World Disasters Report: Resilience: saving lives today, investing for tomorrow

Chapter 4: Anticipation: getting ready at getting better

Choosing among risks, we need imagination of lives yet unlived
Brian Zikmund-Fisher

Anticipation involves acting for the future in the present. Rosen (2012) defines an anticipatory system as “a predictive model of itself and/or its environment, which allows it to change state at an instant in accord with the model’s predictions pertaining to a later instant’’. This means that certain requirements need to be present for a complex system to be used for anticipating future changes. 

The first requirement is that the system (e.g., an at-risk community) must be able to envision alternative futures in order to change such a future. The envisioning of alternatives is rooted in the knowledge present in the system about a possible future state of that system. 

The second requirement is that key to anticipation is the existence of an ideal or preferred model of the system in question. It may be necessary to develop capacities to envision such plausible future(s) or desired new reality and/or realities. 

The third requirement is that such a model should be predictive in nature. In this way, the components in the system must be able to determine accurately each other’s behaviours in the future state. In the example of our at-risk community, if ‘good’ development choices ensure safe housing and reliable health care, then the community should be able to change their behaviour accordingly. For instance, if the mentioned ‘good’ development takes place, will the community still reside in makeshift housing even though a better alternative is given, and will they disregard modern health care? 

Lastly, the system must be able to change, and do so rapidly. If the system (community) can predict changes in the system (behaviour), and change in its well-being accordingly to reach the ideal future state, then that system can be labelled an anticipatory system (Mitchell, 2013). 

Adaptation and anticipation

While adaptation is largely about responses to climate change, anticipation is about intentionality, action, agency, imagination, possibility and choice. It is also about being doubtful, unsure, uncertain, fearful and apprehensive. Anticipation helps orient human action and emphasizes that people make the future (at least the immediate one), whereas adaptation helps influence or constrain human action. Anticipation is predictive or proactive; it can take plausible future events and the hope of achieving certain goals and ambitions into consideration (Nuttall, 2010). Anticipation can help communities become resilient to shocks and stresses, and can identify and exploit different opportunities that may be on offer. 

Building community capacity 

Communities are acknowledged and recognized as key actors in risk reduction as well as in transformative strategies for successful implementation, in both decision-making and project implementation (Miranda Sara et al., 2015). This recognition is already present in global thinking within the Sendai Framework. Governments thus need to invest in infrastructure, as well as in building community-based proactive resilience capacities, such as through training in multiple-risk awareness and anticipation. 

Reducing risk and vulnerability is not a matter just for specialists (Cortez et al., 1998); it also requires the institutionalized participation of local communities, namely citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs). Their participation should be sought to mobilize resources, stimulate knowledge contribution, and claim rights. Participation is not a favour given to people; it is primarily a right. 

Using community participation for better anticipation and resilience 

Community participation has important benefits, such as “information and ideas on public issues, public support for planning decisions, avoidance of protracted conflicts and costly delays, reservoir of goodwill that can carry over to future decisions, and spirit of cooperation and trust between the agency and the public” (Cogan and Hertberg, 1986). There are various forms of participation, such as individual and collective, organized and informal, institutional and non-institutional. This chapter (and indeed this report) supports a transformative approach to participation (which is understood as essential for communities to truly be resilient), shifting existing power structures by ensuring decision-making is more democratic and inclusive, and by strengthening participants’ capabilities, rather than merely improving existing conditions. Participation also has its pitfalls, such as the risk of leaving people out (deliberately or otherwise), and the over-representation of some interested actors leading to their getting more benefits (Hordijk et al., 2014).

Rehearsing the future through scenario planning

Scenario planning techniques, originating from military planning, are used to anticipate and plan for plausible futures. They are essentially concerned with rehearsing the future. Scenario planning has been widely used by planners and communities alike to consider outcomes of decision-making. Scenarios are not forecasts: they provide insights, and help to anticipate plausible futures. Leis (2014) notes that ecologically-oriented scenarios have been undertaken by a number of organizations, including the UN, the UK Department for International Development’s (DFID), The Stockholm Environment Institute and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “to determine future greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services”.

