Seven fundamental shifts required to reach a sustainable 2050

Sensemaking / Seven fundamental shifts required to reach a sustainable 2050

What do four scenarios for 2050 tell us about the deep, radical transformation Europe needs?

By Gemma Adams / 17 Feb 2017

I’m the owner of one of the oldest mobile phones known to humanity (it plays Snake and has four ringtone options).  “My phone’s as old as you are,” I told my friend’s 12-year-old daughter the other day. “Why haven’t you got a new one?” she shot back.  “Because it still works,” I said. This led into a circular economy conversation, and eventually to questioning how we can carry on growing the economy if it’s so important to buy less stuff and use less energy overall for environmental reasons. I explained that a lot of people think it is possible, but she dismissed it with, “It doesn’t sound right.”  At that point I realised it’s never “sounded right” to me either, but I’d schooled myself otherwise.  

If any of that strikes a chord with you, we’re launching four, unusual sustainability scenarios today that might tickle your fancy.

They imagine what deep, radical shifts might be needed in society to put us onto a more sustainable footing. Or to put it another way, what it might take for us to comprehensively meet all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2030 and go on making absolute reductions in resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions beyond that – as we know we’ll need to. Telling stories of the future, the scenarios challenge us to entertain future cultures that are beyond consumerism and beyond capitalism as we know them and explore how we might get there. They describe the nature of the transformation that happens, the resisting and contributing roles played by different people, communities and organisations along the way and the experience and participation of ordinary people in all of this. 

Read on for more. You can find out about the European Commission project that funded these resources and the three years of research that’s gone into developing them here.

As Alex Steffen said, in his brilliant article for The Long View in 2015.

“Our worst problems are all, at least to some extent, rooted in our thinking. If we want to make change, we need to think better… The things we need to do are huge, and accomplishing them often feels impossible. We then become tempted to hope that smaller aims may somehow achieve our goals. They won’t. If what we need to do seems out of our reach, we must first become people who can reach farther. And to reach farther, we must first dream better.

To become people who can do the extraordinary, we must first free our minds from broken ways of seeing the world. We must imagine solving the problems in front of us.”

We forget that no one really knows what a sustainable society is in the midst of all the frameworks, goals, targets, state of play reports, impact assessments and reporting processes we use to manage progress towards sustainability. Those of us in the sustainability field can find ourselves putting the niggling, bigger picture tensions to one side so we can focus our efforts where there’s a quantifiable need and where we can have a direct impact on environmental and social issues. 

A twelve-year old’s questions can feel so fundamental yet so unanswerable that they’re paralysing. We avoid hitting the panic button by telling ourselves not to let what we don’t know get in the way of acting on what we do know. We measure and manage sustainability by cracking on with problems of glaring need – like reversing climate change, biodiversity loss and removing people from poverty – and we roll with the assumption that society can sustain itself on a finite planet using our current definition and approach to growth by giving it our very best shot and waiting to find out.

But, by focusing our attention on the most tangible and actionable things, are we inadvertently diverting our attention away from the most important things? Worse, could our efforts to tackle single issues end up propping up broken systems by masking the need for more radical changes? Our analysis of the four, future scenarios of Europe in 2050 that we’re launching today suggests the answer might be ‘yes’.   

Here are seven of our insights into the transition needed to put society on a sustainable footing. Most don’t feature in the goals and targets we’re using to manage sustainable development in society today – taking the UN Sustainable Development goals as an example.

1. The ability to ‘self-regulate’ is the most significant difference between the sustainable societies described in the four scenarios, and our society today. 

A society needs to self-regulate and evolve to sustain itself through change, and this rests on individuals’ ability to make changes to their own lives, work and communities. If we can’t mindfully manage our own behaviour, and if we’re not able to respond to feedback or work through points of conflict in a constructive way, then more sophisticated processes to drive change on a global scale are unlikely to emerge or to be sustained.

In all four scenarios, society develops sophisticated relationships within human and wider living systems that enable people and organisations to pick up and respond to feedback. By 2050, this affords each society the ability to regulate its relationship with living systems so that it can exist in closer equilibrium, and the ability to adapt and evolve in a more agile way.

Could the ability to self-regulate be the distinguishing capability of a society that’s on a sustainable footing? 

2. It’s vital to put in place the decision-making processes, forms of governance and other social capabilities to go on improving environmental and social outcomes, as part of the transition to a sustainable society.

All four scenarios develop ways of developing policies and designs that view and treat the world as an integrated, ‘whole system’, rather than a collection of separate parts, and ways of living, working and governing themselves that carry this holistic approach into action. 

