Forum for the Future’s recently announced 2023-2025 strategy outlines our focus on enabling deep transformation in how we think about, produce, consume and value both food and energy, and the role of business in society and the economy.

Here, Forum’s Managing Director (Asia), Ariel Muller, reflects on our focus on addressing deep transformation versus shallow transitions, what we’ve learnt about enabling transformation in Asia, and how our programmes will deliver to these aims.

To be a purpose-led sustainability organisation today means constantly adapting our strategy for how we achieve our aims. As we face increasingly uncertain and disruptive times, we want to be sure that we are designed to harness change towards long-term positive outcomes.

For Forum, our 2023-2025 strategy focuses on transforming how we think about, produce, consume, and value food and energy, and the role of business in society and the economy. One of the new tenets of the strategy is enabling deep transformation and avoiding the pitfalls of accelerating shallow transitions.

But how did we arrive here? We were guided by two questions in our strategic planning:  "What has changed in the external context in the past few years?” and “What does that mean for our role as a mission-driven sustainability organisation?". Two factors came to the fore that exemplify the premise of what we mean by a shallow transition or a deep transformation.

The first is the risk of mistaking an increase in activity and commitments towards action as achieving the quality of transformation we need. The increase in activity is exciting. After years of relative inaction, there seems to be an influx of responses to the crises at hand, from increasing commitments to Net Zero, the Monetary Authority of Singapore launching the country’s first sovereign green bond in August, to India’s goal of deriving 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. However, despite this increased activity over the past few years, greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise to historical highs. The International Energy Agency reported in 2021 that global fossil fuel emission rates have risen above pre-pandemic levels.

The second factor is the accelerating impact of climate change. In the past few years, our understanding of climate change has moved from ‘something that will happen in the future’ to ‘something that is happening now’. Our systems are not designed for the new levels of climate variability we are facing and will face. Delhi's heatwave in May 2022 reached 49.2°C, which increased the vulnerability of half of the city's population who live in informal settlements. In Southeast Asia, the Mekong River, which supports the livelihoods of over 70 million people, entered its fourth consecutive year of drought. There is no precedent for what’s ahead, relying on previous solutions won’t serve us well. 

These two factors combine to shape a decade ahead in which we must simultaneously decarbonise our economy and prepare for unprecedented climate unpredictability, while also investing in solutions that build social resilience, in the face of the disruption and displacement communities will face as a result of climate change impacts.

Addressing shallow transitions

The strategic implication on Forum’s role might be best summarised with the use of a metaphor: we are moving from the role of a “catalyst” aiming to ignite collective action to the role of what I envision as a “transition partner.” We have a set of tools that draw from systems thinking, futures thinking and complexity theory as a means to navigate the decade ahead. I should add that: we are “transition partners” who come with a bit of critique on the quality of current action and with a strong ambition for what we might be capable of achieving.

As “transition partners”, there are a number of areas where we see acute risk of shallow transitions, but I’d like to highlight two. The first risk of a shallow transition is what I call the “black elephant” of climate risk. A “black elephant” is a significant threat, risk or issue that is obvious to everyone (or the experts who give warnings), that no one wants to deal with. When it becomes a full-blown problem with a high impact, people are surprised and act as if it were a “black swan”---a term popularised by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe extremely rare and difficult to predict events with significant impacts. 

At present, we are underestimating the transformation required to mitigate climate risk and we are underestimating the impact of climate risk itself. The latest IPCC report indicates that we need to decarbonise our economy by 45% in 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050 for the planet to stay under 1.5°C of warming. If we maintain the status quo with current policies, we are anticipated to hit from 3.1-3.5°C of warming by 2100, well above what’s acceptable for the planet. A shallow transition is committing to action under the aegis that any action is “good enough” action. Transformation is solving the problem with understanding of the scale of the problem we need to solve. 

The second area where we risk a shallow transition is in “carbon myopia”, which is to see the transition challenge only through the keyhole of reducing carbon emissions. The transformation we are going through in recognising the interdependence between people and the natural world. To only focus on carbon reduction to the point where we miss seeing its impacts on biodiversity and communities is to carry forward the mental models that got us into the current environmental crisis.. Carbon-based conservation, for example, can be bad for biodiversity and harmful to both plants and animals. In our efforts to rapidly decarbonise will we be blind to the unintended negative impacts on ecosystems and people? 

The Grantham Institute offers an alternative lens: a “just nature transition”, whereby both social goals (social inclusion, decent work and the eradication of poverty) and biodiversity goals (in agriculture, forestry, land-use and the oceans) are simultaneously delivered in the shift to a net-zero and climate resilient economy. At Forum, we frame this as a just and regenerative approach, whereby the capacity of all living systems to adapt, replenish and regenerate is strengthened, universal human rights and individuals’ potential to thrive is respected, and our economies and societies are rewired to serve both people and the planet.

Forum’s programmes in Asia are designed on these principles of how we, together with our partners, envision and contribute to just and regenerative transitions. The Responsible Energy Initiative is a multi-year programme working to ensure renewable energy in Asia achieves its full potential and creates value in a way that is ecologically safe, rights-respecting and socially just. The India inquiry has brought together participants across the sector, sharing their collective vision and guiding principles for what a responsible renewable energy sector in India can look like, and is in the process of developing collaborative projects that aim to catalyse change and achieve this vision. In Asia Pacific, the Protein Challenge Southeast Asia is working to set a collective vision of what a future-fit, just and regenerative protein system in Southeast Asia looks like, bringing together businesses and financial actors in the protein space to lead change.

Looking ahead

For sure, any movement is in fact a good thing—it’s how we begin. I recognise that broadly speaking, there is an openness amongst those leading change to lean in and tackle challenges at the level of transformation we need. That said, to truly ensure we navigate the decade ahead successfully, we need more radical candour about the level of transformation needed, to be grounded in collaborative and inclusive action, and to identify the pragmatic ways we can deliver a just and regenerative future.

Over the next few months, colleagues from our teams in India and Southeast Asia will be sharing more about our programmes and what we’re learning on this journey. We hope you’ll join the conversation.  

Find out more about Forum’s 2023-2025 strategy, For a just and regenerative future. If you’re interested in working with Forum to think systemically, act faster and go further, email us at [email protected]. If you’re keen to immerse yourself in multiple systems change methods while learning with a network of practitioners, reach out to Forum’s sister organisation, The School of System Change, at [email protected].

If you’d like to learn more about our work in Asia, please reach out to:

Ariel Muller, Managing Director, Asia ([email protected])

Anna Biswas, Director, India ([email protected])  

Sumi Dhanarajan, Director, APAC ([email protected]

Image by Tooykrub on Shutterstock.