2021: deep transformation or shallow change?

2021: deep transformation or shallow change?

2021 is pivotal to creating the future we want. We know that we have less than a decade to address the climate crisis, and that the commitments made this year will determine whether that is possible. We also know that we have an unprecedented opportunity to steer the investments that have been unlocked to deal with COVID-19 recovery in order to shape a different economy. This is the moment in time to work in integrated ways across climate, biodiversity and equality to drive transformational change, and to better prepare ourselves for ongoing disruption. But will we take the opportunity?

Forum for the Future’s Chief Executive, Dr Sally Uren, explores what is needed as the sustainability movement hits a vital inflection point.

As the crushing climate, social and biodiversity crises intensify, and the social, political and economic fallout from COVID-19 continues, the world stands at a crossroads. Will we ultimately capitalise on this opportunity for a reset – using the pandemic recovery to lay the foundations for transformative change capable of creating a just and regenerative future? Or will we continue to address the multiple systemic issues we face with small scale, isolated interventions that fail to address the root causes?

Put more simply: will we sow the seeds of deep transformation or continue with shallow change?

Even before the pandemic, the world was beginning to wake up to the urgency of the challenges we face, and the limited window of opportunity to address them. The shock of the COVID crisis has in some ways deepened that urgency. It has shone a light on how interconnected the challenges we face are – and that solutions must simultaneously address not just the climate emergency, but also growing inequality and habitat and biodiversity loss. 

In our Future of Sustainability report published in late 2020, Forum called out four possible trajectories forward from the COVID crisis based on the mindsets we have seen proliferate over the past year. One of those trajectories, the Transform trajectory, offers the potential of a world where both people and planet can thrive into the long-term. It’s here that norms and narratives begin to shift to allow the emergence of a different global economy, one that is rewired to deliver to a set of goals much broader than short-term profit maximisation. An economy where businesses are rewarded for delivering solutions to some of our grand challenges, and where philanthropy channels its billions into solving for systemic challenges, not simply plastering over the relentless shocks that come from our collective failure to reconfigure the systems we rely on.

Since we published our report, there have been promising signals that the Transform trajectory is beginning to emerge. Financial firms responsible for $70 trillion are now signed up to net zero targets, with the real progress manifesting in what we mean by ‘net zero’; the EU for example is pushing for these targets to include a just transition Elsewhere, in a move that caught many off guard, the International Energy Agency (IEA), a traditional supporter of the oil and gas industry, has just called for an end to investment in fossil fuels.  

These green shoots of deep change are not just apparent in business. The UNDP is urging investment patterns to change such that capital flows into the root causes of our challenges. This involves ‘reframing’ issues, pointing out that a health system designed to promote wellbeing, for example, would look very different from a system designed to treat ill-health. Meanwhile many philanthropic funders are examining how their own practices need to shift to drive more redistributive and regenerative approaches.

These shifts also coincide with a growing acknowledgment among mainstream civil society that the world can’t go back to where it was before. People are mobilising, marching the streets to call time on long-standing ethical, social and environmental issues that have for too long gone unchecked. Many grassroots movements are driving real changes in attitudes to diversity and inclusion.

Promising, but…

This momentum is both encouraging and tantalising, but there remains a real risk of a shallow transition – one where we address some specific problems and their symptoms in isolation, but fail to tackle the root causes; where we tweak around the edges but don’t fundamentally transform our systems. Why? Because there are other versions of our future that are unfolding alongside Transform, and these versions are predicated on the current version of our economy, where power, profit and success are tilted in the favour of the few.

The Transform trajectory is trying to fight through the boundaries of a set of systems, from food to energy to finance. These systems were established to drive economic growth, without proper and due attention to environmental or social value. They are entrenched and have inherent energy that will keep pulling them back to how they were established. All of us in these systems will feel the forces, economic and societal, to push us back to where we were pre-COVID.

Yet now is the moment to push forward, to overcome any desire to go back to what we knew, to work with the activating voices and organisations for change in our systems, to work with the resisting voices to make the case for change and sweep them along with us. Or to leave them behind. It’s also the moment we must all re-examine our approaches, to dig deep and understand what radical disruption and deep transformation – when seen as a doorway to a new world – could offer us.

