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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Future we Want

22 December 2020 – In 2020 the coronavirus pandemic tested us all, both individually and collectively. It has also revealed the fragility of our current economic and social systems in the face of crisis. This comes at a time when further ‘system shocks’ are expected from climate change and the destruction of our natural systems, writes James Cole.

For those of us who had seen this decade as one of action to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, this can either be seen as a major set-back, or a unique opportunity to reset.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed many fundamental, yet unseen assumptions and choices that lie beneath the way we have designed our lives, our societies and our economies. It has also provided many of us with a sense of perspective concerning what really matters. But how we can use this perspective to collectively move more determinedly and more quickly towards the type of future we want, and to design for future resilience?

This is why CISL launched the Future we Want initiative; to host a conversation amongst leaders in business, government, civil society and academia about our long-term collective future.

In May 2020 we invited members of our global network to help identify the biggest questions to be addressed by decision-makers ‘in order to find in the pandemic an unparalleled opportunity to shift towards a sustainable economy’. We received nearly 1000 questions, with many calling for decision-makers to think holistically about the consequences of their actions. These questions informed our leadership discussion series focussing on the choices that need to be made, both now and in the long term for the future we want.

Below we outline the six themes we covered, and CISL’s plans to move these forwards in 2021.

1. What is the role of business building inclusive societies?

Business can help ‘close the gap’ where governments cannot or do not act, by both addressing inequality themselves, and through working alongside other stakeholders to influence the economic systems they operate within. To do so with authenticity, business must acknowledge and address its own fundamental assumptions about the implications of inequality.

Watch the discussion, or read the summary here.

In 2021, our Centre for Business Transformation plans to work with companies and researchers to uncover the barriers and the business case for companies to play a more active role in addressing inequality. To get involved

2. How can we better measure the performance of economies against what we really value?

Governments are aware of the shortcomings of GDP and the implications of an “infinite growth” mind-set. However, implementation and political consensus around new measures is lacking. Improved measurement of a wider dashboard of social and environmental metrics, and politically-relevant performance frameworks are needed, together with an improved dialogue between government and business on resolving market failures.

Watch the discussion, or read the summary here.

All of CISL’s work contributes to our Rewiring the Economy framework, which sets out ten collaborative tasks for business government and finance leaders to ensure the economy actively delivers the Sustainable Development Goals. Both our Investment Leaders Group and our Natural Capital Impact Group are developing better metrics (and tools to apply them) for the social and environmental performance of portfolios and companies; and we will look to engage with policy-makers and regulators to embed these approaches further.

3. How can we accelerate the transition to a net zero, whilst restoring our natural systems? 

Nature plays a critical role in underpinning societies and economies. Nature-based solutions provide a real opportunity to enable the pathway to Net Zero carbon emissions. There is a business logic for change, but business is currently falling short on improving transparency and accountability, and following through on commitments with measurable actions.

Watch the discussion, or read the summary here.

In 2021 CISL’s business and nature team will be work with companies to develop clear and consistent science-based targets for nature, and to support them to pursue opportunities to collaborate and influence the system in order to achieve those targets.

4. How can we align and follow through on efforts to rebuild and decarbonise the economy?

A ‘green recovery’ is widely seen as key to rebuilding national economic performance, creating jobs and, especially, to tackling climate change by achieving net zero. However, national objectives must be translated into local priorities. Our focus must be on those key sectors that have been slow to respond, and on ensuring small and medium companies have the capacity and capabilities needed.

Watch the discussion, or read the summary here.

In 2021 CISL’s small business and start-up Accelerator will be partnering on a major capacity building programme for small businesses and supply chains around Net Zero. In late 2020 we launched a strategic framework for business action on Net Zero, and an 8 week online programme for business and climate change. The Corporate Leaders Groups will be actively convening the progressive business voice for net zero during the year the UK co-hosts COP26.

5. How can leaders improve decision-making for the long AND short term in a time of crisis?

This discussion focussed on how leaders can improve decision-making for both the short term and long term in a time of crisis, and attempted to identify and unpack the thought processes and principles that underpin effective leadership to enable the future we want.

Watch the discussion, or read the summary here.

In 2021 CISL is undertaking practitioner research to understand if and how leadership is changing, in order to identify the key principles that will underpin effective leadership for the future we want.

We intend to produce case examples for use as we support the development of leaders who have the capability and capacity to lead through complexity and uncertainty and create value across multiple stakeholders through sustainable practices and opportunities.

6. What is the role of sustainable finance in delivering the Future we Want?

The audience for this discussion thought the focus for finance post-Covid should be to reorient the financial system to address the Sustainable Development Goals, however the panel concluded that we are still seeing more rhetoric than action. One of the key reasons for this is that sector holds differing assumptions about the risks and opportunities inherent in the transition to a sustainable economy – and particularly the financial materiality of issues such as biodiversity loss and land degradation.

Watch the discussion here.

In 2021 CISL’s Centre for Sustainable Finance will convene a cross-industry project to identify a common view on how to ‘rewire’ finance to accelerate the transition to a sustainable economy. Amongst other things, the Centre will publish a new framework to support financial institutions to identify, assess and integrate nature-related financial risks to guide decision-making and determine a common language in the sector.

Next steps for the Future we Want

Our leadership call for questions, discussion series and the actions it has precipitated within CISL have all helped to inform and shape a vital debate about the future we want.

In 2021 we will set out our Transformation 2030 framework to guide our work to transform business, finance and government towards our three priority impact areas of decarbonising the economy, restoring nature, and delivering resilient and equal societies.

We also have plans to continue with our Future we Want initiative to further explore the concepts of value and values, to deepen our insight and thinking about the future we want, to connect existing ideas and generate new ideas about how we can accelerate progress to a sustainable economy. 

Our hope is to identify and challenge some of the big ideas and assumptions that shape how we live now, and to seek out diverse and multidisciplinary perspectives to generate and bring forward new thinking that has the potential to shape the future of our societies, with focus on what could and should be and how society might get there.

We will share more details of this with you in 2021, alongside the opportunities to get involved. 

In the meantime to stay up to date with our work in 2021 you can sign up to our monthly newsletter, keep an eye on our events page, or contact us directly to see how you can get involved.

Find out more about the Future we Want.

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About the author

James Cole

James Cole leads the corporate relations, communications and marketing functions at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. 


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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