Foresight Report

Where is the world headed post-COVID-19?

Expected trends in the coming three years 

Revised version posted: 13 July, 2020.

About the Report

Where is the world headed post-COVID-19? Is the first in a series of reports to emerge from the rapid foresight survey launched in April 2020, COVID-19: Where do we go from here? The survey reached out to members of the sustainability community as well as to the global general population to take the pulse of these communities and tap into a broad diversity of perspectives from around the world to spark and foster new and more pluralistic dialogues around recovery strategies as we begin to rebuild. The report discusses global expected trends on where the world is headed in the coming three years, identifies and elaborates on four prominent classes of drivers of societal change, and explains key insights that can help to inform short and medium-term strategies on how we build back from the COVID-19 pandemic for a more equitable, sustainable, and resilient future.

Collaborators

Project team:

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

Advisors:

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.

Key Insight #1

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, norms, power dynamics, and mindsets.

Respondents in the Sustainability Community were asked to provide potential news headlines that they both expected and hoped to see in three years. Most headlines highlighted key drivers of societal change in the coming years that can be classified under one of four classes of drivers: shifts in policy, norms, power dynamics, and mindsets.

Of the 800+ responses submitted for expected headlines, approximately 70% described negative future outcomes, while 30% describe positive visions for the future*. Within positive headlines, respondents’ answers were further analyzed to identify the sector of expected change and the specific mechanisms driving these changes (Table 1). 

* Positive headlines refer to headlines describing shifts towards human and planetary well-being, and negative headlines describe a shift away from human and planetary well-being.

Table 1. Key classes of drivers propelling changes towards positive futures.

CLASS OF DRIVER 

Shifts in
Policy

27%

SECTOR + EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE

Climate and environment

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Implementing Cap-and-Trade, carbon taxes, fuel efficiency standards to reduce emissions
  • Creating new protected areas
  • Reducing plastic waste generation and pollution
Health, welfare and education

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Introducing Universal Basic Income
  • Introducing Universal Health Care
  • Increasing investment in health services
  • Improving access to and quality of education systems
Clean energy

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
  • Investing in renewable energy technology
  • Supporting expanded renewable production capacity
Regional and global commitments

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Committing to global agreements on climate, health, and pandemic coordination
  • Enacting ban on wildlife trade
  • Strengthening commitment to global and regional institutions
Broad economic reform

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Adopting Green New Deals
  • Enacting protectionist policies (food and energy sectors)
  • Reforming tax systems

CLASS OF DRIVER 

Shifts in
Norms

25%

SECTOR + EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE

Lifestyle and behaviour

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Reducing flying and levels of consumerism
  • Focusing on local food production and self-reliance
  • Shifting diets
Business and economics

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Shortening supply chains
  • Shifting to more local/regional economies
  • Reducing business travel
  • Shifting towards circular economy
Energy sources

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Reducing dependence on fossil fuels
  • Building localized renewable energy grids
  • Mainstreaming renewable energy in society
Employment

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Continuing to work remotely/from home
  • Reducing working hours
  • Improving wages and working conditions

CLASS OF DRIVER 

Shifts in
Power Dynamics

24%

SECTOR + EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE

Global actors

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Redistributing power and wealth between countries
  • Sharing power globally to address common issues
Local actors

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Engaging citizens in governance
  • Empowering grassroots/social movements
  • Strengthening connections between local groups
Data and technology

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Expanding access to renewables
  • Ensuring control over personal data
  • Equalizing access to data and technology
Cross-sector dynamics

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Enhancing public-private partnerships
  • Redistributing power amongst different sectors and segments of society
Cross-scale dynamics

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Strengthening collaboration across scales
  • Fostering nested vertical power-sharing arrangements

CLASS OF DRIVER 

Shifts in
Mindsets

13%

SECTOR + EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE

Economics

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Embracing degrowth ideologies
  • Increasing use of well-being to measure prosperity
Human relationships and trust

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Embracing the values of kindness and respect for others
  • Prioritizing human connection, compassion, and empathy in all actions
Human-nature relationships

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Growing in environmental consciousness
  • Re-conceptualizing the role of humans in nature
Values, equity and justice

EXAMPLES OF MECHANISMS OF CHANGE:

  • Accounting for intergenerational justice in decision-making
  • Prioritizing equity, justice, and human rights for all

Key Insight #2

More sustainable trajectories are associated with a transition toward less economic interdependence (greater self-reliance), which is underpinned by shifts in policy and norms.

When asked about the expected societal trends in the coming three years, respondents from the General Population tend to expect an increase in the size of society’s ecological footprint and a decrease in inequality. In contrast, respondents from the Sustainability Community expect little change in society’s ecological footprint, but an increase in inequality. On average neither the Sustainability Community nor the General Population indicated much change in the level of economic interdependence or centralization of governance. However,  both communities expect much more digital surveillance in three years’ time.

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.

Fig_01

We used responses on expected changes in the level of inequality in the world and the size of ecological footprint as indicators of whether respondents think society is on a trajectory to a more or less sustainable world. These two indicators are cross-cutting in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with  reducing inequality underpinning SDGs 1 through 10, while reducing society’s ecological footprint is central 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. It was possible to also be on a trajectory to an Equality First world (where inequality decreases, but society’s footprint does not) or an Environment First world (where society’s footprint decreases but inequality does not) or to expect the world to remain unchanged, i.e. Business-as-usual

General Population

General Population_fig-03_Foresight-report

Sustainability Community

Sustainability Community_fig-03_Foresight-report

Approximately 18% of respondents think that the world is on trajectory to a More Sustainable future.

However between 30-39% expect a Less Sustainable world in 3 yrs time.

Key Insight #3

Many respondents from the Global South expect a trend towards reduced inequality and a larger ecological footprint over the coming three years.

Exploring regional patterns in these Sustainability Trajectories  suggests an inverse relationship between inequality and ecological footprints. 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 toward smaller ecological footprints, and also greater inequality. Responses suggest a trade-off between reducing society’s 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.

Figure 4. Regional distribution of Sustainability Trajectories. Distribution is shown for the General Population (purple pie charts) and Sustainability Community (green pie charts).

Legend

Legend_fig-04_Foresight-report

North Africa & Middle East

Sub-Saharan Africa

Latin America

Asia

Canada & United States

Europe

Key Insight #4

Almost all respondents, across all regions of the world, expect digital surveillance to significantly increase.

Fig_02

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.

Nearly all respondents expect that digital surveillance will increase significantly over the coming three years (see Figure 1 above).  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.

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.

Summary

Across the four 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.  

Four key drivers are likely to shape our trajectories towards sustainability, shifts in: policy, norms, power dynamics and mindsets.
Foresight-Survey_Overarching-figure_SustainabilityDigitalAge2020