quantum revolution has the potential to exponentially accelerate these changes. Similarly, advances in neuroscience, combined with developments in AI, are reshaping how we understand, read and act on our own brains, and science and technological advances are already redistributing and reshaping world power, globally.
To live in a fair and sustainable society in the future means that there is an imperative to anticipate — but how? For GESDA, anticipation translates as the capacity to explore the horizon of possibilities as a basis to debate and forge global and inclusive coalitions before science and technology breakthroughs are deployed without full consideration of possible impacts — or advantageous developments are not deployed at all. The wide coverage of anticipated advances detailed in the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar® assist in providing the enabling conditions for action to happen in the present to build towards a more intentional future.
Anticipation itself comes with its own inherent risks. For example, the risk we take by producing information about what has not yet happened (and may indeed never happen) is that we reduce the complexity of future developments, and in doing so, risk reducing the inherent openness of the future. Likewise, the act of practicing anticipation conjures a strong temptation to consider the future as “factual” and “perceptible”, where projections of the future is a matter of picking up signals that can function as evidence. It is also tempting to consider the future through the lens of our own values, and what we perceive as “right” or “wrong”. This distorts our understanding of what is possible or probable by our own hopes or fears.
However, the purpose of anticipation in the GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar® is, in the spirit of honest brokering, to open up the space of possibilities for the international community, setting up enabling conditions for action, and refraining as much as possible from projecting our own normative or preferred visions of the future. By practicing anticipation, we strive to embrace complexity and uncertainty and resist the urge to clear pathways towards an imagined future. It is impossible to consider the process of science and technology development in isolation from the social complexities involved in why and how it is being developed, or how it will be deployed once a breakthrough has occurred. The GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar® is therefore consciously restricted to anticipating just the science and technology breakthroughs themselves, in order to anticipate how science and technology might develop given their current trajectories. We use the term “science anticipation” to emphasise both the need to anticipate science and technology, and also to employ a methodology rooted in research and following its principles of peer-review, academic rigour and subject matter expertise. An anticipation rooted in science also recognises the capacity of research as an engine of anticipation — the capacity to make disciplined inquiries into those things we need to know but do not know yet, i.e., the capacity to systematically increase the horizons of one’s current knowledge.
Science anticipation comes with its own challenges, notably around diversity, inclusivity and equity. While foresight has become more common and global, it directs its focus to established sets of concerns and fails to address issues shared by underrepresented regions and communities. The GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar® is not immune to this tendency and GESDA is working to improve the inclusion of communities and geographies that are currently underrepresented in its processes.
We are certain that the world will continue its rapid change in the coming decades — and science and technology will certainly be among the drivers of that change. The GESDA Science Breakthrough Radar® uses science anticipation as a means of preparing us for the changes to come, setting the enabling conditions for the global community to act — or in the words of the ancient Greeks, to take the ground in time — and design ambitious initiatives inclusive of all relevant communities in the spirit of an effective and renewed multilateralism.
To this extent, the Radar is set up to function as a neutral broker and convener between the different disciplines, sectors and communities involved in science and technology and its governance. Our ambition is to develop it as a dynamic, living tool: as it matures, we will further grow the community of contributors, including members of scientific communities in parts of the world and sectors of society that are still under-represented. The Actions & Debates and the Opportunities sections in the Radar provide the first bridges into the broader territories where those advances can be contextualised and decisions taken, in partnership with the relevant actors and communities.
Anticipation rooted in science is needed now more than ever, but this anticipation needs to happen in an inclusive and transparent manner if we are to engender societal trust in the pursuit of science and its benefits.