Anticipatory Democracy: The public’s active, conscious engagement in collectively shaping the future of their community, state or nation.
The protests against the construction of a telescope on Hawaii’s sacred Mauna Kea are entering into the second month. Calling themselves kia‘i (protectors), thousands of native Hawaiians are protesting against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). They are arguing that it will further desecrate Mauna Kea, which already has a dozen existing telescope research facilities. They are calling for a return of balance from the destruction of their land and the restoration of the native ecosystem of Mauna Kea.
Their future-focused voices are raising issues of indigenous rights, sovereignty, and environmental stewardship.
Roughly six thousand miles to the west of Hawaii, Hong Kong is entering the third month of pro-democracy protests. Millions of people have opposed the government’s proposal to amend Hong Kong’s extradition bill. The proposed action would allow the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong lacks an extradition deal—including mainland China. As protesters have taken to the streets, they have brought disruption and chaos to day-to-day activities. A couple of weeks ago, thousands of pro-democracy protesters shut down the Hong Kong airport, one of the busiest in Asia. Last week, a thousand people joined in peaceful protest, holding hands to form a human chain almost 30 miles long.
Peering into the future, these demonstrators are concerned about Hong Kong’s legal freedoms and human rights.
Three environmental activists in the U.K. were convicted of public order offenses last week. The men were convicted of obstructing a highway and the police during a demonstration in April in central London. More than a thousand people were arrested, making the demonstrations some of the biggest acts of civil disobedience in recent British history. Extinction Rebellion, the group that organized the demonstration, contend they are fighting for the future of the world.
“Acceleration produces a faster turnover of goals, a greater transience of purpose. Diversity or fragmentation leads to a relentless multiplication of goals. Caught in this churning, goal-cluttered environment, we stagger, future shocked, from crisis to crisis, pursuing a welter of conflicting and self-canceling purposes.”
- Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
We are at a Historic Crossroads
The protests happening around the world are evidence that we are witnessing a growing obsoledge in long-held political systems. These beliefs and models were designed and constructed to serve the Industrial Era. They may no longer be relevant to a hyper-connected, global, civilization-driven world. As we sit at an inflection point between past and future, new systems are emerging. In the protests, we’re witnessing trial and error in real time.
In his 2012 book The Civic Long Tail, Charles Leadbeater observed that “decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the web is creating a parallel but arguably more effective universal set of expectations among citizens.” He continues, “even if social media does not become a platform for overtly political activity, it is already changing how citizens expect to be treated and so what they expect of the government.”
The same technology that fosters shared innovations and ideological connections also provides a platform to advocate like no other before. It amplifies voices speaking on important issues and allows citizens to hold corporate, community and even country leaders accountable, just as Leaderbeater predicted.
Change in the Real World
Take the British Extinction Rebellion as an example. The group is using the platforms of the Knowledge Age to disrupt the ingrained political systems of the past. This new and growing socio-political movement aims to use civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to protest climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse. They want governments to declare and act with urgency to halt biodiversity loss and to reduce greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025. The April protests in London were deemed a huge success because they prompted many senior politicians to listen more closely and to embrace a sense of urgency to understand the multitude of perspectives to make more informed decisions for the future.
Extinction Rebellion goes a step beyond advocating their positions on social media platforms. They also demand governments create—and be led by—the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. They argue the need for a Citizens’ Assembly because the environment is an emergency with big, wide-ranging, complex, and urgent challenges that have a multitude of stakeholders. On their website, they even define what they mean by a Citizens’ Assembly and describe how the forum will use critical thinking to support decision-making, who it will draw upon for its composition, and how it will be governed.
The U.K. and other countries such as Ireland, Canada, Australia, Poland and the Netherlands all have used Citizens’ Assemblies to address issues too controversial and difficult for politicians to manage successfully on their own. Previous assemblies have proven that the public can and does understand complex information, that they are capable of deliberating valid options, and that they can make fair and impartial choices.
Public action like we are seeing in Hawaii, Hong Kong, and the U.K. have the power to change societies and the world because it is human-driven and amplified by connectedness. We are seeing examples of large and small instances across the world, created and energized by individuals of every walk of life. Whether by situation, ideology or demographics, people are finding one another and banding together to achieve a shared objective.
As we learn and know better, we do better. Add the courage to take bold, exponential steps, and we begin to see real progress. There are more voices to be heard and more complexity to understand and address. We are in need of anticipatory democracy, the blending of future consciousness and genuine public participation. Those who value and pursue ways to bring people together to work for a great, shared purpose – those are the leaders for our future.
 Coined by Alvin Toffler
 Leadbeater, Charles. 2012. “The Long Tail.” Demos. March 2012.
Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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