As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause widespread disruption around the world, how are we all responding, what are the implications for creating a sustainable future, and where exactly do we go from here?

As momentum behind calls to ‘build back better’ grows, what does that look like and how do we do it? 

Based on desktop research, multiple interviews with leaders across business, philanthropic and not-for-profit organisations, and analysis of the latest signals of change, Forum for the Future sees four distinct trajectories emerging from the pandemic – each based on a different mindset:

  1. Transform sees us take full advantage of the disruption we’re all experiencing to emerge into a more regenerative, resilient and sustainable world; one that fundamentally recognises that planetary health equals human health and that new norms are not only desirable, but possible 
  2. Compete and Retreat 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
  3. 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
  4. Unsettled is a future we’re not yet able to imagine, based on extended periods of disruption.

In-depth: Transform

Prevailing mindset: planetary health equals human health; our fates are deeply interconnected. Deep change is actually possible, desirable and happening and we accept that we cannot go back to ‘before’.

What might happen? Deep levels of dysfunction, structural inequality and gross inequity are exposed globally, regionally and locally by the COVID crisis. But critically, we acknowledge these issues – sparking intense attempts to address them and use pandemic response efforts to become more resilient, prepare for the decade ahead, and work to accelerate zero carbon and just transitions.

Transform sees a lot of decentralised, distributed responses from communities alongside pioneering businesses visibly acting on and responding to a deep sense of purpose. Politics slightly lags behind but political leaders eventually respond to the deeply-changed public mood (starting at city and local level).

Regenerative culture begins to emerge, and deep economic reform begins as the world attempts to emerge from the crisis. 

In-depth: Compete and Retreat 

Prevailing mindset: There is not enough to share; we must retreat to protecting our own kind; we must prevail over others / others are tainted / others must be kept out so that there’s more for us.

What might happen? A largely divisive trajectory in which dynamics come into play from nationalist leaders across the world and overwhelm attempts at international collaboration. 

The world chaotically regionalises, supply chains shorten and we see a strong focus on national health, food and energy security. Compete and Retreat sees a continued regression, moving further away from a sense of ‘global community’. 

COVID-19 and other emerging pandemic threats are seen as 'foreign' taints. The developing world is only assisted through the very narrow lens of national self-interest and is hit very hard. Some vulnerable, middle-income countries may collapse.

Meanwhile, at local level in many rich countries, some aspects of Compete and Retreat prevail that feel strangely positive, including a returning sense of national unity and cohesion and pulling together for the national good, alongside a renewed focus on local economies, production and jobs.

In-depth: Disciplined

Prevailing mindset: Greater control is required to maintain public health, safety and security and just as importantly, keep growth and global interconnection going ‘as normal’. We are prepared to relinquish privacy concerns for this

What might happen? We see a heavy use of tech and mass surveillance in an attempt to get back to a form of ‘normal’ and keep globalised capitalism going.

A Chinese-style surveillance model spreads across many countries, with China becoming much more powerful geopolitically; power becomes even more centralised in trans-national tech companies and their partners; automation accelerates.

We may also see centralised efforts to use the crisis to effect ‘change for sustainability' by, for example, normalising remote working, ending business travel, and extending tracking to assist behaviour change.

In-depth: Unsettled

Prevailing mindset: There is no new normal and much of our previous logic and thinking can no longer help us. Radical resilience, adaptability and intuitive opportunism will give an edge.

What might happen? Cascading, colliding and compounding events have unexpected consequences that continuously wrong-foot institutions and derail attempts to establish a stable or inflexible ‘new normal’. Continuous discontinuity from crises and events (across climate, politics, society, technology and more) lead to a slow realisation that there will never be a new normal and the world is now unavoidably volatile beyond all previous experience.

What must prevail?

Forum strongly believes that Transform must prevail if we are to create a world that is truly regenerative; one that is transformed by systemic change and realises a just transition towards a net zero global economy.

Putting the world on this trajectory will require strong and decisive action across business, government, the philanthropic sector and civil society. It won’t be easy but COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to tackle the profound structural weaknesses in our economy and society.

The more attention we pay to Transform, the greater the chance of it becoming our future.