As the dust settles on New York’s latest Climate Week, Forum for the Future’s Chief Executive, Dr Sally Uren, draws on Forum’s Future of Sustainability: Courage to Transform report to relate what she saw and heard to the different possible futures that might lie ahead. Sally also reflects on signals of change that give her hope - from the elevation of the critical links between climate, health and nature, to accelerating momentum behind regenerative agriculture – and calls on changemakers to find courage if we’re to drive deep systemic transformation.  

Throughout New York’s latest Climate Week, I was struck by the collaboration and determination playing out around me. But as the dust settles, and time to avert the worst of the climate crisis rapidly runs out, we need to ask some hard questions: are current efforts to tackle our sustainability crises likely to add up or fall short? And, based on today’s decisions and actions, what potential futures are we really shaping? 

In early September, Forum for the Future launched its latest Future of Sustainability report, Courage to Transform, which, based on analysis of how businesses are responding to current sustainability challenges, set out four possible pathways, or trajectories, from this moment in time.

The Profit Supreme trajectory sees a continuation of the status quo, where maximising shareholder value is prioritised above all else. Shallow Gestures sees actions being taken, but ultimately falling short of creating meaningful, lasting impact. In Tech Optimism, companies use the power of data and technology to innovate and better enable us to decarbonise, recover from environmental disasters and restore nature — but risk becoming overdependent on tech as a ‘silver bullet’ in the long-term.

The fourth trajectory, Courage to Transform, is the only one that has the potential to create change at the scale and pace needed. It’s here businesses, governments and society recognise that profit cannot come at the expense of human and planetary wellbeing, and businesses in particular look to fundamentally rethink how they respond to sustainability challenges.

One week spent running around New York City for Climate Week confirmed that all four trajectories are currently in play.

Profit Supreme

Many of Forum’s sessions at Climate Week looked to encourage audiences to think and act differently – only for one participant afterwards to ask: ‘Will it help me sell more stuff?’. This reflects how the tireless pursuit of growth and profitability remains front and centre for many.  

In part, Profit Supreme is fuelled by the massive and on-going politicisation of ESG and sustainability in the United States. There was widespread recognition that many companies, while getting on with things internally, were now ‘keeping their heads down’ – in part through fear of greenwash and/or greenhushing accusations. Silence fuels Profit Supreme.

Shallow Gestures

One key takeaway for me was this was the first Climate Week I have attended where there was so much focus on rising inequality. Inequality sits at the heart of many of our grand challenges, particularly climate, and I lost track of how many times I heard statements such as ‘climate will affect those who have contributed the least to this crisis and are least well equipped to adapt’. 

We ignore inequality at our peril. Attempts to tackle environmental issues without appreciating the impact of that intervention on equality is a prominent example of the Shallow Gestures trajectory in action. I was witness to at least two conversations where the warnings were clear. Inequality fuels discontent, in turn fuelling social unrest, which in turn undermines democracy. Without functioning democracy it’s hard to see how international collaboration will be successful. Without international collaboration, there is little hope for a Loss and Damage agreement at COP28.

Tech Optimism

Technology has revolutionised the way we live, work, interact and consume goods and services and there’s no doubt innovation in this space could unlock solutions, but it not on its own. One of the panel discussions I moderated was titled 'Clean Tech: Silver Bullet or Red Herring. Happily, the answer is neither.

Tech without behaviour and policy change will never be a silver bullet. 

Courage to Transform

One of my biggest takeaways from Climate Week was the elevation of people, nature, and climate, and how linked these three are. Understanding that humans are part of nature, and that a healthy economy is dependent on both healthy humans and a healthy planet. This is a central feature of Courage to Transform.

The many events, including one hosted by Forum, focusing on the Climate and Health Coalition are all signals that Courage to Transform – i.e., a fundamental reimagining of the way the world works – is not only possible, but there’s an appetite for it.

Other signals of change from Climate Week that tell me Courage to Transform could emerge include:

  • Explicit recognition that the shareholder primacy model still exists but, the articulation of who these shareholders are is broadening. I heard the phrase stakeholder capitalism multiple times
  • The notion of a ‘just transition’ is broadening from the energy space to issues such as AI and workforce transitions
  • The huge interest and commitment to regenerative agriculture. I was fortunate enough to moderate a session at the Clinton Global Initiative focused on regenerative agriculture and the message was loud and clear. From farmers to community leaders to brands, commitment is gaining momentum, and beginning to deliver. 
  • The voices of various sector stakeholders were very clear in UNGA negotiations. Many I spoke with said that government and business stakeholders were the most actively involved since 2019.  The COVID-19 dampening effect seems to have lifted
  • Equally, I heard that the ‘voice of the global South was more organised’. In particular President Lula declared ‘Brazil is back’. This can only be a good thing
  • The voice of youth is getting louder (it’s funny to feel both old and inspired at the same time) - COP28 might just be the most inclusive of youth yet.

So change is afoot – now how do we accelerate it?

All in, I left Climate Week validated that deep, systemic transformation is still possible – just.  What I saw and heard also reconfirmed the relevance of five key shifts (identified in the Future of Sustainability)  that will be critical if businesses are to transform:

  • Shifting from a risk prevention mindset to a transformative one
  • Shifting from addressing the symptoms of our social and environmental crises to tackling their root causes
  • Shifting from passively responding to your operating context to actively shaping it
  • Shifting from slow centralised decision-making to more agile distributed governance models
  • Shifting from failing to acknowledge the influence of individual, organisational and contextual bias to identifying and removing this bias in risk assessment.

I am very aware of two sobering realities; we are headed into a multi-polar world, where messages get diffused quickly, where intent needs to be strong. And right now, resisting forces to deep and systemic change are getting stronger. Whilst it’s true that the closer you get to system change, the harder the existing system pushes back, it isn’t comfortable, or easy to work with these forces. Make no mistake, these forces are holding Profit Supreme tightly.

"I am very aware of two sobering realities; we are headed into a multi-polar world, where messages get diffused quickly, where intent needs to be strong.  And right now, resisting forces to deep and systemic change are getting stronger."

For me, this means shift number one – mindset shift – is the most important. Get that right, and the rest will follow. Afterall, the story of our future will be a human one. Humans will determine if we have a thriving and flourishing future, which is why, right now, we all need to find the courage to transform.

The Future of Sustainability: Courage to Transform was produced with support from Bupa, People’s Postcode Lottery Green Trust, Aldi Süd, The Crown Estate and Henkel. The report draws on in-depth desktop research, interviews with business leaders and ‘signals of change’ generated through the online ‘Futures Centre’ hub: an open-source participatory platform powered by Forum that tracks and makes sense of change.Download it here.

Let’s explore the future, together

The future is not something that  happens to us, but is something that we can actively create with every action we take, and with every choice we make. Forum for the Future believes that Courage to Transform must become the dominant version of our future if we’re to deliver systemic change at scale and pace. 

If your business is interested in futures thinking and applying the Trajectories framework to how you operate, please get in touch: [email protected]