Van der Heijden (2000) notes that scenario planning “has something to offer in terms of both an anticipatory and a process perspective, both in line with the critical realism paradigm. We can either see it as a way to improve our understanding and anticipation of the future, or a way to help institutional groups to start moving forward more skillfully in uncertain times. Keeping both perspectives in mind helps us to remain aware of the fact that there is no single right answer. The underlying dilemmas cannot be resolved, but require continuous active management.”

These techniques are based on a set of assumptions that enable one to ‘travel’ into the future and allow a glimpse into how a situation might progress (or not). Scenarios are based on a set of conditions, variables or driving forces agreed upon by those undertaking the scenario planning exercise. Such planning helps ‘design’, ‘create’ and anticipate realistic but robust alternative futures, helping to manage uncertainty by reducing unpredictability. Scenarios therefore differ from forecasts because they allow the incorporation of discontinuities, new phenomena and innovations. 

Looking ahead 

Effective anticipation requires a shift away from assuming that the future will be a repeat of the past. Climate change, urbanization and population increases are causing new challenges to emerge which call for better anticipation. By definition, resilience is concerned with the future, and therefore links actions before crises to the (hopefully improved) state following such events. Anticipation is, therefore, at the core of resilience-building approaches.  

Anticipatory systems and proactive resilience-thinking need to make use of inclusive and innovative approaches such as scenario planning and action planning to enhance socially-supported resilience strategies and influence policy development and decision-making. Both these methods reinforce a people-centred approach that is at the heart of much resilience-thinking; scenario planning aims to build community capacity to prepare for – and even avoid – future shocks and stresses, while action planning relies on local capacity and knowledge (and, participatory budgeting concerns, among other things, to improve accountability of public finances through local scrutiny and engagement). 

Within each approach, the process of socially constructing knowledge, which implies incremental learning to create (and thereby rehearse) future scenarios, can strengthen social ties, trust and legitimacy among different actors – despite what may seem at first to be contradicting interests. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize limitations and potential risks, such as power and knowledge challenges, practical concerns with regards to political discontinuity, and a lack of budget allocation and time, which may affect the outcomes of such processes.


Chapter 4 was written by Liliana Miranda Sara, Executive Director, Cities for Life Foro, Lima, Peru, and Dewald van Niekerk, Director, African Centre for Disaster Studies, Potchefstroom, 

South Africa. Box 4.1 was written by Aynur Kadihasanoglu, Senior Advisor, Urban Disaster Management at American Red Cross, USA; Box 4.2 by Jennifer Jalovec, Director, Disaster Management in Fragile and Urban Contexts, World Vision International, Nairobi, Kenya; Box 4.3 by Pamela Sitko, ‎Global Urban Technical Advisor, Disaster Management at World Vision International, Sydney, Australia; Box 4.4 by Swarnim Wagle, former Member, National Planning Commission, Government of Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal; and Box 4.5 by Akapusi Tuifagalele, Director, National Disaster Management Office, Fiji, and Matthew McLaren, Research Scholar at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, Australia. Inputs on climate change and resilience were provided by Laban Ogallo, Director, IGAD Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC), University of Nairobi, Kenya.

Sources and further information

Cogan S and Hertberg J (1986) Citizen participation. Chapter 12 in The Practice of State and Regional Planning, So, FrankS II, Hand, I and McDowell, B (eds), American Planning Association, pp.283308.

Cortez L, Salazar L and Mariscal J (1998) Community preparedness and response. Handbook No. 4, Cities for Life Foro, UN Habitat and Ecociudad.

Hordijk MA, Miranda Sara L and Sutherland C (2014) Resilience, transition or transformation? A comparative analysis of changing water governance systems in four Southern Cities. Environment & Urbanization, April 2014; 26:130–146.

Leis J (2014) Scenario planning: an effective tool for policy-making? Master’s thesis, Woodrow Wilson School of Government, Tufts University, Cambridge, UK.

Mitchell A (2013) Risk and Resilience – From good idea to good practice: A scoping study for the experts group on risk and resilience. Working Paper No. 13, OECD, France.

Miranda Sara L (2015) Citizen participation, the experts and the role of the private sector in the social construct of risk in Lima. Clima sin Riesgo, Climate Development Knowledge Network.

Nuttall M (2010) Anticipation, climate change, and movement in Greenland. Études/Inuit/Studies, 34(1):21–18.

Van der Heijden K (2000) Scenarios and forecasting: two perspectives, North Holland. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 65(1):31–36.