What are the evolved forms of governing and decision making processes we might see come to life? 

3. The social conditions of society are central to the transition to a sustainable society and to sustainable lifestyles, but they are very hard to measure, manage and predict.

Using indicators and values loaded with today’s assumptions could undermine rather than enable change in this area. Using quantitative indicators alone could focus attention on what can be measured this way, creating a misalignment between policy and desired outcomes. 

Should all change a begin with our mindsets, lifestyles and working practices, as the root to dealing with wider social, environmental and economic problems?  

4. Changes to governance and decision-making are wrapped up with wider cultural changes in society as a whole - including challenges to capitalism and democracy. Fundamental transformation, from culture to politics, is required for sustainability.

The four societies’ relationship with living systems and the ways of organising that develop are indistinguishable from other cultural changes that alter notions of prosperity, wellbeing, education, income and employment and what it means to be a member of society. These changes produce cultures that encourage individuals to participate in using resources efficiently and adjusting their behaviour in response to feedback.

How can we influence change towards a new paradigm? How can we imagine paradigms that seem ‘unimaginable’? 

5. There is an expanding role for citizens and civil society - acting on their own and in fresh combinations with public sector organisations and business - to drive change.

Citizen innovators drive some of the most radical changes on the pathways. How?

By embodying the change they want to see in the world and experimenting to realise it in their own lives. Free from institutional and market constraints, citizen innovators play a disruptive role by introducing fundamentally new ways of doing things that turn conventional thinking upside down.  Yet as a group, citizens are seldom recognised as part of the ‘innovation landscape’ today, and their role is little understood.

What support do citizens need to use their influence for positive impact? How can we enable them to tackle some the underlying problems of our world and to avoid perpetuating them?

6. The mindset, values and motivation of individuals to innovate is increasingly important as why and how citizens innovate shapes their contribution to social and cultural change.

This places an emphasis on enabling the innovator rather than the innovation.  The same forces affording people more agency to innovate for sustainable lifestyles could also be a force for empowering people to resist and undermine the transition, so focusing on the attributes, skills and capabilities of individuals is a way of influencing the drive, diversity, and direction of innovation to enable the transition.

How can we best enable innovators to live the change they want to create? How can we build our personal resilience as citizen innovators?  How can education support this?

7. We need to change what we measure to provide the right incentives - but radical, social changes are difficult to quantify and can’t be predicted or prescribed in a linear fashion.

There are many possible, unpredictable routes towards these future scenarios, and it will be impossible to control the path ahead.  More changes will emerge as we go towards these futures, and so our approach must be to sense, respond, learn and adapt to them. 

What should we be measuring? How will new metrics affect policy-making? How far does policy-making itself need to change?

We developed the scenarios through workshops across Europe, which means they represent the opinions of the diverse stakeholders involved, rather than being evidence in themselves.  What they offer are fresh insights into how transformation happens that we can test and use to shape experiments today.  Insights like these are now spurring us to explore the question, ‘How might we accelerate the next wave – the paradigm shift required to evolve people’s mindsets, behaviours and societal structures – so that we create the systemic change required for society to sustain itself?' Our first experiment in 2017 to act on this is an Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society that wants to understand the role civil society can play in ‘the next wave’.

We hope they challenge you as much as they’ve challenged us. They invite you to look afresh at the school of thought that defines your sustainability mission,  whether you’re a citizen innovating for yourself, a civil society organisation, policy-maker, representative of a government body, business or start-up. They’ll help you situate your own strategies, initiatives and ideas within a larger picture of change across the whole of society and extend your ideas about the role you might play.   

We’ve even created a Game of Life 2050 game for playing out your own responses to events on the scenario pathways and for spotting opportunities to collaborate.

The friend’s daughter I told you about at the start of this blog will still be starting out in life at 25 years old in 2030 and she’ll only be 45 in the year the scenarios are set in 2050.  We’d love for these scenarios to open new possibilities and conversations with co-adventurers in system change. 

Let’s imagine (and experiment) better!  



This month in our Citizen Innovation explorer, play this game and tell us what new ways you’ve found to lead change. Share your ideas in the comments box below. Together let’s make this a revolution. // #citizeninnovation

SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 was a project funded by the European Commission, and the corresponding scenarios have been developed by Demos Helsinki ( For more information on the original scenarios, follow this link.

If you’d like to play the game set or hear more about the project, please get in touch with Corina ( and Louise ( // 

EU-InnovatE is a ground-breaking initiative funded by the European Commission aiming to accelerate the shift towards to a sustainable future.

Like this article? Don't forget to check out our other pieces on Citizen Innovation:

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