What will be required to drive this deep transformation?

At Forum, we are calling for three things:

1. A reset of ambition.

Every great movement has a compelling “north star”. The original north star of sustainability was a world where we live in balance with the planet – where both people and planet can thrive.

While the essence of this vision still holds true, the pathways toward that north star have become confused – firstly by the idea that this vision of sustainability is compatible with an economic model that prioritises infinite growth of consumption and production.

And secondly, by the idea that incremental change – tweaking around the edges of our current systems, or simply doing less bad in the world – will somehow get us there.

We need to redefine what we mean by sustainability, pushing our aspiration further. If we are truly to create the conditions in which people and planet thrive, then we need to start to design for a just and regenerative future, and challenge every actor in our economy and society to examine what their role in creating that future looks like. 

And we need to recognise that setting our sights on this new north star will mean shifting from the ‘build back better’ response to the economic and social consequences of COVID-19. Instead, we need to be ‘building forward’ – which means fundamental shifts in both what we define as important, and in the goals of our systems. These goals must move away from the current economic model towards a distributive one that has the principles of social equity and a just transition to a zero-carbon future at its heart.

As we approach the defining moment of the climate COP, set to take place in Glasgow later this year, we should also be looking beyond net-zero, and aspiring to ‘net-zero plus’, with a view to addressing planetary health, social equity and the capacity of all our systems to regenerate and thrive

2. A focus on ensuring just transitions

For us to achieve this bold vision, it is clear that the coming decade will require a suite of fundamental transitions in the key systems on which we rely and that these transitions will not succeed unless they address both social and environmental challenges.

The perceived dichotomy in which we could focus only on one or the other, or through isolated initiatives, never rang true, but COVID-19 has now fully exposed it for the falsity it is. The pandemic has brought into stark focus just how interconnected planetary and human health are, and that one simply cannot thrive without the other.

Our transitions must fundamentally tackle the root causes of the structural inequalities we face and ensure disadvantaged communities are actively involved in shaping the future. In the radical transitions we know need to happen across our energy systems, this will not be exclusively about jobs and retraining, but also about shifting how costs, risks and benefits are shared. And of course, we must recognise that this is not just true for energy systems, but also across our food systems and other commodity supply chains.

At the same time, success will require working across historic silos – the boundaries between, businesses and other organisations, sectors and change-actors must come down. Net zero strategies should not just be about carbon outcomes, but equality and livelihoods

3. Building capacity for systemic and joined-up thinking

For all of this to work, and ensure that the changes we seed now are long-lasting, we need to change the way we approach problems and solutions.

We must invest in building capacity among key influencers and change makers for more systemic approaches to problem solving and collaboration. These approaches must recognise the complexity and inter-relationships within our systems. They must help us to look beyond quick fix solutions and to focus instead on the deep levers of change: our views, our values, our mindsets – and how these need to shift to acknowledge the deep interconnections between planetary health, human health and the health of our economy and society.

This will be the ultimate unlock to driving deeper, lasting change.

An overdue reinvention

I began by presenting a question: deep transformation or shallow change? The choices we make, right now, will determine the trajectory we take, and whether or not Transform becomes the dominant version of our future. At Forum, we believe that a shallow transition is not viable; after all, the ultimate costs of shallow transitions will far outweigh those of deep transformation in the long term. Fundamentally, we cannot thrive on a failing planet.

It’s within our grasp to reinvent the way the world works. We’re long overdue in doing it.

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Sally Uren is Chief Executive at Forum for the Future with overall responsibility for delivering Forum’s mission to accelerate a big shift towards a sustainable future by catalysing transformational change in global systems. This involves working with leading global organisations, including businesses such as Olam and Walgreens Boots Alliance, Foundations, such as the Laudes Foundation, and membership organisations, such as the United Nations Global Compact, both in one to one partnerships, and also as part of multi-stakeholder collaborations designed to address complex challenges in systems as diverse as food, energy, apparel and shipping.

Originally published at Forum for the Future