‘Incremental change is out of runway’: Sally Uren’s top tips for driving systems change

Uren will be speaking at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 8 March

Cast your mind back to September 2018. It’s been almost three years since the Paris Agreement was ratified, but the world is on track for more than 3C of temperature increase. Scientists are yet to comprehensively outline what the Agreement’s temperature pathways mean in real terms. No major developed nations have legislated for net-zero and just three businesses have verified 1.5C-aligned climate targets. In short – progress has been made, but there is hardly a sense of urgency.

Then, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases its first comprehensive assessment of the differences between a 2C world and a 1.5C world for nature, human health and the global economy. The differences are stark. The report lays the foundation for a global, snowballing discussion and movement towards net-zero among governments, and provides fresh fuel for those individuals, groups and organisations already taking an activist stance. 

Today, more than 90% of global emissions and more than 88% of GDP is covered by national-level net-zero targets. More than 1,290 businesses are planning 1.5C-aligned emissions targets. But targets are just targets; as the IPCC’s latest report, published this week, tells us – the sum of progress on emissions mitigation and climate adaptation is still worlds away from what is needed to ensure a “liveable future” for some three billion people.

It is timely, then, that edie has time to speak with Forum for the Future’s chief executive Sally Uren, whose mission is to unite all kinds of organisations in catalysing transformational systems change to deliver a sustainable future.

Uren says: “Incremental change is out of runway.  We need to keep emphasising that only deep transformation of all our systems, including our economy, will allow the reconfiguration of the systems we rely on in ways that will underpin the ability of ourselves and our planet to thrive in the long term.”

Facing the challenge head-on

Of course, thinking and theorising about systems change and delivering it on the ground are two vastly different things. While the former can often fill us with inspiration and motivation, the latter can seem an insurmountable task. But we are all aware, at this point, of the scale of the risks of inaction or inadequate action.

Uren’s key piece of advice for organisations looking to apply systems thinking to their approach, going beyond business-as-usual, is to not be put off by the scale of the challenge or by its complexities.

Ahead of her appearance at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), she tells our team: “It is vital to understand root causes and design interventions that tackle the root cause. For example, if you look at smallholder farming in many parts of the world, livelihoods are precarious for many. Donations of food and clothes will help in the short term – but they don’t fix the root cause, which is the underlying business models for most commodities.

“Root causes are often harder to tackle, but shifting to sustainable business models will help create deep, transformational change.”

Uren has notably played a key role in the delivery of the Forum’s flagship projects on regenerative agriculture (called Growing our Future) and on multi-stakeholder collaboration in the cotton industry (Cotton 2040).

To get to the root causes of key challenges, in agriculture and beyond, Uren invites edie’s readers to re-examine why systems are the way they are, who they work for, and – therefore – who might be resistant to changing them. She says: “Our current systems aren’t broken.  They are working pretty well toward the current goals.  For food, this is often cheap food to market produced in ways that depletes the environment and communities. For health, the goals here are usually about curing disease.  If the goals were focused on well-being, the system would work differently.”

Indeed, the necessity of challenging systems has been raised time and time again in recent years, against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and social movements including Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. The fact that the pandemic has served to widen wealth inequality and that most recovery spending has not gone towards the green economy; the fact that we are seeing backwards progress on public health and gender equality in many developing nations; and the fact that racialised people are still marginalised despite years of talk, has weakened faith in incremental change or “change-as-usual”. As has – as outlined above – a rapid improvement in climate science.

Sources of support and hope

Thinkers like Uren are often asked what gives them hope when they are facing global challenges with, as she states herself, “no quick fixes”.

This question, especially when put to youth climate activists, is often met with the argument that it is not the most important thing to ask – that speakers should, instead, be given all the time possible to call for action.

Yet the first few months of 2022 have seen a great many events play out that may well put a damper on hope for those working in the sustainability space. Globally, the pandemic continues, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has opened up new frontiers of risk across the sustainable development agenda. The energy transition has taken the lion’s share of the headlines in climate spaces, but the situation will undeniably have impacts on everything from public health and wellbeing to biodiversity and land management

Here in the UK, there has been another set of circumstances contributing to the mood in the sustainability space falling somewhat flat post-COP26.

The energy price crisis has served as fertile ground for renewed pushback against net-zero from within certain factions of the Conservative Party. Energy analysts have been pushing back against a slew of disinformation on coal, fracking, domestic gas production and environmental and social levies on bills.  In central Government, decisions to approve a coal mining project in Wales and an oilfield in the North Sea, with reports that a further six North Sea oil and gas projects are in the pipeline for approval in the coming months, have prompted accusations of hypocrisy.

Reflecting on the year so far, Uren says: “Living with uncertainty is difficult, but possible –  and can drive innovation.

“We are at the foothills of discontinuity, the shocks from a changing climate, social unrest, supply chain disruptions will be felt by many. These shocks and the exponential rate of change of technology means we are no longer living with linear change.  Accepting, and even embracing this, will allow us to innovate and adapt.  Just like we have over the last two years.”

She goes on to outline three big wins in the sustainability space in the past two years.

  1. That we can innovate at scale, quickly, as seen with the development of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
  2. That the private and public sector are capable of delivering innovative partnerships, as seen with schemes around PPE and hand sanitiser manufacturing and rapid Covid-19 testing centres.
  3. That community resilience and well-being is possible anywhere.

Pandemic aside, Uren also sees the increased discussions around sustainability in media, businesses, governments and public spaces – helped by COP26 – as a “win”.

She explains: “Two key ingredients of systems change are increased awareness and mindset shifts.  Mainstream media coverage of the sustainability agenda certainly helps with the former, and can contribute to the latter.  And the latter is critical, increased awareness on its own doesn’t shift systems, there also needs to be a willingness to act. Our mindset – the way in which we view the world, the stories we tell ourselves – is one of the deepest levers for systemic change…. The dialling up of sustainability content is all part of changing minds, and changing societal norms.”

One word of caution, however. Uren does acknowledge that “amongst the noise, the need for deep structural and systemic change can be lost”. It is human nature to look for silver bullets or easy-to-follow listicles. It can put minds at ease to read a successful case study and to claim a finished job. But, ultimately, the formation of a sustainable future is an ever-ongoing endeavour.

Uren concludes:  “The future isn’t yet written.  And we can all help write the version we want. This is down to us all.”

Create solutions with Sally Uren at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022. 

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will take place on 7, 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Sally Uren is co-delivering a workshop on Day One of the Forum (8 March), at 1.30pm, on the topic of establishing meaningful partnerships to drive systemic change. She will be joined by experts from Earthwatch, Neighbourly, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Walgreens Boots Alliance.

Sarah George

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