Closing down futures in the world's most vulnerable regions? How dominant policy practices limit scenario possibilities

Futuristic roundabout in Burkina Faso
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: Rond-point des Cineastes. Photo: mtcurado/iStock

How does the way in which we imagine the future impact choices in the present? This question is at the core of new Utrecht University-led research published in Global Environmental Change. The study analysed the range of methods employed by governments across the Global South to anticipate the future in climate policy processes. “We demonstrate that how the future is envisioned either open ups or restricts possibilities for present-day action,” says lead author Karlijn Muiderman.

Anticipating the Uncertain Climate Future

In the face of an uncertain climate future, governments worldwide increasingly employ various techniques such as scenarios and visioning to anticipate and prepare for potential outcomes. The insights gained from these processes are then used to inform present-day actions, including the formulation of climate policies. "Our research explores how these assumptions about the future shape climate action and governance," explains lead author Karlijn Muiderman, who carried out this work as part of her PhD and is now employed as a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.

While studying governance practices in West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central America, Muiderman and her colleagues observed a range of methods employed by governments to anticipate the future. They highlight that the manner in which future scenarios are envisioned can either broaden or restrict possibilities for present-day action.

How the future is envisioned either open ups or restricts possibilities for present-day action

"Governments often focus on the probability of specific scenarios occurring, enabling them to plan policies that mitigate risks," explains Joost Vervoort, Associate Professor at the Copernicus Institute and co-author of the study. But this approach comes with challenges. These analyses are usually carried out by actors who currently enjoy a position of power, meaning that current-day power structures are embedded in the methods that are used to anticipate the future. “The result is that more radically divergent futures, as well as more vulnerable perspectives, are often excluded from anticipation, and thus from the planning of the future”.

Embracing Diverse Worldviews for Open Governance

The research team refers to this narrowing of perspectives as the "closing down" of governance processes, even while claiming that these processes are being opened up. This often perpetuates the dominance of Global North worldviews and reflects a political imaginary rooted in Western capitalist societies. “Alternative, non-western worldviews are often disregarded when imagining future possibilities,” says Muiderman.

Conversely, the researchers argue that embracing a diversity of worldviews, including radical alternatives to the status quo, in the process of imagining possible futures can broaden governance processes instead of constricting them. By doing so, the detrimental lock-in effect associated with the "closing down" can be avoided. "Including diverse perspectives and exploring alternative futures allows us to move beyond the limitations of current power structures and Western political paradigms,” Muiderman explains.

More radically divergent futures, as well as more vulnerable perspectives, are often excluded from anticipation, and thus from the planning of the future

She illustrates the difference with an example. “In South Asia, all but one of the cases we studied were funded, designed and run by consortia of foreign institutions. As a result, we saw that these countries were very technocratic and focused on risk reduction.” This was very different in Costa Rica: “Here, the anticipation process was carefully created to involve local perspectives. As a result, more radically transformative visions of the future could become part of Costa Rican dialogue.”

Towards open and inclusive governance processes

The way in which we imagine the future has a profound impact on the choices we make in the present. The study serves as a valuable contribution to advancing the understanding of this critical interplay between future imagination and decision-making. “To ensure sustainable governance, it is essential to recognize the potential bias and limitations of current future anticipation methods,” says Muiderman. “By embracing a plurality of worldviews and actively incorporating radical alternatives, policymakers can foster open and inclusive governance processes that are better equipped to address the complex challenges of the present and future, irrespective of geographical location or cultural context”.


Muiderman, K., Vervoort, J., Gupta, A., Norbert-Munns, R. P., Veeger, M., Muzammil, M., & Driessen, P. (2023). Is anticipatory governance opening up or closing down future possibilities? Findings from diverse contexts in the Global SouthGlobal Environmental Change81, 102694.