The planetary emergency requires a systemic transformation of society and the global economy. The 2020 pandemic is a transformative moment for society. It holds the potential to push societies to change course.
But what can we learn from major historical transformations? The first report from Global Commons Alliance’s Systems Change Lab summarises four sets of ingredients that have contributed most to far reaching societal transformation. The report also lists 11 areas in which transformations are urgently needed to allow humanity to live within planetary boundaries.
Major societal changes are often explained simplistically in terms of charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela or Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Or through groundbreaking innovations like the Haber Bosch process that industrialised fertilizer production and has allowed the world to feed billions more people. In reality it is more complex.
The new report, Safeguarding Our Global Commons, provides the evidence that there is no silver bullet for transformation. Rather, transformation is a messy process. It is often non-linear – slow incremental progress over many years can give way to a rapid shift. The authors, led by Kelly Levin the director of the Systems Transformation Lab, identify four sets of drivers of change.
“The first area of drivers is “change agents”. These are individuals at the helm of governments, institutions and companies. But they can also be scientists or involved in civil society organisations. And the report says, “Now there is a new class of leaders – from Greta Thunberg and the Black Lives Matters movement” who don’t run big organisations but are using powerful new digital tools to mobilize millions of people,” says Levin.
The second set of drivers focuses on innovation. Innovations in meat substitutes are making it more socially acceptable and easier to reduce meat consumption and reduce the environmental footprint of the food we eat. Constant innovations in solar have recently led to it becoming the cheapest form of energy in history according to the International Energy Agency. These are gamechangers for the transformations needed for sustainability. But innovations often have to be able to diffuse rapidly through society evolving as they go in order to go mainstream. This usually means they are small – like solar arrays or iPhones – compared with say nuclear power plants.
The third bucket of drivers is “policies and institutions”. Laws, policies and regulations set the rules of the game, deterring behaviour societies don’t want (air pollution, speeding, or the use of drugs), and encouraging behaviour society wants.
The final area of drivers is behaviour change and social norms. “People tend to have a bias for the status quo – doing what they always have done. But behaviour can change quickly with the right incentives. Take smoking in public places – strong policies forced behavioural change but now even if policies were relaxed, few would go back to life before these bans,” says Levin.
In 2020, the pandemic forced people to rapidly change behaviour. For example, many people soon got used to Zoom meetings and working from home. For many, some of these behavioural changes are welcome and surveys indicate people want to continue some aspects of these lifestyle shifts. Once new routines are established it is often difficult to reverse them. Governments can encourage new habits through nudging or “choice architecture”.
As well as identifying the four sets of ingredients for transformative change, the analysis also lists the 11 areas that need transforming and 50 or so specific shifts. Dive into the report for the shifts, but here are the 11 areas:
- Consumption and production
- Financial systems
- Land, food and forest management
- Ocean management
- Freshwater management
- Measuring progress
- Inclusivity, equity and the just transition
- Governance for the global commons.
The authors conclude that the moment is here to reset the social contract between government, corporations, and citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the livelihoods of nearly half of the global workforce, deepening existing economic and social inequalities and anxieties.
The report concludes by making the case for the new Systems Change Lab as a way forward, designed to have three functions: monitoring progress made across each of the
required transformations; distilling a rapidly evolving understanding of what constitutes and promotes systems change; and identifying critical gaps and mobilizing support for coalitions as they push toward positive tipping points to realize a more sustainable, equitable future.
Levin says, “The world needs to establish a stronger, more sustainable, and more inclusive social contract among governments, corporations, and citizens.The current systems are failing people, failing the biosphere and ultimately failing to deliver the very thing they are designed to deliver – economic stability.”
“We need a new social contract focused on sustainable well-being and societal progress, putting people and the planet at the center of these efforts.”