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. It comes as momentum for change is building, but social and environmental challenges are continuing to intensify. Right now, the sustainability movement faces a choice: to continue driving ‘shallow transitions’ or to start laying the foundations for the ‘deep transformation’ that’s long overdue.

Here, Forum’s Director of Global Programmes, Caroline Ashley, explores the difference between shallow and deep change.

Change is everywhere. But is it the right kind of change? The crises we face get deeper while the solutions too often remain shallow. 

At Forum for the Future we have been thinking about shallow transitions and the need for deep transformation. As a sector and across society, we need to shift from the former to the latter.  

What do I mean by ‘shallow transitions?’ These are well-intentioned actions that address specific problems and their symptoms in isolation. On the surface of things, they can look promising — but the danger here is that they fail to tackle the root causes of the challenges we face or to reset what counts as success. They can trigger unintended consequences, ignore opportunities for multiple benefits across multiple systems, and run out of the momentum needed for real, lasting change. 

The alternative, deep transformation, means more radical change to put us on a pathway to a qualitatively different — and better — future.  At Forum, our vision is a ‘just and regenerative future’. There is no blueprint, but features of deep transformation include:

  • Changing the goals of systems that we have created — such as food, finance or energy — to prioritise just and regenerative outcomes. For example, a food system that looks beyond efficiency and profit to prioritise farming that delivers universal nutrition and regeneration of land and soil.
  • Judging success not just by outputs, but how change builds capacity for natural and social systems to thrive in the face of continued disruption and uncertainty.
  • Addressing the root causes of our challenges and past imbalances, whether that is the assumption that nature is a free resource to exploit or the hugely unequal power dynamics that shape how markets work.
  • Reimagining the relationship between the economy, society and nature: understanding that we cannot run our economies and societies as if they are separate from nature, and that what we can do is redesign them.
  • Acting at a scale and pace commensurate to the challenge, rather than aiming for actions that are ‘a little better than what we’ve done before’. 

Consider, for example, the shifts we’re seeing towards renewable energy — a pivotal move to tackle carbon emissions and to hit climate targets. But as someone from a UK energy supplier said to me last week, in this industry we talk about energy as units — kilowatt-hours — not about people. The challenge isn’t simply about how we generate the same number of KWh from renewable sources instead of fossil-fuel sources, but how we reconfigure our energy needs and overhaul the entire system. The aim should be to meet human needs, respect rights and build ecological resilience, not just match today’s system kilowatt for kilowatt. We need supply chains for renewables that respect the rights of those mining the minerals, address end-to-end circularity from the start, and for households and industry to access different types of power at different times, to meet their needs in new ways. 

[On the energy transition] The aim should be to meet human needs, respect rights and build ecological resilience, not just match today’s system [like for like].

Or take food. Sales of meat-free burgers and dairy-free milk are booming in the UK. No-deforestation commitments are common in palm and other supply chains. That’s great, but the core of the food system remains driven by mono-crop production based on maximum production efficiency at lowest cost. We will have to move from judging success by tonnes per hectare of a single product, to multiple goals of soil health, biodiversity, resilient livelihoods, healthy food, and affordable nutrition. Regenerative farming is proving that it can meet multiple goals — but it is not yet affordable or operable at scale. It will cost a lot to shift that. But it will cost even more — to society and nature — to maintain our current system with a few nods to plant-based meals and supply chain standards. 

Or consider business, the momentum behind net zero strategies and the burgeoning of ESG (environmental, social and governance) tools and claims. The most ambitious businesses say (rightly) that they are investing in creating the markets of the future. The most worried businesses — from insurers to food companies — flag the existential risk they face that drives their action on carbon. But many are constrained by quarterly reporting, nervous investors, legacy regulation, and the whole system remains predicated on the notion that profit is the goal — not the means. We assume the rules of the economic system are fixed when they were created by people, by social norms, over decades. There are exciting pockets of innovation configuring business models that create value equitably, and testing a different role for business in society.  

The most ambitious businesses say (rightly) that they are investing in creating the markets of the future. The most worried businesses — from insurers to food companies — flag the existential risk they face that drives their action on carbon.

These are huge aims. So what does it look like in practice to go in the right direction?   

Four things strike me as essential.

First, a reset of ambition. We need to look beyond ‘reduce harm’ or ‘sustainability’ as the goal. We need to set a goal that goes beyond solving problems to reconfiguring our future.   

Second, integrating social justice into transitions. For too long, social and environmental interventions have been developed in silos. One organisation or team addresses wages, incomes, or poverty; another tackles carbon, pollution or ecology. What’s needed is integration; solutions capable of addressing multiple issues simultaneously. Solutions — whether for solar farms or regeneratively produced cocoa — need to be developed with people and in ways that enable them to build thriving livelihoods and meet their needs and aspirations. 

Third, embracing turbulence and the scale of change. Few of us like risk and uncertainty. But successful change-leadership now means embracing just how much change is coming and, frankly, how much change we need to create a better future.

John Elkington of Volans describes this eloquently as ‘decomposition': There is a sense that there is something deeply broken in the current system, and therefore it’s only a matter of time before it decomposes in front of our eyes [...] As the system starts to break up around us, we have to ask ‘now what’? What are we now trying to build? I find that both exciting and terrifying probably in equal measure.”

A mentality that simply aims to replace like with like does not grasp this process: replace 100 GW of fossil-fuel power with solar power, or sourcing 100 tonnes of Amazonian palm oil with deforestation-free palm. The mentality that embraces turbulence knows that the jobs our children will have do not yet exist, but the transition is to create them, and create them well. 

Finally, embracing systemic mindsets and joined-up thinking. In order to ensure that the changes we seed now are long-lasting, we must recognise the complexity and inter-relationships within the key systems on which we rely. We need more action on deeper levers of change — the mindsets that drive us, or the connections we make with others to reshape how whole systems work. 

Forum will be working with partners on each of these four areas, seeking to change how change happens. We will focus our efforts where there is already momentum in transitions in food, energy and the role of business. Sticking plasters won’t be enough to keep up with the deepening crises. 

Deep transformation, we believe, can navigate to a just and regenerative future; a future in which our social and environmental systems are capable of adapting to and addressing challenges of the future with flexibility and resilience. Where the world has moved beyond artificial divides between people, nature and economy. And the meaning of a ‘prosperous’ economy is redefined as one that meets the needs of everyone in society to thrive, distributes value fairly, and operates in harmony with nature and planetary boundaries.

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].