March 8, 2022

Sustainability Series 9: Anticipatory Competency

The fifth pillar of sustainability is anticipatory competency; a.k.a. “futures thinking.” Futures thinking is considering how the past, present, and future interact. In particular, it is considering how the solutions of today might become the problems of tomorrow. Now, this probably sounds a lot like systems thinking, which we covered in the first week of this series. Systems thinking focuses on impact pathways and identifying potential unintended consequences. The anticipatory competency is a different flavor of systems thinking- it’s systems thinking applied intentionally across time and importantly across different possible outcomes.

Planning for Uncertainty

If you have watched any Marvel movies recently, trying to think about how solutions can create many possible future states of the world might be a little bit familiar. In recent MCU films, characters have wrestled with the ways that their actions affect past and future parallel timelines or universes. While thankfully we are not fighting extraterrestrial forces for the fate of humanity, sustainability professionals face a similar task.

Anticipatory competency requires that we map out all the possible future states of the world that could be produced by an action or inaction. In doing so, it is important to remember that the longer the time between the present and the future under consideration, the greater the inaccuracy in prediction. This is because uncertainty increases with time. Facing the uncertainty of outcomes is extremely important in sustainability work, especially when it comes to public buy-in. If you present a community with a solution to some sustainability problem, but you only describe one future outcome, you will lose their trust if a different outcome occurs. The best-formed solutions are ones where uncertainty is accounted for and communicated, and a net positive outcome will be achieved regardless of which future state prevails. (Think back to integrative problem solving and the need to create flexible solutions that adapt to on-the-ground conditions). Communicating with people about how you have planned for uncertainty is incredibly important for transparency and building trust in the process.

Anticipatory work in Athens, GA

The local government in Athens-Clarke County has done a fantastic job of communicating with residents about their anticipatory work. The ACC Sustainability Office has a program for moving the county to 100% clean and renewable electricity, several park creation projects, a solar panel installation, and work to preserve legacy landscapes. All of these projects are looking towards the future of Athens Clarke County, and offering a solution that will provide improved outcomes for residents, no matter what mix of other uncertain factors exists in the world down the line. In one of these projects, ACC Sustainability office partnered with students from the University of Georgia to plant species along the Oconee River that would foster healthy wildlife populations under a range of future climatic conditions (from birds to butterflies and fish). In another effort, ACC has an Oconee River Greenway Commission that works to protect the long term health of the North and Middle Oconee Rivers, while supporting future recreational use and provision of life-sustaining ecosystem services. CIRT is partnered with the Oconee River Greenway Commission as a provider of expert input on the movement of plastics and other trash through aquatic systems, and recently participated in an ecosystem restoration event sponsored by the Commission (lead image-educating the next generation of sustainability stewards).