How might European citizens live more sustainably?

Sensemaking / How might European citizens live more sustainably?

Insights from four scenarios for 2050 to cut the impact of lifestyles across Europe by 80%.

By Corina Angheloiu / 23 Jan 2017

Forum for the Future has developed a series of scenarios for the year 2050, depicting what sustainable lifestyles might look like and the different ways in which we might get there. These build on the SPREAD 2050 research project, and are part of a three-year research project called EU Innovate, which asks what it will take to unlock a Europe-wide surge of innovation for sustainability, beginning with people and communities.

The scenarios represent very different worlds and paradigms. What’s interesting is the transition to these worlds: how might we establish sustainable lifestyles in Europe by 2050, and what role will users and entrepreneurs play?

What are the boundaries of the scenarios?

The scenarios assume a “sustainable lifestyle”, defined as a material footprint of 8,000 kg per annum per person, reduced from an average of 40,000 kg today. They describe four diverse future societies and the individual lifestyles that enable this target footprint to be met.

The material footprint serves as a tool to direct lifestyles to impact levels within planetary boundaries, as described by Johan Rockström and other scientists. It also provides a way to measure progress and milestones of success towards our future sustainable lifestyle goals.

2012: European lifestyle of 40,000kg per year

  • 10,000 km in a car (15,000kg)
  • 2,000 km public transport (700kg)
  • 550kg of food with 19% share of meat, fish and seafood (6,000kg)
  • 37m2 person heated living space (10,000kg)
  • Resources for other consumption items and leisure time (8,300kg)

2050: Sustainable European Lifestyle of 8,000kg per year

  • 10,000 km by means other than private automobile
  • 500 kg of mostly vegetarian food
  • 20 m2 person in a zero-emission energy house
  • 1000 kWh of wind and solar power
  • Fewer, but sufficient household appliances and other equipment
  • Some resources for leisure time and other purposes

Key future shifts

Future scenarios give us a structured, evidence-based way of speculating, and help to raise interesting questions. For instance, why are these types of innovation particularly important for systemic change and transformation for sustainability? What patterns occur in how and when they take place along the scenario pathways to 2050 that might shed light on how to use them?

We can use the scenarios to generate insights and propositions about the future that can inform our hypotheses and experiments today.  Here are the insights we’ve gained from an analysis of how the four societies described in the SPREAD scenarios have transitioned to a sustainable footing.

On the pathway to all four scenarios, society develops sophisticated social relationships, including with living systems. By 2050, these relationships are ‘self-regulating’ at all scales.

When we compare the lifestyles described in the SPREAD scenarios with the unsustainable lifestyles in Europe now, all four 2050 societies have evolved systemic ways of making decisions, of picking up feedback and responding to the people and wider life around them, of managing the global commons and of dealing with conflict. These systemic ways of life play out at all scales, from how individuals conduct themselves in their lives, to how communities operate and how economies function - right up to a global level.

Each society evolves different ways of doing this that fits with its culture: all of them are imperfect and come with their own problems so they are continually being adjusted. What’s significant is that they enable these societies to exist in closer equilibrium with living systems than we do today by:

  1. continually rebalancing resource consumption and interrelationships amongst human activity and wider, living systems, in response to feedback
  2. managing the total efficiency and impacts of human activity by viewing and treating the world as an integrated, ‘whole system’ rather than as a collection of separate parts
  3. instilling high trust in processes of decision-making and the use of power so that most people and organisations are willing to accept decisions and uphold them in practice
  4. enabling individuals to participate more roundly and proactively in these systems - beyond choices about what they purchase, who they elect and how they are represented
  5. supporting individuals to participate in ‘self-regulating’ systems by responding to, the changing relationships and context around them.

All of the societies described in the SPREAD scenarios develop these capabilities faster than the rate of decline, so that they avoid irreversible tipping points in the stability and quality of living systems.

The scenarios make clear that there are a number of future shifts are required in society for sustainable lifestyles to exist, and for transition to happen. Their content provokes new questions about how those transitions could emerge:

  • How can societies unlock the potential of users, entrepreneurs, communities and citizens to play a role in the transition to sustainability?
  • How can we expand the definition of users and entrepreneurs to fully reflect the potential they have for enabling sustainable transitions and ultimately systems change?
  • What is the role of policy in managing the transitions to sustainable lifestyles? How can policy and management be a site of innovation as well as enabler of innovation for others?
  • What will be the dominant paradigm that emerges from the future? How can this be catalysed?
  • How can the transition of society be best managed? How can there be coherence across Europe to steward in the next paradigm?

It is important to keep in mind there are no answers to these questions as the future is unknown. But the scenarios provide rich and powerful stimulus through which to explore these questions.

This month in our Citizen Innovation explorer we discuss how citizens are creating change, how we can rethink governance, what role citizens can play for a world where life can sustain itself, and what it will take to unlock a paradigm shift. This article is the first in a series about the role of citizens in bringing the future forward; we will soon be publishing the full scenarios report. If you’d like to hear more, please get in touch with Corina ( and Louise ( Together let’s make this a revolution. // #citizeninnovation

SPREAD Sustainable Lifestyles 2050 was a project funded by the European Commission, and the corresponding scenarios have been developed by Demos Helsinki ( For more information on the original scenarios, follow this link.

EU-InnovatE is a ground-breaking initiative funded by the European Commission aiming to accelerate the shift towards to a sustainable future.



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