With time running out to tackle the world’s intensifying climate, biodiversity and social crises, and as Forum for the Future announces its new 2023-2025 strategy, For a just and regenerative future, Forum’s Futures Lead, Alisha Bhagat, asks ‘what if we really are successful in deeply transforming the way we live and work?’. Joined by Forum colleagues, Alisha projects us into 2050 to consider what a just and regenerative future looks like and share stories of how this could play out across five areas: nature, agriculture, health, lifestyles, and work.
There are many things in this world that we are uncertain of, particularly as the aptly referenced ‘decade of disruption’ (read the 2020s) intensifies. The actions we each choose to take on human and planetary health right now will set the agenda for decades to come and arguably be the make-or-break on whether we are able to create the sustainable future we desire.
We are currently living through the Anthropocene, an unofficial unit of geologic time used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history where human activity has fundamentally altered the planet’s geology, ecosystems, and climate. A fitting backdrop for the 2020s, which began with a turbulence few anticipated.
The scale of human impact is close to unfathomable, and continues to ripple across all of our man-made and natural systems. Take, for example, our hand in shaping the makeup of species on this planet. Humans and livestock currently account for 96% of mammal biomass on earth. This has come at cost: wild animals and places are diminishing and human lifestyles that have existed for millennia are increasingly difficult to sustain. Globally, we see that inequity is rising; extreme weather events and pandemics will become more frequent; inequality is worsening; the livelihoods of millions are set to teeter on the brink as old sectors and industries necessarily make space for new.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an intense disruption that has left very little untouched. While some countries appear to be returning to ‘normal’, uncertainty remains. Add to this, the devastating invasion of Ukraine, which is creating a humanitarian crisis in Europe of a scale not seen since the Second World War.
The sheer volatility and turbulence of the times we’re living in means there is absolutely no doubt that the just transitions and deep transformational change we seek from obsolete, bygone ways of thinking and acting to more sustainable alternatives will undoubtedly be messy.
But change is needed, and uncertainty provides an opportunity for change
While there are no crystal balls, silver bullets or easy answers, foresight and futures thinking have long been used as tools to help us consider what is possible when seeking change. We use the concept of multiple futures to emphasize that there are many possible outcomes – the future isn’t fixed, it is fluid. It is up to each of us to conceive of, and act towards, preferred futures.
And it all starts with a vision.
At Forum for the Future, we are set on creating not only a more sustainable future, but a ‘just and regenerative’ one . This is a future in which planetary health and human wellbeing come first and the deep interconnections between the two are recognised. It’s a future in which we recognise ourselves as part of – not separate from – nature and believe that a deep change to reset the way we live and work is not only possible, but happening. Where recovery from COVID-19 was used as a launchpad to accelerate a fair and equitable transition to a zero-carbon world.
The global systems on which we rely on are on the brink of breakdown. Their growing fragility and inability to cope with shocks and disruptions have been laid bare. But the good news is they are also changing and paving the way for deeper transformation to take place. Forum’s new strategic focus will see us hone in on three potentially game-changing transitions already at play: how we think about, produce, consume and value both food and energy, and the role of business in society and the economy. We will work to enable deep transformation in each of these areas, ultimately putting us on the path to a future in which both people and the planet thrive.
These three transitions are among many others, each playing out in a complex way. So the process of getting the job done will be anything but easy. It will require us to adapt to a constantly changing context. But the first step in embracing the challenge is simply imagining the world we want, and believing it is possible.
Creating a just and regenerative future will mean:
- Promoting universal human rights and tackling the structural barriers holding people back; barriers that continue to drive and exacerbate inequality. In practice, this is about challenging power structures such as structural racism, patriarchy, the legacies of colonialism, slavery, indigenous genocide, and other mindsets that never served the majority of people or the planet
- Embracing the power of nature to renew and regenerate. As part of this, we must learn from the rich traditions and mindsets of those who steward the land in regenerative ways and have done so for generations
- Reconfiguring the systems we are part of to restore and replenish our ecosystems. This involves addressing the drivers that are overheating the planet and degrading the natural world and in turn, stabilizing planetary health
- Reimagining our economy by embracing alternative economic models that prioritize human wellbeing and ecosystem health over economic growth or short-term profit maximization
- Ensuring fairness and resilience across generations and geographies
- Building the capacity of social and environmental systems to thrive, adapt and address challenges of the future
It’s an aspirational vision and while it’s bleak out there right now, just stop a moment and ask yourself:
What if we realize it? What if we’re successful and, come 2050, we’ve taken the opportunity the decade of disruption afforded us to deeply transform the way we live and work?
What does this look like? Visions of 2050
Here, we attempt to visualize a transformed 2050 and hone in on five areas – the future of nature, agriculture, health, lifestyles, and work. With insights from my colleagues, we’re presenting some fictional stories that explore what a more equitable, resilient and flourishing world looks like, and – based on Forum’s 25+ years’ of experience in driving systems change for sustainability – considering scenarios of how we got there.
