July 9, 2020
Reading time: 12 minutes
Results from a global survey on expectations and hopes for where the world is headed and anticipated key drivers of change.
Crises, while painful and disruptive, can also be a time of opportunity. As global society continues to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are questioning the basic structures of our social and economic systems and are exploring opportunities to bounce forward from this crisis to a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient world. In this context, Future Earth, the Imperial College London Grantham Institute, and the Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative conducted a foresight survey to take the pulse of the global population and tap into a broad diversity of perspectives on where the world is headed post-COVID-19. In this report, we summarize the results of this survey and highlight key insights that may help to inform short and medium-term strategies for how we build forward from the COVID-19 pandemic toward a more sustainable future.
- In the next three years, most people expect that societal changes following the COVID-19 pandemic will result from four classes of drivers: shifts in policy, power dynamics, norms and mindsets. Across the five alternative Sustainability Trajectories identified, there is little variation in the distribution of the classes of drivers. This suggests that these four classes of drivers are particularly powerful regardless of how the future unfolds. Shifts in power dynamics are a central driver of change across all trajectories and regions. Of the four drivers of change identified, a shift in power dynamics is the most commonly mentioned in conjunction with other drivers, suggesting that it will play a central role in how society builds back from the COVID-19 health pandemic. This also suggests that even strategies focusing on other drivers of change would benefit not only from taking power dynamics into account, but from actively seeking out how to address power imbalances and support efforts to decrease inequality.
- More sustainable outcomes are associated with a transition to less economic interdependence (greater self-reliance), which is underpinned by shifts in policy and norms. Across both the General Population and the Sustainability Community, respondents who expect the world to be on a trajectory towards a More Sustainable future also tend to expect a shift towards less economic interdependence and greater local self-reliance. In the headlines, moves toward greater economic self-reliance were most commonly mentioned as driven by shifts in policy (via shifts in broad economic policy towards enacting protectionist policies for food and energy sectors), as well as through shifts in norms around business models (shortened supply chains, more local/regional economies) and lifestyles (focusing on local food production and self-reliance, reducing flying and levels of consumerism).
- Many respondents from the Global South expect a trend towards reduced inequality and a larger ecological footprint. Across the five societal features, inequality was the feature with the second-greatest expected degree of change, although the directionality was split. A greater proportion of respondents from the General Population and from the Global South expect a shift towards less inequality as opposed to respondents from the Sustainability Community and from the Global North, of which a greater proportion expect a trend towards greater inequality. There was an inverse relationship between inequality and ecological footprint across these groups in many cases. Responses suggest a trade-off between reducing ecological footprint and decreasing inequality, with important implications for decision-making across sectors and scales in general, and for the design of policies addressing environment and inequality in particular.
- Almost all respondents, across all regions of the world, expect digital surveillance to significantly increase. Of the five societal features explored – economic interdependence, centralization of governance, digital surveillance, inequality, and ecological footprint – digital surveillance was expected by nearly all respondents to increase the most. It was also expected to increase by respondents across all regions and in each of the five alternative Sustainability Trajectories explored. In general, most survey respondents were not opposed to the use of digital surveillance in times of emergency when it has the potential to save lives. Furthermore, control over one’s own data emerged as a key mechanism underlying shifting power dynamics as a driver of change. This forecasts a need to take into account the implications of increased surveillance and interlinkages with shifts in power – most often towards those who control the data – in the near future.
In April 2020, Future Earth, the Imperial College London Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, and the Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative conducted two parallel global surveys. One targeted people connected in some way to studying or taking actions to advance sustainability, which we refer to here as the Sustainability Community. The other was to a more general population across 29 countries using Google surveys – we refer to this group as the General Population. Respondents were asked to use a five-point Likert scale to characterize societal trends they expect over the next three years in the: level of economic interdependence between nations, centralization of governance, extent of digital surveillance, level of inequality, and size of ecological footprint. We used the expected trends in inequality and ecological footprint size to classify five alternative development trajectories – we call these Sustainability Trajectories.
