What will our future planet look like? Will it be one in which people and the environment thrive? Or a hot house with runaway emissions with global warming exceeding 2°C?
Leadership takes envisioning a better future and motivating others to achieve it. When it comes to leading on sustainability issues like climate change, waste reduction, or reducing inequalities, we need longer term thinking and decision making than is commonly found. This is where futures thinking comes into play. Futures thinking is a powerful tool that empowers sustainability leaders to navigate uncertainties, anticipate emerging trends, and create resilient strategies.
Leaders Like You, Nick Sceats & Andrea Thompson
UNDERSTANDING FUTURES THINKING
Futures thinking is a practice that enables leaders to envision multiple future scenarios. We can then create strategies to achieve the future we want.
Futures thinking involves three key components:
- Scenario Planning: Developing alternative future scenarios based on different trends, drivers, and assumptions. Scenario planning helps leaders to explore potential outcomes and their implications, fostering preparedness and adaptability.
- Systems Thinking: Recognising the interconnectedness of social, environmental, and economic factors in shaping the future. Systems thinking allows sustainability leaders to understand the complex web of relationships and identify leverage points for transformative action.
- Anticipatory Intelligence: Gathering and analysing information about emerging trends, disruptive technologies, and societal shifts. By anticipating such trends and shifts, sustainability leaders can anticipate challenges and seize opportunities for sustainable innovation.
GLOBAL MEGATRENDS AND THE SDGs
To effectively address sustainability challenges, leaders must be aware of the global megatrends shaping our world and their implications for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These include:
- Climate Change and Environmental Degradation: Where Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and ecosystem degradation pose significant challenges.
- Technological Advancements and Digital Transformation: For example, artificial intelligence, automation, and the Internet of Things, offer opportunities for sustainable development, which leaders can add to their toolkit.
- Urbanisation and Demographic Shifts: Sustainable urban planning, affordable housing, inclusive communities, and equitable access to resources are vital considerations for sustainability leaders.
- Social Inequities and Inclusive Growth: Tackling social inequalities and fostering inclusive growth are fundamental to achieving the SDGs. Leaders must champion social justice, fair trade, gender equality, and ethical consumption to create a more equitable and sustainable world.
SCENARIOS FOR SUSTAINABILITY LEADERS
To effectively navigate future uncertainties, sustainability leaders should consider a range of plausible scenarios.
Here are three possible scenarios for climate change:
- Sustainable transition to net zero 2050: Mitigating climate policies are introduced immediately and become gradually more stringent as 2050 looms. Leaders promote circular economies, sustainable consumption and renewable energy which drives significant progress towards SDGs and accelerates sustainable progress. Global warming is successfully limited to 1.5°C.
- Delayed transition: A world with little policy action until after 2030, after which strong, rapid action is implemented to limit warming to 2°C, but not all countries take equal action. Countries use fossil-fuel heavy policies to recover from COVID-19, so emissions increase, and nationally determined contributions are not met. Consequently, physical and transition risks are higher, creating a costly and disruptive transition.
- Hothouse: Emissions continue to rise unabated, as no additional climate change policies are introduced. Fossil fuel use continues to increase, and so global CO2 emissions continue to rise with warming reaching up to 3°C by 2080. The physical impacts of climate change are severe — and irreversible changes become commonplace, such as ice sheet loss and sea level rise. With inevitable resource scarcity and social upheaval, leaders must prioritise adaptation measures, community resilience, and equitable resource distribution to mitigate the worst impacts.
PRACTICAL STEPS FOR DEVELOPING FUTURE THINKING CAPABILITY
Futures thinking capability can be learned. Here are practical steps for enhancing your futures thinking skills:
- Continuous Learning: Stay informed about emerging trends, future studies, and sustainability-focused research.
- Collaborative Networks: Join networks, connect with experts and thought leaders. Foster partnerships and collaborate with stakeholders to co-create innovative solutions.
- Cultivate Systems Thinking: Develop a holistic understanding of complex systems and their interdependencies. Embrace tools like systems mapping, causal loop diagrams, and feedback loops to uncover systemic insights and identify leverage points for transformative action.
- Scenario Planning Exercises: Conduct scenario planning exercises within your organisation. Involve key stakeholders to explore different future scenarios, assess their implications, and develop robust strategies to navigate uncertainties effectively.
- Experimentation and Adaptation: Foster a culture of experimentation, innovation, and adaptation. Encourage a mindset that embraces change, encourages risk-taking, and learns from failures as valuable opportunities for growth and improvement.
As sustainability leaders, the ability to anticipate and navigate the future is critical for creating a more sustainable world. By embracing futures thinking, understanding global megatrends, exploring a range of scenarios, and adopting practical steps, leaders can proactively shape a resilient and equitable future.
Global Trends: Challenges and Opportunities in the Implementation of the SDGs — United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)
The Global Risks Report 2023 — World Economic Forum
Sustainable Development Goals — United Nations
The Future of Sustainability — Forum for the Future
The Next Normal: The Future of Sustainable Business — BSR (Business for Social Responsibility)
The Megatrends Shaping the Future of Sustainability — World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)
Future-Proofing Organizations: How to Cultivate Adaptive Capacity — McKinsey & Company
Strategic Foresight: How Planning for the Future Can Help Achieve Sustainability Goals — GreenBiz