Forum for the Future’s Sally Uren writes an open letter to C-suite executives with advice on how to prepare for the bumpy years ahead

You know all that stuff you’ve learnt over your career? It’s time to unlearn it, and learn a new set of skills, ones that will help ensure that the 2020s is the “decade of delivery”.

The sustainability challenges we face are urgent, complex. The world is currently on an unsustainable trajectory and many of our fundamental systems are no longer fit for purpose. We are not on track to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.

We urgently need to reinvent how we produce and consume goods and services, our business models, and the ways in which we organise and collaborate. The leadership skills we need to navigate the 2020s are not the skills we have today. Everyone, but particularly those currently in positions of power and influence, need to:

1. Identify the connections in the world around you, and how those parts interact. By understanding these connections, we will be better placed to identify where and how to act to drive the biggest change in the shortest amount of time (something that is not on our side). For example, understanding how the climate and human health system interact tell us that shifting to low-carbon diets can create positive benefits for both the planet and people’s health. Likewise, addressing air pollution can lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improve health outcomes.

To shift systems we need to be able to hold the big-picture goals at the top as well as the detail of what’s happening on the ground

2. Understand patterns in order to make effective interventions. Einstein’s definition of insanity was trying the same thing again and again, and expecting a different outcome. And that’s exactly what happens when we expect that a deluge of metrics will shift ingrained behaviours, or that the latest new technical innovation will, without the right enabling context, somehow magically reach the scale of market adoption needed. Spotting these patterns, and then asking what can we do differently, is a key feature of systems thinking. That’s why years ago at Forum we took a group of civil society leaders to Germany to see community energy at scale, for real. Previous attempts to persuade leaders in organisations as diverse as the National Trust to the WI had failed, but seeing is believing worked.

3. Work at different levels of the system, at the same time. Any system, from an organisation to an ecological system operates at different levels. To shift systems we need to be able to hold the big-picture goals at the top as well as the detail of what’s happening on the ground. That’s why I am a big fan of the work of one of our partners, Olam. Its Re-imagine Global Agriculture and Food Systems ambition requires Olam to keep a firm eye on creating an agricultural system that has regeneration and living landscapes as its goal, but also to understand the change needed at farmer level, at the community level, as well as at the regional level.

4. Engage different perspectives. All too often we invite slightly different versions of ourselves into our conversations. The sustainability echo chamber is very loud. But a system isn’t a monoculture, it is a diverse set of actors, who will have very different perspectives depending on where they sit in the system. Ultimately, systemic change will only happen if the majority of actors in any given system are willing to do things differently. If we aren’t even talking to a diverse range of actors, then there is little chance they will embrace a different set of system goals. It’s why, in our first multi-stakeholder collaboration at Forum, Dairy 2020, we deliberately invited the farmer voice into the room with the retailers with government. We got a lot further than if we hadn’t, although in that instance we didn’t manage to transform the UK dairy industry.

The Dairy 2020 initiative gave farmers a voice in a multi-stakeholder collaboration. (Credit: SGr/Shutterstock)

5. Consider different timescales. The relentless focus of our economy on short-term profit maximisation is possibly one of the biggest barriers to mainstreaming sustainable practices; equally, strategies that neglect to keep the business basics running are also ineffective. Holding both Horizon 1, today, and Horizon 3 (the longer term, say five to eight years out) in strategy implementation is critical, as is having a pretty good idea of the Horizon 2 pathways that will allow the business to leapfrog to a H3 where it is contributing in a positive way to the delivery of the SDGs. This isn’t easy, but as a strategy to get investors on board with ambitious sustainability plans, it is my best advice to business. Yes, we can keep the lights on, meet payroll, meet quarterly dividend forecasts and simultaneously channel time and money into activities that will future-proof the business.

6. Embrace complexity, constantly learning and adapting. Many of us like simplicity, certainty and order. Sadly though, the world is not simple, is very uncertain and, in parts, doesn’t have much order. History is littered with interventions that were built on an understanding of the world as a linear system, from the first generation of biofuels to switching from petrol to diesel cars. Driving systems change for sustainability requires us all to accept this complexity, create hypotheses for how we think we can change things, test these hypotheses, quickly learn, adapt and course correct. This also means occasionally giving up and starting something completely different.

7. Constantly question assumptions about how change happens. In the early days of plant-based alternatives to meat, there was an assumption by some food companies that offering a new, low-carbon product would catapult it to market success. But not if it didn’t taste nice. That’s why in our Protein Challenge we have been working in catering colleges helping chefs gain skills to cook tasty vegetarian and vegan food.

Exploiting power to force change won’t necessarily lead to lasting change; neither will ignoring the voice and agency of others

8. Understand personal agency, power and responsibility. Exploiting power to force change won’t necessarily lead to lasting change; neither will ignoring the voice and agency of others. For a system to shift towards a new set of goals, the majority of actors in that system will need to use their own power and influence to deliver change. This also means allowing those with seemingly little power and influence to exercise the one thing we all have, which is voice.

9. Work with activating and resisting forces. When any system is reconfigured, there is often enormous energy that wants to force it back to where it started, and resisting forces can dig in, hard. That is why a lot of the change we see today isn’t self-sustaining, and many new innovations fail to scale. We need to engage, now, with those for whom sustainable development is meaningless hippy drivel.

These skills are drawn from a tool we use in our School of System Change, designed to help participants build their systems change practice. As we enter the 2020s, the last skill is probably the most important. We need to engage with the hard-nosed financiers who only care about short-term value returns, the policymakers who are unwilling to be bold and imaginative, the small and mid-cap businesses who have yet to even say the word “sustainability”. We need to put ourselves in harms’ way, to be ridiculed. Because we are running out of time to design and deliver systems change for sustainability.

Sally Uren OBE is chief executive of Forum for the Future

Main picture credit: DesignRage/Shutterstock


This article is part of our in-depth Decade of Delivery commentary from sustainability leaders. To view all articles, please see our January 2020 digital magazine.


#deliverydecade  sustainable development goals  systemic change  Olam  low-carbon diets  Dairy 2020  School of System Change 

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