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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


August 2020 – Leaders around the world are facing a set of extraordinary choices. From short-term needs to long-term performance, Covid-19 has tested many of the assumptions about today’s society and challenged us to proactively create a future we want to live in.

Governments and businesses will invest trillions of dollars over the coming months to reinvigorate economic activity. Should these investments focus on quickly restoring the livelihoods, opening societies and restarting the activities which prevailed as recently as January 2020 or is this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to disrupt the prevailing paradigm and craft a sustainable economy? Navigating this choice is not easy: all pathways will have consequences on wealth, opportunity and people – both today and for generations to come. 

While there are no certainties about the post-Covid world (with many countries still trying to stabilise and decrease infection rates), leaders across business, government and finance are already making choices.

Earlier this year, the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) canvassed our international network to explore the key issues affecting decision-makers. Which questions do we need to answer in order to find in the pandemic an unparalleled opportunity to shift towards a sustainable economy? What knowledge base is needed to tilt towards more sustainable behaviour? 

The Future we Want invited participants to allocate questions to one of five categories - changes to our economic models, leadership, protecting and restoring nature, decarbonisation, and social inclusion - pinpointing tensions in the system with a view to informing how the post-pandemic world can be sustainable.

We received nearly 1,000 questions from our global network, with many calling for decision-makers to think holistically about the consequences of their actions. For instance, flexible working has become more palatable to the business community, but is it more climate-efficient? Will Covid-19 present an opportunity for businesses to ramp up their automation efforts at the expense of human workers and, if so, what will that mean for social inclusion? How can economic stimuli deliver better long-term prospects for more of the world’s population?

Unsurprisingly, economic concerns were prevalent with over a third of respondents highlighting the shortcomings of the current model for wealth creation. Across all geographies and in nearly all age groups, most questions were allocated to the changes to our economic models category, with survey respondents calling for more equitable forms of generating value and distributing wealth between people. Several people complained that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was too narrow in focus; that measures of progress and economic resilience should consider issues such as human health and environmental services.

Commenting on the survey results, Executive Director for Sustainable Economy at CISL, Dr Jake Reynolds, said:

“Given our experience this year I’m not surprised we’ve seen greater interest in resilience. It’s astounding how quickly the economy fell off a cliff, and how the burden landed on less well-off people. The two big themes in these questions are equality and resilience, both of which are jeopardised by climate change.”

One respondent in the social inclusion category asked, 'What can be done to make sure everyone can access education, food, water and healthcare?' While another questioned, 'How can society prepare now for future climate migrants?” There was a clear reminder that the current economic paradigm has overlooked the needs of billions of people, and without a concerted effort to change the trajectory the impacts will be even worse on future generations.

The pandemic has challenged individuals differently, forcing difficult questions about the work they do and the lifestyles they lead. 17 per cent of respondents allocated questions to this group, highlighting the challenges within their own working lives, looking at equity within the workplace (including the impact of childcare duties) and future job prospects, especially in light of automation. Some expressed concern about visible inequality within communities and across societies, while on a global scale our respondents raised concerns about the international community: 'How do we ensure there is a real redistribution of wealth and resources to give opportunity for all?'

To our surprise, protecting and restoring nature received the fewest questions – possibly reinforcing that it is a blindspot, even among our self-selected participants. Just 9 per cent of all questions were allocated to this category, with no-one in 16 – 24 or 45 – 49 age ranges submitting questions. However, there was consistency around some strategic themes: the need to urgently tackle species decline and, the importance of natural resources in the economy. Many participants pointed to a similar challenge: 'what will it take for business, finance and government to collaborate to preserve biodiversity and the health of our ecosystems?'

Several of these themes were echoed in the climate change and decarbonisation category as participants connected agriculture, land use, natural systems and warming temperatures (16 per cent of all questions). Others pointed to the another parallel: 'What can we learn from the pandemic that will make progress towards Net Zero carbon emissions more likely?' The role of strong and consistent governmental responses came out more clearly in this area, with several big questions about the role of regulation in weaning the economy of its fossil fuel addiction and financial mechanisms to put a meaningful price on carbon emissions and connect post-Covid-19 bailouts to climate action.

Leadership was interwoven across each of the pillars and it accounted for 22 per cent of all survey submissions. Several participants asked who, how and when a transition towards a sustainable economy would happen, and calling for new forms of collaboration, different partnerships and alternative styles of leadership. 'How can we break the cycle of short-term incentives?', 'How can we create the conditions whereby people can make progress on the longer-term sustainability goals?', 'Will we see a new era of Bretton Woods-type organisations that can champion sustainability?'

Many of these questions, already being considered by CISL, are fundamental to the economy, our society and the lives we lead. Finding answers will not be easy but the pandemic presents an unprecedented opportunity to unpack these questions and try to move us towards The Future we Want.

Over the coming months, CISL will continue to explore these questions through a series of web-based debates. Each debate will pick up on the ideas from the survey with the intent to explore key questions, offering system level perspectives from different disciplines and unlocking thinking about ways we could, collectively, move forwards together to shape the future.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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