From trend report to meaningful action: How can we use insight to drive change?

We're fast approaching a decade that's set to be extremely turbulent, one that's threatening great uncertainty and volatility. As we hit the 2020s, the window of opportunity to create a sustainable world - one in which everyone, everywhere can lead fulfilling lives on a healthy planet - is narrower and more challenging than ever before.

From trend report to meaningful action: How can we use insight to drive change?

Incremental change as a route to dealing with a turbulent world is no longer viable. Nothing short of wholesale, transformational systems change for sustainability will do.

Why? Because the systems we rely on, our food system, our health system, our energy system, in their current form, are not sustainable and will not enable the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. Business as usual won’t deliver; only system change will.

But creating systemic change – long-lasting change that represents a very different way of doing things – is notoriously hard. Where do we start?  

Making sense of a perfect storm

We first need to recognise and understand how the world is changing. Our latest report, The Future of Sustainability 2019: Driving systems change in turbulent times, reveals a potentially devastating convergence of seven interconnecting factors that are set to impact sustainability in the near future, including climate migration, rising nationalism and biodiversity loss.

Across these trends, we’re seeing ripples and waves on the surface that are moving towards sustainability, such as innovations in plastics and regenerative agricultural practices emerging as a response to crashing biodiversity. Looking deeper, however, we can see undercurrents are still surging in the opposite direction. In particular, for the most part, short term profit maximisation is still the prevailing mantra, making longer-term investments in new, sustainable practices harder than they should be.

The hard truth is that while many of the solutions we’re seeing today will provide temporary relief, they don’t address the root cause of the problem, and may, in fact, lead to unintended consequences.  We’re all familiar with the biofuels story (we need to cut carbon, let’s use plants as fuel. Wait! We need that land for food).

The first step in driving systems change for sustainability is to diagnose where the roots of a particular problem lie. For example, in Cotton 2040 – a collaboration convened by Forum for the Future to accelerate the transition towards a sustainable cotton system – we used futures tools and techniques and systems diagnostics to understand the root causes that were slowing down the much-needed transition from conventional to sustainable cotton. Two of these root causes were the lack of brand and retailer demand for sustainable cotton, and a lack of alignment between the multiple sustainable cotton standards. These root causes then become levers in the system, which if pulled, can help create a shift. 

The next step is to create pioneering practice designed to pull the identified levers for systemic change. This is why in Cotton 2040 we have published the CottonUp guide designed for brands and retailers to help them source sustainable cotton. It’s also why we are working in partnership with the major sustainable cotton standards to align on language and metrics.

The third step is to scale the impact of the pioneering practice. The CottonUp guide has already been translated into German, we are hoping other languages will follow.

These three steps also work for single organisations wanting to embark on similar transformational change journeys. In this instance, the diagnosis is geared to understanding how to shift the system around you (systems dynamics are such that it just isn’t possible to be a sustainable organisation in an unsustainable system). For food retailers, this diagnosis will tell you to focus less on logistics, more on opportunities for building resilience in food supply chains – from trialling new contracting structures to co-investing in new technologies. For consumer-facing brands, a systems diagnosis will tell you to focus less on incremental packaging improvements, more on how you can design the infrastructure around you to be part of the circular economy.

Finally, there are two tests for all of us in sustainability:

  • Am I locking in an existing, unsustainable system that perpetuates the status quo, or am I creating a new way of organising for a system, a new pattern?
  • In turn, am I striving for transformational change? Change that is long-lasting, self-sustaining and catalytic.


From knowledge to know-how

Through this seven-part blog series, we’ll be going beyond our latest Future of Sustainability report to offer advice and detail the steps businesses can take to mobilise efforts in each of the seven trends identified.

Businesses have a powerful role to play as corporate activists, but they need to urgently move beyond sticking-plaster solutions to recognise how they can reconfigure the systems they are part of.  

Over the coming months, the report’s authors will help translate futures knowledge into practical solutions for business and highlight great examples of where we’re already seeing systemic, long-term solutions being put in place.

Please join Jane Lawton, Forum’s Chief Communications and Development Officer, in the next instalment when she will be looking at how businesses can respond to biodiversity in freefall.

Dr Sally Uren OBE is chief executive at Forum for the Future

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