While of course there are many possible futures right now – and, unfortunately, many of these possibilities involve continued struggles and even potential for a ‘Hothouse Earth’ to become our reality – but our intention is to offer mere glimpses into one possible, more hopeful future.
We hope you find some inspiration in these visions, and walk away convinced that not only is a just and regenerative future possible, it’s within our grasp if we can only think and act differently. We are in no denial: creating this future will be extremely difficult and we’ll frequently find ourselves without answers, but if it was easy, we’re not being anywhere near as ambitious as we need to be.
Imagined by Sangam Paudel, Forum for the Future’s Project Officer
How we got here:
In the late 2020s, following decades of soaring extinction rates, humanity faced a stark realization: climate change could not be tackled without also curbing humanity’s unsustainable destruction of the planet’s fauna and flora.
Nature and climate was now recognised as one single existential crisis. The climate and biodiversity agendas, having run in silos until then, became fully integrated. Businesses, governments, statutory bodies and more strengthened their understanding of the deep interconnections between all living systems – manmade and natural. Mindsets moved away from dominion over nature to living in harmony with it. All climate interventions were designed to work for biodiversity, and vice versa.
A ‘Great, Global Resprouting’ followed in 2025-2040. The urban landscape was transformed, with cities starting to aggressively plant trees and build green corridors, bringing ‘wildlife’ back to the concrete jungles. As subsidies for intensive farming were replaced by those for land regeneration, and as crop prices incorporated their biodiversity and carbon costs, farms planted a diverse range of native trees and grasses, and monoculture plantations became rare. The rewilding drive restored degraded lands. Increased investment in conservation efforts saw growing protection for key habitats (from oceans and rivers to temperate and tropical forests) and the species that call them home.
Some losses – such as the extinction of the struggling vaquitas in 2027 – were, sadly, inevitable, but only strengthened the sustainability movement’s resolve.
By 2030, ambitious targets and new ways of looking at ecosystems had secured more than 50% of the planet in either formal reserves or areas managed by local communities for the benefit of people and nature. The just transition concept (focused on leaving no one behind) was incorporated into new targets and consideration for biodiversity efforts, including new ways of thinking about land use and land tenure.
- Blog: Nature and health – our single existential crisis
- Blog: Rewilding our lands, rewilding our minds
Imagined by Michelle Stearn, Sustainability Strategist
How we got here:
A daunting question overshadowed the 2020s: how can the world feed a growing global population with affordable, healthy, and nutritious food without depleting the earth of resources and humans of health, and without exploiting those who cultivate the crops?
While the incumbent food system was performing perfectly well to deliver on a maximum output, low margin model, change was needed and the systemic barriers to it were wide-ranging: financial systems that incentivized farmers to maintain the then status quo; consolidated power in the hands of a few key actors – with marginalised voices on the frontline of food production often going unheard; supply chains that were shaped for relatively few commodity products at scale, preventing diversification.
By 2025, businesses, governments, suppliers, producers and consumers began to seize an opportunity to transform the way we produce and consume food, and to remodel the supply chains transporting it from plant to plate, crop to cup. The answer was not something new, but something old.
Regenerative agriculture emerged as the key to a more sustainable food future; one rooted in soil health, human health, and social equity: three tenets inextricably linked in reshaping the very purpose of a formerly extractive agriculture system.
Changes began to ripple: the business case for regenerative practices was made; landowners were mobilised to mainstream regenerative practice; new financial mechanisms and market structures that supported regenerative outcomes were created; farmers were empowered to build grassroots coalitions; new policy enabled us to build a resilient agricultural economy; consumers increasingly demanded regenerative products; the nutritional benefits of a product were prioritised as part of enabling healthier diets.
Centering Indigenous practices and orchestrating reparations for Black farming communities and producers of color proved pivotal to this fundamental shift from the centuries-long exploitative approaches towards a system that put more into the soil than it took out.
- Report: Forum for the Future – Growing our Future: Building a Resilient and Regenerative Foundation for the US Food System
- Blog: An Abundant Harvest for Regenerative Agriculture
- Blog: Sensemaking and Regenerative Agriculture in SEA
- Podcast: With a narrow window for innovation, will our food systems transform or unravel?
Imagined by Ksenia Benifand, Senior Principal Change Designer
How we got here:
The COVID-19 pandemic of the early 2020s forced a stark realization that the health of people and planet are intricately and undeniably connected; we are part of, not separate from, nature – with the impacts of climate change on health being felt both acutely and chronically across the globe.
Businesses took action related to their direct operations, employees, products and services, and supply chains. Where possible, power supplies were switched to renewable energy or logistics to electric vehicles; green buildings and staff mental and physical wellbeing received greater investment; consumers were engaged to make healthier choices for the planet; business leaders lobbied governments and industry bodies for change, and leveraged the potential of cross-sector collaboration.
