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Systems shift

Peter Madden unveils Forum for the Future‘s bold new strategy: to transform the critical systems that we all depend on.

The strategy is informed by complex systems theory and draws on Forum for the Future’s experience over the last 15 years, inspiring new thinking, building creative partnerships and developing practical innovations to change our world.

Peter Madden quote

Forum for the Future has a new goal. We want to transform the complex systems which serve our fundamental needs, such as food, energy and finance, so that they are fit for the challenges of the 21st century.

The need for new ways to increase wellbeing within environmental limits is more acute than ever. If we’re going to design and implement effective solutions, then we have to begin by recognising the complex causes of these challenges and how they interconnect. This means thinking and working within the whole context. We need to know what influences our decisions, actions and behaviours, and we need to understand how things join up.

To do this, we are putting ‘systems innovation’ at the heart of our new strategy.

Why this change in approach? We have 15 years’ experience doing great work with business, government and the public sector. But in spite of our achievements, it is clear that if we want to tackle problems such as climate change or vulnerable ecosystems, we can’t take a piecemeal approach. Doing a bit here and a bit there won’t change things at the speed or on the scale we need.

Our new strategy looks at whole systems. It draws on ‘complex systems theory’, as set out by the likes of Donella Meadows. Meadows observed that there are levers, or particular places within a system – such as a company, a city, an economy – where a “small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything”.

We will focus, initially, on three critical global systems that underpin our lives and the prospects for sustainability: energy, food and finance. These are areas in which Forum for the Future can already bring to bear a depth of expertise and a breadth of relationships.

For each, we need to identify the barriers that are stopping them from being sustainable. Then we can work out what innovations and what fresh thinking are needed to overcome those barriers – and where the strategic ‘tipping points’ are, where interventions have the most chance of transforming the whole system. Key questions we’ll be asking include how we can change the finance system so that it rewards long-term thinking, and how we can take sustainable energy systems to scale.

As a ‘Forum’, one thing we do very well is bring together different players to tackle complex problems in new ways. We’ll play the role of ‘informed enablers’, convening new alliances between business, public service providers, NGOs and entrepreneurs.

We’ll also draw on our experience of working with others creating practical solutions. As well as a clearer understanding of how a whole system works, we need innovative products, services and business models that can help shift it to a more sustainable equilibrium.

So take energy: we will work with the people who generate it, sell it, and use it, and who set the policies which affect how all those things are done. And we will use disruptive innovation, to challenge the settled, unsustainable way of doing things, and to discover new opportunities for getting it right.

We are impatient to put the brightest and the best of these solutions into practice: new technologies and infrastructure to build the green economy; intelligent production to bring us goods and services at a fraction of today’s economic and environmental costs; smart new ways to live and travel, work and play.

We intend to capture and share the learning, too, drawing out the best practice in both collaborative and disruptive innovation to flesh out the stories. We want our work to be a global resource for practical knowledge about sustainable development.

Our ultimate aim is to enable change on a scale that works in a practical, interconnected way across whole sectors and systems that are essential for sustainable living. If we succeed, we won’t simply help deliver a more sustainable future. We will also make our lives more secure, more enjoyable and more prosperous here and now.

This article was originally published in Green Futures.

Forum for the Future is a non-profit organisation working globally with business and government to create a sustainable future. It aims to transform the critical systems that we all depend on, such as food, energy and finance, to make them fit for the challenges of the 21st century. Forum for the Future has 15 years’ experience inspiring new thinking, building creative partnerships and developing practical innovations to change our world.


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