Respondents were also asked to indicate on a five-point Likert scale their level of support for the use of digital surveillance in the case of emergencies and to tackle the climate crisis. In the survey of the Sustainability Community, respondents were additionally asked to provide news headlines they both expected and hoped to see in three years’ time. Qualitative Content Analysis was used to identify the key drivers of change, i.e. the mechanisms through which change occurs, described in the headlines. In total, 2224 people provided usable responses to the two surveys – 901 from the General Population and 1323 from the Sustainability Community. Across the two surveys, 55% of respondents were from the Global North and 45% were from the Global South.
The expected trends in key social, economic, and environmental factors are summarized in Figure 1. On average, neither the Sustainability Community nor the General Population indicated much change in the level of economic interdependence or centralization of governance. The General Population tends to expect an increase in the size of society’s ecological footprint and a decrease in inequality. In contrast, the Sustainability Community, on average, expects no change in ecological footprint size and an increase in inequality. Most striking was that both communities expect much more digital surveillance in three years’ time, which could imply changes in the structure and functioning of both economic and/or governance systems.
Figure 1. Expected trends in five societal features. Respondents were asked to characterize expected trends in five societal features over the next three years using a five-point Likert scale. Mean responses are indicated across respondents from the General Population (purple tabs) and Sustainability Community (green tabs) with their standard deviations on a five-point Likert scale.
Nearly all respondents expect that digital surveillance will increase significantly over the coming three years (see Figure 1). Furthermore, the vast majority of respondents (82% for the General Population and 75% for the Sustainability Community) were not opposed to the use of digital surveillance in times of emergency when it could help save lives. This suggests that the expectation that digital surveillance will increase is not necessarily perceived as negative, though comments from respondents highlight that their support depends on the context in which surveillance is undertaken. When asked a similar question about the level of support for the use of digital surveillance to tackle the climate crisis, a smaller but still substantial proportion of both surveyed communities still did not oppose its use. Additional insights on when surveillance is acceptable and mechanisms for ensuring legitimacy and transparency in its employment will be explored further in future reports.
Figure 2. Support for the use of digital surveillance in the case of emergencies. Respondents were asked to indicate their level of support on a five-point Likert scale for the use of digital surveillance technologies in the case of emergencies when it could save lives.
We used the expected changes in the level of inequality in the world and the size of ecological footprint as indicators of society’s trajectory towards either a more or less sustainable world. These two indicators are cross-cutting in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, reducing inequality is central to SDGs 1 through 10, while reducing society’s ecological footprint is core to SDGs 11 through 15. Thus, a world with less inequality and a smaller ecological footprint is defined here as a more sustainable world, while the converse is defined as a less sustainable world.
Based on respondents’ expected trends along these two societal features, we classified the future that people anticipate into five alternative Sustainability Trajectories:
Across the two surveys, approximately 18% of respondents expect the world to be on a More Sustainable trajectory toward less inequality and smaller ecological footprints (Figure 3). However, 30% of the General Population and 39% of the Sustainability Community expect the world to be on a Less Sustainable trajectory. Interestingly, a greater proportion of the Sustainability Community (65%) expects a shift towards trajectories with greater inequality (i.e. Less Sustainable, Environment First) than the General Population (42%). In contrast, a greater proportion of the General Population (48%) expects a shift towards less inequality (i.e., More Sustainable, Equality first) than the Sustainability Community (30%).
Figure 3. Sustainability Trajectories. Five alternative Sustainability Trajectories for the world identified based on expected trends in the level of inequality and size of society’s ecological footprint over the next three years.
Across these Sustainability Trajectories, there are differences in how respondents expect economic and governance systems to shift. In particular, a greater proportion of respondents who expect the world to be on a More Sustainable trajectory also expect economic interdependence to decrease as local economies become more self-reliant than in other trajectories. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of respondents who expect the world to be on a Less Sustainable trajectory expect a shift towards more centralization of governance. Across all trajectories, digital surveillance was expected to increase substantially.
There are also differences in these expected futures between the Global North and Global South within each surveyed community (Figure 4).
Key regional patterns
Important regional patterns emerge when we compare the distribution of respondents around the world who expect the world to be on one of these five Sustainability Trajectories in the coming three years. Specifically:
– Across all regions, a higher proportion of the General Population expect the world to be on an Equality First Trajectory (18-39%) than in the Sustainability Community (7-29%).
