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Jonathan Boston: Assessing and Applying the Concept of Anticipatory Governance

Jonathan Boston, Professor of Public Policy, School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington.


Fundamental to good governance is the active anticipation, assessment and management of risks. The recent focus globally on major societal risks, such as climate change and the fourth industrial revolution, has contributed to the emergence of the concept of ‘anticipatory governance’. Currently, however, the concept lacks a broadly shared meaning or a commonly agreed set of attributes. Drawing on several recent interpretations, this paper explores how the concept of anticipatory governance might best be understood and applied. This includes offering a list of attributes and a series of criteria for assessing the quality of such governance.

Based on this analysis, the paper applies the concept to the policy challenges posed by climate change adaptation, particularly sea-level rise. In this regard, humanity is confronted with a slow-motion disaster that will grow progressively in scope and scale, sometimes abruptly. Societies will face significant uncertainty, multiple and compounding risks, immense costs and difficult intertemporal and intragenerational trade-offs. More specifically, rising sea levels will have a major and increasing impact on the built environment in coastal regions. Globally, hundreds of millions of people could be forced this century to relocate from areas at risk from coastal erosion and inundation, higher water tables, and more frequent and intense rainfall events. Mitigating some of the risks and increasing societal resilience via anticipatory, pro-active, prudent and adaptive policy responses will be politically challenging, not least because of the large upfront costs, the likelihood of powerful blocking coalitions, and the complexities of inter-governmental and inter-agency coordination. This paper outlines how, in the interests of sound anticipatory governance, these challenges might be addressed through the creation of new governmental institutions, funding mechanisms and revised planning processes.

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