Elsewhere, the food sector offered more plant-based products and supported their suppliers to shift to regenerative farming. Cities and the transport networks that mobilize them were thrown into the spotlight, with growing calls for retrofits and investment in infrastructure that minimize negative impacts on human health while also benefiting planetary health.
The healthcare sector built its understanding of how to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts, while the finance sector stepped up as an agent of change.
At a community level, people increasingly sought (and gained) access to data that showed how our race, geography, social class and living conditions directly impact our health, and that challenges in these areas cannot be addressed in isolation. Mechanisms were then put in place to continuously gather data on public health, accurately predict risk factors, and measure the impact of addressing environmental and social conditions on our individual and collective wellbeing.
- Report: Driving Co-benefits for climate and health – how private sector action can accelerate progress
- Live Research: The resilient health system of the future – the case for community health
- Blog: From laggard to system changer: can the finance sector step up as an agent of change in sustainability?
- Blog: Healthy planet, healthy people: building towards deep transformation in climate and health
Imagined by Alisha Bhagat, Futures Lead
How we got here:
Starting in the early 2020s, and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a new era of community-centered development began. People realized that in times of crisis, they needed to strengthen and care for the people around them. It started with mutual aid and community fridges, and grew to include community cafeterias, community banking, and community-owned renewable energy programs.
Urged on by youth activism, pioneering businesses, and political pressure, governments around the world woke up to the realities of the climate crisis and began making the bold commitments needed to set appropriate climate and biodiversity commitments, and to integrate climate funding into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. By 2030 there were numerous public and private sector collaborations aimed at financing infrastructure projects to build resilience.
People, within a larger context of planetary health, were placed above profit and growth. Incentives that helped people live a low-carbon lifestyle – such as improved public transit, affordable urban living and carbon budgets – mainstreamed. Elsewhere, increasing prices of private car ownership and animal meat meant both declined. Some backlash accompanied this, but overall, citizens understood the need for change.
With wellbeing at the center, people found more time to spend with their families, and to take care of one another. We realized that we are stronger together, and that our communities, once empowered, can help create a better world.
- Blog: What does it mean to decolonize the future?
- Podcast: The changing role of business and governments, and the powerhouse that is youth: Reflections from Jonathon Porritt
- Blog: We need to invest in Generation Lockdown
Imagined by Sunita Heredia, Human Resource Advisor
How we got here:
As the 2020s played out, seven factors combined to radically impact both the amount and type of work available: automation; insecurity and in-work poverty; declining and thriving sectors; intensifying workplace inequalities; intergenerational transitions; a changing work and home life balance; evolving health and safety expectations.
The dramatic scale of automation and the rise of artificial intelligence both increased the productivity of existing jobs while unlocking new ones and leaving workers to focus on the things that mattered most. The craft economy boomed, with more people employed in sectors and roles that could not be automated, from performance arts to repairs.
Governments began to tackle rising levels of in-work poverty, legislating in favor of worker’s rights and benefits in sectors where employment was deemed ‘insecure’, such as part-time work, zero-hours contracts and self-employment in the gig economy. Universal basic income was driven by calls to recognise the value of unpaid work, or to give people the financial security to learn and to switch careers.
New legislation and workplace policies sought to tackle deep-rooted workplace inequalities on the basis of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation and more – leading to greater parity in all aspects of recruitment, promotion, redundancy and workforce management.
At the same time, intergenerational transitions and tensions were restitching the fabric of the workplace, with younger workers taking on new and bigger roles and bringing with them different expectations of work and their employers.
Working from home continued long after the world ‘learned to live’ with COVID-19, with many workplaces now operating hybrid setups with flexible hours that met the needs of both business and individual.
Underpinning all of this was the growing need for workplaces to better protect the mental and physical health, wellbeing and safety of their staff. Issues of loneliness, fitness, diet and community health shaped the health and safety agenda well beyond previous notions of an employer’s ‘duty of care’. Employees were afforded more time for social and health care – helping shape a workplace culture built around being just and kind and cultivated by leaders demonstrating characteristics such as empathy, inclusivity and generosity.
- Forum for the Future’s Compass for Just and Regenerative Business
- Blog: Bring back the human: how working culture can support transformation
Back to the present
Welcome back to 2022, we hope you enjoyed your ride into 2050 and are leaving inspired and hopeful. These, and many other glimpses of the future are possible – each shaped by both small and large disruptions around the world.
It’s now up to you and I to use the window of opportunity brought by continued disruption to shape the futures we want.
Interested in collaborating with Forum?
Does your organisation have a specific sustainability challenge in mind? Are you keen to reset your ambition? Do you want to join one of our many pre-competitive collaborations? Perhaps you’re interested in becoming a friend of Forum? Or in providing the vital funds needed for us to carry out our work?
Whether it’s working one-to-one or by joining forces with other actors in the sector, there are many ways we can collaborate.
Together, let’s think systemically, act faster and go further.
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