– Within the Sustainability Community, a greater proportion of respondents from the Global South expect the world to be on an Equality First trajectory (16-29%) than in the Global North (7-10%).
– Within the General Population, a greater proportion of respondents in the Global North expects a shift towards a trajectory of Environment First (18-22%), as compared to their peers in the Global South (6-16%).
– Of respondents expecting a Less Sustainable Trajectory, a greater proportion is located in the Global South for the General population, but in the Global North for the Sustainability Community.
Exploring key regional patterns suggests an inverse relationship between inequality and ecological footprint. Many respondents from the Global South, in both surveys, expect a shift towards reduced inequality, but also towards a larger ecological footprint. Conversely, many respondents from the General Population in the Global North and across the Sustainability Community expect a shift towards smaller ecological footprints, and towards greater inequality.
Figure 4. Regional distribution of Sustainability Trajectories. Distribution is shown for the General Population (purple pie charts) and Sustainability Community (green pie charts).
Respondents in the Sustainability Community were asked to provide potential news headlines that they both expected and hoped to see in three years. Qualitative Content Analysis was used to identify key drivers of societal change described in these headlines (Figure 5). Of the 800+ responses submitted for expected headlines, approximately 70% described negative future outcomes, while 30% describe positive visions for the future. We use “positive” here to refer to headlines indicating shifts towards human and planetary well-being, and “negative” for headlines describing a shift away from human and planetary well-being.
A word cloud based on expected news headlines from the Sustainability Community.
Drivers of change
Most headlines highlighted key drivers of societal change in the coming years that can be classified under: shifts in policy, norms, power dynamics, and mindsets.
Figure 5. Drivers of change. The classes of drivers of societal change identified most frequently across hopeful (dark blue) and expected (light blue) headlines from the Sustainability Community.
For each headline, we further identified broad sectors within which these changes occurred and highlighted examples of mechanisms of change for each. To explore expected drivers of positive changes, we limited this analysis to headlines linked to positive futures (i.e. hopeful headlines and positive expected headlines) (Table 1).
Table 1. Key drivers of change towards positive futures. This table expands on the top four dominant classes of drivers identified in the analysis of news headlines. We focus here on the headlines highlighting changes towards positive futures, which includes all hopeful headlines and approximately 30% of positive expected headlines (a total of 1065 headlines). For each class of driver, impacted sectors and examples of the most frequently mentioned mechanisms of change are listed. The impacted sectors are listed in decreasing order of frequency. Percentages listed in the first column correspond to the proportion of positive headlines which mention each class of driver and are not additive because multiple classes of drivers were present within a single headline in some cases.
Cross-cutting Patterns in Drivers of Positive Change
Many of the news headlines proposed by the Sustainability Community identified multiple classes of drivers of positive change. Below is a heat map that highlights the cross-cutting nature of the different drivers (Figure 6).
- A shift in power dynamics is the class of driver that co-occurs most frequently with other classes drivers to propel positive changes.
- Interestingly, inequality was often mentioned in headlines that were linked to shifts in policy and power dynamics, whereas it was mentioned considerably less often in the other classes of drivers. These co-occurrences will be explored further in future reports.
Figure 6. Co-occurrence of classes drivers. Heatmap showing the number of co-occurrences amongst the four primary classes of drivers coded in positive headlines.
Special thanks to the ClimateWorks Foundation for its support in the development of this report.
- Amy Luers – Sustainability in the Digital Age and Future Earth, Montreal, Canada
- Sylvia Wood – Future Earth, Montreal, Canada
- Jennfier Garard – Sustainability in the Digital Age and Future Earth, Montreal, Canada
- Kalpana Chaudhary – Shah and Anchor Kutchhi Engineering College, Mumbai; Institute for Development and Research, ISDR, India.
- Maurie Cohen – New Jersey Institute of Technology, USA
- Casey Cronin – ClimateWorks Foundation, USA
- Ajay Gambhir – Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, UK
- Maria Ivanova – Center for Governance and Sustainability, John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts, USA
- Markus Reichstein – Department of Biogeochemical Integration, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Germany
- Qian Ye – State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology, Beijing Normal University, China