How Forum For The Future Instigates Change At Scale While We Still Have Time
July 3, 2022
London-, New York-, India-, and Singapore-based Forum for the Future is a veteran non-profit that collaborates with business, government, and civil society to hasten the global shift toward a resilient and equitable future.
Co-founded by Sir Jonathon Espie Porritt OBE, British environmentalist, and writer, in 1996,
“Forum” operates all over the world, convening, challenging, and instigating its business and other partners — which it calls “critical friends” — to “raise their game,” according to Porritt, holding themselves and the rest of the world more accountable for the future we’re creating together.
Accountable how? The idea is for all sectors and systems to fully integrate evolutions and revolutions that directly deal with urgent social, economic, and governance challenges — as well as “confronting today’s climate emergency,” Porritt says. Because “it won’t stay ‘not too late’ much longer.”
So, for example, in partnership with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Forum established in 2021 the go-to working definition of what it means for a business to be “just and regenerative,” and provides practical guidance on how companies and others can turn the notion of that potential future into practical steps to lead us all there.
Those suggestions for navigation are contained in Forum’s “A Compass for Just and Regenerative Business” report, as well as its “Guide to Critical Shifts Needed” by the private sector, both released last year.
The resources for business include a “Business Transformation Compass” tool, providing what Forum calls a “guiding star” directing necessary business mindset shifts if we’re all to meet the exponentially increasing challenges facing the world.
The Compass: pre-competitive collaboration
In service of that ambitious transformation, Chief Executive Dr. Sally Uren OBE, and her team, work directly with 100+ progressive global companies such as General Mills, IKEA, Seventh Generation, Olam International, and Walgreens Boots Alliance; forward-looking foundations, such as the Laudes Foundation; and international membership organizations, such as the United Nations Global Compact, both in one-on-one partnerships, as well as in multi-stakeholder collaborations, such as contributing to the Compass.
All of those working alliances and the Compass where they coalesce are designed to “rewire and re-pattern” every system that affects humans and other planetary inhabitants, Uren says. To universalize solutions to complex challenges such as human rights and environmental responsibility in systems and sectors as diverse as food, energy, textiles, shipping, tech, and transportation.
In short, Uren says, “We are trying to catalyze change in key systems, affect deep transformation, and make sure that the change that we know is needed happens in a way that works for people and the planet.”
Forum’s Compass sets out the “imperatives” business must confront, and the specific business strategy and key function changes necessary in areas such as corporate affairs, marketing, procurement, and human resources.
Again, this happens only when businesses are able to “bridge the gap between inspiring visions or theoretical frameworks and the tangible, practical implications for specific business functions or a company’s approach to key sustainable development issues.”
Transcending antiquated goals together
Essential to the mission of business meeting this moment is the idea that “sustainability” is no longer enough. Forum was one of the first organizations to articulate the shift from sustainability and Net Zero goals to regeneration. “One of the reasons the sustainability movement hasn’t gotten as far as it needs to have gone,” argues Uren, is because “we’ve been artificially separating our environmental issues from social issues. And if there’s one thing that COVID taught us, it’s that planetary health equals human health equals economic health.”
Therefore, she says, Forum is “keen to bring the ‘E’ together with the ‘S’” in the ESG — Environmental, Social, & Governance — matrix. That’s the main thesis of the Compass: “Sustainability doesn’t stand still and today’s leaders could be tomorrow’s laggards.”
But what does regenerative have to do with just–and why are they both components of Forum’s north star?
“In this just and regenerative future, our social systems and our environmental systems are thriving,” Uren envisions. “We’ve rapidly stabilized our planet and we’re now operating within planetary boundaries. But critically — and this is the poor relation of the ‘E’ to the ‘S’ — within that regenerative future we are respecting the universality of human rights.” In other words, the world has grown more just.
“If you think about all the metrics around the environment, particularly carbon and the advances we’ve made there,” says Uren, “there isn’t the equivalent for the social dimension of ‘sustainability.’ That’s why we deliberately want to bring that regenerative and just together.”
Further to that, in this intended future, “The way that we create value and distribute it is fair,” says Uren. “At the moment, if you think about how most global commodities work in terms of their supply chains — and if you think about wealth creation more broadly — it tends to work for the few and not for the many.”
“Just and regenerative is looking at how we create value, not only economic value, but environmental and social values in ways that are fair … and much more equitable,” she says. The Compass makes the case that at stake is nothing less than forging “a world in which more than nine billion people will be able to live well, within planetary boundaries” before a “rapidly closing window of opportunity” shuts us out.
It’s not all broken — it just needs to be seen holistically
This level of radical systemic transformation is of course easier imagined than achieved. In part, because most systems in the world — business, ecological, political — are all “rapidly changing,” “brittle, and fragile,” says Uren. Because of a global pandemic, political and social unrest, economic inequality, and other “constant shocks … to how we live our lives.”
But, “At the same time these systems are at the limits of being able to cope …,” Uren says, “These systems aren’t broken. We always hear, ‘Oh, the health care system is broken. The food system is broken.’ They’re not broken.
The economy is broken. These are systems working really well for the current goals of the system.” In other words, the ESGs, like the UN’s 17 SDGs that Forum focuses on, are inextricably bound with each other.
The Compass begins and ends with this assumption.
Take the food system. “By and large,” says Uren, today’s “food system’s goals are cheap … and extractive.”
That’s why the model is at its limits. “The shift we need to see is to reimagine the goals of the system. To think about a food system that is based on regeneration. A food system that allows food to come to market in ways that are equitably accessed and nutritious,” Uren says. Food that takes into account the necessary biodiversity to keep its ecosystem and greater environment healthful and thriving. “Food that drives a sustainable livelihood to farmers.”
In food as well as most other systems — geopolitical, energy, marine, etc. — “We’re at the cusp of this massive transition, much needed — but it might not happen,” Uren worries. “What we could end up doing is just what we’ve been doing for the last few years, just putting a sticking plaster [a Band Aid] on things, incremental solutions.”
Our collective future according to Forum
With an annual turnover of about £5.8 million ($7.6 million), about 80 staff and ten trustees, Forum for the Future is far from a Band-Aid. It’s growing a global community of change agents aiming to accelerate a transition to the regenerative and just future we all deserve.
But do we have what co-founder Porritt refers to as a “Hope in Hell?” to solve our compounding crises? Acknowledging the positive “waves of change” we’ve seen in business and the public sector — such as purpose as a profit driver and the ESG movement — Uren says, “Great, but not so great because we haven’t made that deep-rooted change that we know we need to make.”
“We’re at a crossroads. I also think it’s a tipping point,” she says. “There’s a version of the future where we keep maintaining [for example] ESG as the answer. It isn’t. It’s probably ‘lipstick on a pig.’ It’s trying to make something slightly better.”
The only way these things change is if we align our collective compass, aim straight for them, all at once, starting right away, and all together, Forum argues, because “complex, interconnected challenges like poverty, water scarcity, and climate change must be tackled systemically — and that’s only possible when the ‘unusual suspects’ work together to solve common problems.”
Forum’s Compass, created with regeneration leaders and global companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, Kimberly-Clark, and Capgemini, aims to help your business get to this future safely, smoothly, and profitably–for all, says Uren.
To discover ways you can make a brighter future possible and Lead With We at a time when it’s desperately needed, read the report: “A Compass for Just and Regenerative Business.”
If you’d like to dive deeper with more purpose-led companies like Forum for the Future, check out the Lead with We podcast here, so that you too can build a company that transforms consumer behavior and our future.