In the latest of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series, Dr Sally Uren explores how organisations are harnessing the disruption caused by COVID-19 to put us on a ‘Transform’ trajectory – one set to create a truly regenerative future in which we recognise human health equals planetary health and we deliver a just transition towards a net zero global economy.

Seven-plus months since news broke of a novel coronavirus emerging in China and our lockdown lives, professionally and personally, remain uncertain and turbulent: there is little sight of a vaccine; economic fallout threatens redundancies and recession; debates continue to rage on quarantine protocols; borders remain closed; and of course, tragically, lives continue to be lost.

Many are asking how and when will this end? But as we look longer-term, an equally important question is now vying for the limelight: how exactly do we ‘build back better’ – ensuring we emerge into something more resilient, sustainable and equitable? And more specifically, what can each of us do to ensure it?

This was the focus of Forum’s recent Future of Sustainability webinar, in which we explored four possible trajectories we see emerging from COVID-19, each dominated by a different mindset:

  • Disciplined sees a future in which greater tech-enabled control is needed to maintain public health, security and growth – underpinned by a ramped up use of tech, an increase in surveillance and a return to some form of globalisation
  • Collapse sees a future in which we retreated to ‘life as we knew it’, locking in unsustainable practices and prioritising resources for the few over the many
  • Unknown is simply that: a future we’re not yet able to imagine, based on extended periods of disruption.

And then there’s the fourth trajectory: Transform. It’s here we recognise that human health equals planetary health and create a world that is truly regenerative - transformed by systemic change and realising a just transition towards a net zero global economy.

Time to transform…

The Transform trajectory is what Forum firmly believes must prevail and our webinar explored the actions we can all take right now, wherever we are, in whatever organisation we work for, to harness current disruption in ways that drive the emergence of a truly sustainable future. 

Joining me on the webinar’s panel were Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever; Keith Writer, Supply Director at independent family food and beverage company, Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate; Nick Cliffe, Deputy Challenge Director of government agency, Innovate UK; and Leslie Johnston, Chief Executive of the world-leading philanthropic Laudes Foundation.

Four very unique voices representing different sectors, needs and interests, deliberately selected given Transform’s emergence will require equal attention from business, government, philanthropy and civil society.

So what did we hear?

Bettys and Taylors are actively addressing vulnerabilities in their supply chain, guaranteeing income and experimenting with different business models capable of driving social as well as economic value.

Unilever has established an ambitious Climate and Nature Fund to invest in landscape restoration, reforestation, carbon sequestration and water preservation projects. They have also made rapid pivots across their supply chain to meet the surge in demand for home and personal care/hygiene products, particularly hand sanitiser, alongside a strong focus on ensuring safe, healthy working environments for both office and factory-based employees.  

Innovate UK has established a new Sustainable Innovation Fund – their first ever with “Sustainable” in the title - to ensure cutting-edge projects led by companies recovering from COVID-19 are not lost. Ideas range from how we reduce the carbon footprint of public transport to how we develop smart sustainability-focused technology.

Finally, the Laudes Foundation is setting its sights on supporting the redesign of the global economy to put regenerative principles at its core – the very essence of the Transform Trajectory. 

Growing momentum…

Looking internationally, we’re seeing examples abound of action consistent with Transform. Levi’s is researching different, more sustainable consumption models. Global commodities trader, Cargill Inc, is to begin paying American farmers for capturing carbon in the soil of their fields and cutting fertilizer runoff. Across the Atlantic, businesses representing 80% of the UK's meat sector have vowed to slash emissions and waste on a "farm-to-fork" basis, as investors make fresh pleas for the global meat industry to accelerate decarbonisation efforts.

Or take Google India’s recent announcement of a partnership with the Central Board of Secondary Education, which will see them train over 1 million teachers across 22,000 schools to deliver blended education. This is in addition to its $10 billion fund to speed up India’s digital economy.

Elsewhere in Asia, ING Bank has made available record loans for rooftop solar in Asia Pacific, while the Philippines Department of Agriculture now aims to give farmers the opportunities and tools to become processors by instituting a centralised food processing facility that converts excess produce into high-value products.    

Meanwhile, the European Commission has published two new, mutually reinforcing strategies - Biodiversity and Farm to Fork - set to bring together nature, farmers, business and consumers to strive for a competitively sustainable future. Then there’s Hawaii, which is calling for a feminist economic recovery plan, produced by the state’s Commission on the Status of Women and aiming to deliver gender equality. This will mean deep cultural change and incorporation of the unique needs of all women.

Great examples, but transformation won’t be easy

I’m energised by the above activities – but a word of caution. The road to Transform will be turbulent and there are of course, many examples of activities consistent with Collapse and Disciplined.

No-one said ‘building back better’ would be easy - there will be businesses who simply aren’t able to adapt at the rate their vanishing liquidity will demand. This is where we need strong government and a commitment by business and philanthropy to drive an equitable transition to a low-carbon economy – one in which more people benefit from the changes that will inevitably come.

And perhaps we need to accept that if something disappears, we have an opening to drive regeneration? Which is why, even in the Collapse and Disciplined trajectories, a mindset that embraces a broader view of the economy that has set its sights on sustainable development is critical.

Which brings us to the importance of the softer skills and approaches that, as discussed in our webinar, are starting to emerge in sustainability right now – a growing appetite for risk, a desire for truly visionary leadership, a sense of urgency, an acknowledgement of the need for agility and flexibility, and a desire to ensure maximum social and environmental benefit for every action. We also need to build a stronger understanding that multiple futures are always open to us.

These skills, recognitions and approaches will be key in determining what happens next; in the end, it’s not just what we do, but how we do it that will make the difference.

Seven-plus months since COVID-19 first emerged, calls to build back better must be answered and Transform must prevail. After all, the only thing more tragic than the pandemic at its peak, is a regretful world in which we failed to emerge stronger. One in which we ignored our opportunity to rewrite the rules and, finally, take the transformative action needed to address the profound structural weaknesses in our economy and society. Tackle these, and we will also be able to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

The more attention we pay to Transform, the greater the chance of it becoming the dominant trajectory, of becoming our future. What we all do, now and over the next six to 12 months, has never mattered more.  

Are you interested in finding out more about the four trajectories?
Take a look at the Future of Sustainability report, published in October 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis is having a devastating impact – both in terms of lives lost and economic disruption. At Forum for the Future, we believe that it would be tragic to go back to yesterday’s “business-as-usual”; moments of radical disruption like this provide unprecedented opportunities to reinvent the future. We are therefore calling for business, governments, civil society and communities to seize this moment in helping to deliver a more just, sustainable and resilient world. 

Visit our COVID-19 content hub to find out more.