The seven areas of change set out here will play a very significant role in shaping the near future, and the external context for addressing global challenges.
How then do we make sense of the whole landscape?
These changes are not isolated but interconnected and simultaneous. Take climate breakdown and the huge movement of people it’s precipitating. This is one of the drivers of the re-emergence of nationalism as a global phenomenon. Nationalism in turn may undermine the response to climate breakdown and migration in a deeply worrying reinforcing loop. Our lives online have also been implicated in the rise of nationalism, and also disconnect us from the natural world and the collapse of biodiversity, which in turn could mean that changes in the natural world are less visible and we are less willing to act. Conversely, nationalism is also creating interest in participatory democracy, as people around the world seek more effective connection and governance, and this in turn opens up prospects for solutions to a range of other challenges.
Change takes place at different levels, from the superficial and temporary, to the deep and lasting. We may observe isolated events or signals of change, and over time these may connect and reinforce each other in various different patterns. Going deeper, trends may strengthen and start to influence structures such as government policy, dominant technologies, business models and so on. And going deeper still, we might observe shifts in beliefs, mental models, and society at large.
These deeper changes shape the world we live in. So where do the trends we have identified fit in this model?
Firstly, it seems that many of the changes that we explore are indeed taking place at the level of structures and mental models, and could be making the shift to a more sustainable future much harder.
The rise of nationalism is a good example of this – representing a deeper shift in mindsets and attitudes that also affects structures like trade and foreign policy. On the other hand, the positive developments around participatory democracy are, at least for now, superficial; isolated examples showing potential and momentum, but not yet affecting decision making at anywhere near the scale required. The rapid rise of consumerism in parts of Asia, and the huge shift in focus towards the onlife, are both deep changes affecting outlook and mindsets that could distract from the need for positive global change. Responses to the collapse in biodiversity are, regrettably, still very sporadic with no overarching global response. Similarly, despite the high profile of plastic pollution, responses are mostly not joined up nor do they address the root problem of throwaway mindsets. Among the trends we explore here, there may be ripples and waves on the surface that are moving towards sustainability, but the deep undercurrents are flowing in the opposite direction.
The tide must be turned. Any approach to sustainability fit for the 2020s must target the structural and mindset level, something we’ve seen sparingly to date.
Take for example the corporate sustainability movement. We can point to inspiring examples of how a number of leading businesses have transformed themselves and begun to have an impact on the world around them. At Forum for the Future we have been working with these pioneers to help create transformational strategies to do just that. But, almost 20 years after Corporate Social Responsibility became a buzz term, only a small proportion of businesses have integrated sustainability into their core business strategies and the rules of business remain more or less unchanged. As we enter the turbulent 2020s, this must shift quickly, so that the goals of mainstream capital markets are directed towards, and not away from, sustainability.
In our work we focus on three global challenges where we put our system change theory into practice.