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The Next Economy
2021 Offers Narrow Window to Course Correct for Sustainable Future

New report from Forum for the Future asserts that the decisions we make in the next 6-18 months will lock in unsustainable practices or set us on a pathway towards a fairer, more sustainable and resilient world.

The radical disruption caused by COVID-19 has resulted in a heavy social and economic toll across the USA that has also highlighted deep interconnections between the multiple challenges we face, and provides an opportunity to radically rethink existing systems.

A new report from Forum for the Future maps out four potential scenario pathways, and explores the various pressure points we need to act on to solve our climate, biodiversity and societal crises.

From System Shock to System Change – Time to Transform draws on crowd-sourced signals of change, extensive desk research and engagement with more than 100 business and civil society leaders worldwide. It reveals four distinct trajectories forward from this point, which are based on the mindsets and narratives we are already seeing emerge from the response to COVID- 19. Click on the links for each to view short videos detailing each scenario:

  1. Compete & Retreat: Characterised by a retreat into national borders driven by the perception that there is not enough to go around — resulting in the strengthening of existing nationalist dynamics, the gradual collapse of what's left of globalisation and international collaboration, and the emergence of fragmented regionalism.

  2. Discipline: Characterised by greater state control to manage public health and safety —resulting in the ramped-up use of technology for automation, remote connection, surveillance and control, as well as a concurrent sacrifice of personal privacy, in order to keep growth and global interconnection going as ‘normal’.

  3. Unsettled: Characterised by a continued inability to settle on a ‘new normal’ due to ongoing discontinuity and disruption — resulting in a volatile and strange world beyond previous human experience.

  4. Transform: Characterised by a growing understanding of the deep connections between human and planetary health — using the pandemic recovery as a ‘reset’ to catalyze a fair and equitable, zero-carbon transition; and a shift towards new business and economic models based on resilience and regenerative thinking.

The report notes that elements of each mindset and trajectory are clearly in evidence today, with negatives and positives in each, and with the potential to create markedly different futures. The trajectories are designed to serve as a useful framework for business, governments and civil society organisations and leaders to navigate the current uncertainty, and to understand the impacts of the decisions they are making today on what the future holds.

But as Forum CEO Sally Uren points out, only a Transform pathway will deliver the systemic change needed to solve our climate, biodiversity and public health challenges. She points to hopeful signals from the private sector — including Amazon’s $2 billion Climate Pledge Fund to invest in companies building products, services and technologies to decarbonise the economy and protect the planet; and Jeff Bezos’ subsequent $10B Earth Fund to ‘preserve and protect the natural world’; as well as Unilever’s Climate and Nature Fund to invest in landscape restoration, reforestation, carbon sequestration and water preservation projects. The European Union and Canada are putting sustainability front and center in their post-COVID-19 recovery plans; and Amsterdam is using ‘doughnut economics’ to guide its post-COVID recovery. 

Other reasons for hope include the growing mobilization — in both the food and fashion industries — around regenerative agriculture practices, Walmart’s new goal to become a regenerative company by 2030, and Ford’s new metric for defining and measuring a company’s social impacts.

Speaking of social impacts, Hawaii is calling for a feminist economic recovery plan, which aims to deliver gender equality in the state. And the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement — along with the recognition of the role organizations must play in driving change; and the corresponding shift in corporate policies surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion issues — bodes well for a more just and equitable future for all.

“Devastating as the COVID-19 crisis has been for many, the radical disruption it’s caused has forced us to revisit what we value and to explore how we might change the way things work,” says Samantha Veide, Associate Director at Forum for the Future Americas. “Together, we can put the country on a forward pathway in which new, sustainable business models scale; the goals of the US economy are broadened to include rebuilding social and environmental value; systemic racism and other structural inequalities are addressed; regenerative practices are scaled up in the mainstream and nature-based solutions become the norm. This needs to become the dominant version of our future if we are to solve our climate, biodiversity and public health challenges.”

The report also examines five interconnected dynamic areas set to define the decade ahead:

  • the possible breakdown of our biosphere if hidden climate, biodiversity and freshwater thresholds are crossed;

  • a global economy at a crossroads, torn between short-term profit and long-term value;

  • the burgeoning power of technology to enable or block rapid transformation;

  • a decade of societal transitions which could address or deepen social inequality;

  • and a growing proliferation of new, regenerative approaches that put more back in to natural and social systems than is taken out, and fundamentally shift how value is created.

These approaches aim to replenish and renew our social and natural systems, and could unlock our ability to solve the systemic challenges that we face.

From System Shock to System Change is calling on leaders across society to use the COVID-19 recovery process to implement bold solutions that place the world on a Transform trajectory.

Read the report, as well as Forum for the Future’s recommendations for urgent action from business, governments, investors and civil society.