See more about the trajectories in Forum's latest Future of Sustainability report, titled 'From System Shock to System Change - Time to Transform'.

In the second of our Corporate Leadership in the Time of Corona series, Dr Sally Uren, explores the different possible trajectories that could emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, and highlights how business leadership could help ensure we build back better.

Welcome to the second in our series of blogs designed to draw on international insights and analysis from our four offices around the world to explore the different types of corporate leadership we are seeing emerge in the coronavirus crisis. What are we seeing right now, what can we learn, and what does it mean for sustainability?

As countries start to approach or pass the pandemic’s peak, conversation is gathering pace on how we ‘build back better’ and create a more sustainable post COVID-19 world; one in which ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option and in which human and planetary health are equally prioritised.

At Forum, we are charting and making sense of this progress and the dynamic change we are seeing in order to understand how we might support this emergence into a more just sustainable and resilient world.

At the heart of this is a set of paths or trajectories we have created based on current signals for change that help us see possible ways forward from this point in time. Each of these trajectories is dominated by a different mindset which has the potential to deliver vastly different post COVID-19 worlds.  

These trajectories are not set - they are ways of looking at the world and possible paths forward. There are many other potentials that fall between them. But we find them useful to help understand how the decisions we make today are shaping the future. 


Transforming the future

At Forum we believe strongly that the Transform trajectory is the one that must prevail.

Signals of change linked to Transform have the potential to create a world that is truly regenerative, a world where ambition levels for sustainability are much higher than today, with business putting more back into the environment and society than it takes out. It’s a trajectory in which we take our opportunity to reset and truly ‘build back better’; systemic change is seen as desirable, necessary and possible; and we sow the seeds that longer-term, can help drive a just transition towards a net zero global economy.

Transform is governed by a mindset that finally recognises the intricate and interdependent nature of human and planetary health.

The Collapse trajectory sees a future in which we retreated to ‘life as knew it’, locking in unsustainable practices and prioritising resources for the few over the many. In this trajectory there is not enough to share and inequality remains rife; governments and individuals assume self-interested goals, nationalistic agendas gain traction and international cooperation begins to falter. This is the end of multilateralism.

The Discipline trajectory sees a future in which greater tech-enabled control is needed to maintain public health, security and growth. There is ramped up use of tech and a huge increase in surveillance, alongside a return to some form of globalisation.

Right now we see a vital window in which businesses need to lead to make the Transform trajectory a reality. Business voices and actions could have the potential to transform how we live and work and how we consume everyday goods and services, and to advocate for the policy change we know will be needed to ensure these changes stick.

At Forum we are currently focused on playing our role in addressing three global challenges, ensuring the sustainability of the food system, value chains and livelihoods and limiting global warming to below 1.5⁰C. Within the first two of these challenge areas, we’re seeing some promising examples of businesses leading the way and taking action that could support the emergence of the Transform trajectory.

You can also watch a set of short films that bring the four different trajectories to life and catch up with our Future of Sustainability launch events. 

You can now also read the new Future of Sustainability report, titled From System Shock to System Change - Time to Transform.


In the food system we see many examples of businesses harnessing innovation to support their suppliers, with agribusiness Olam securing $176M in financing to foster digital adoption among its Asian smallholders, in turn allowing reliable market access to smallholders in these challenging times. 

In India, the Modi government is using the COVID-19 crisis to push through reforms in its Agriculture Produce and Marketing Committee (APMC), giving farmers and producers the opportunity to sell their agricultural produce at attractive prices. This is opening up opportunities for social and tech start-ups, such as Agribazaar, to pilot new online business models. More broadly, these reforms could create real incentives for regenerative agriculture in India. 

In the US, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is finally taking off. Members buy a share of a farmer’s organic harvest that gets delivered weekly in a box, driven by a huge uptick in the demand for local, fresh, organic produce.

The recognition of the importance of local food production as a route to food security and resilience is also the impetus behind Singapore Food Bowl. Supported by food producer and packer Dole and Enterprise Singapore, Singapore Food Bowl is bringing industry and start-ups together to build a more resilient and decentralised agri-food system in the wake of COVID-19.


Value Chains and Livelihoods

Global supply chains, from apparel to food, have been seriously disrupted by COVID-19. At a macro-level, many businesses are now accelerating diversification of supply chains away from China, with nation states such as India signalling a willingness to provide incentives to make this a reality. Whilst this will no doubt build resilience, there is a real risk of ‘locking in’ the current features of these supply chains which make transformation towards sustainability even harder – this would see us move closer to the Collapse trajectory. 

COVID-19 has hit the apparel supply chain particularly hard, with orders cancelled, leaving the livelihoods of millions of apparel workers at risk. The good news though is that there is an emerging group of brands (including M&S and Target, both Forum partners) who have said they will stand by their current orders, throwing an economic lifeline to individuals and communities.

Other signals of the Transform trajectory emerging include growing calls for a transformation towards sustainable fashion. From Indian couture designers such as Shades of India to the #fairfashionsolidarity movement in Europe, there are increasingly louder calls for ‘slow fashion’ to become the new normal.

And there’s the brilliant innovation by the personal shopping app, Mallzee, which has launched Loststock Box, a way of selling excess stock from cancelled retail orders directly to consumers.

Finally, relevant to food and supply chains, a positive story from Betty & Taylors Group (another Forum partner) who have announced a series of commitments which include early payments to suppliers, transparency around forecasts and buying commitments; as well as emphasising their commitment to work towards a living wage.

What’s happening within global supply chains, right now, give us glimpses not only into the Transform trajectory, but also Collapse and Discipline. Switching suppliers according to price and availability of supply, with no consideration of either the social or environmental impacts of such a lottery approach to sourcing, is a feature of Collapse. Similarly, rapid ramping up of automation of garment manufacturing, as a route to resilience with no mechanism to safeguard worker rights, is somewhere between Discipline and Collapse.  The choices businesses make right now, really, really matter.


Where will we end up?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but we must all – especially businesses - recognise that the actions we take today have profound influence over tomorrow. At Forum, we will continue to track change and use ongoing refinements to understand where the world is headed, why, and where interventions can create meaningful change.

What is certain is that businesses are already playing a huge role in determining the direction we take. At Forum, we are strongly advocating for transformative action from them, governments, civil society and communities – only then will we come close to capitalising on the unparalleled opportunity COVID-19 has given us to build back better.

Next week, Jonathon Porritt will use the third in this Series to explore the signals of change we are seeing in the energy system that are aligned with the Transform trajectory.



COVID-19 has shone a light on all the weaknesses in our current systems, with one of the most profound being structural inequality, which is one of the root causes of the systemic racism we are witnessing, right now in the US. We have a moment to confront this, and the more attention we pay to the Transform Trajectory, the greater the chance we stand of creating positive and lasting change. You can read about our commitment to ending silence on racism in this statement: Anti-Racism: doing more and being better.

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.