New digital platform takes long view on sustainability

Forum for the Future’s major new digital hub, launching tomorrow in Singapore, is designed to unlock powerful new tools for sustainable innovation

The platform, called the Futures Centre, will build on Forum for the Future’s almost 20 year record of using “futures techniques” to nudge the likes of PepsiCo, HP, Levi’s and Sony toward a more sustainable approach.

Founders say that tools such as trend and scenario-forecasting and horizon scanning can help business leaders move beyond day-to-day priorities and consider the impacts of long term trends like climate change and resource scarcity.

James Goodman, director of futures at the organisation, said: “Thinking about the future is a natural human capacity, and for shorter term, simpler decisions we are great at it. But when it comes to more complex or longer term decisions, we struggle. Futures techniques help us to explore and discuss how change might happen, and to deal with uncertainty. They allow us to challenge our partners’ assumptions and come up with ideas that help us break out of unsustainable patterns of behaviour.”

“Futures techniques help us to explore and discuss how change might happen, and to deal with uncertainty”

The platform allows users to tap into an online bank of futures knowledge and monitor change in fields such as land-use, manufacturing, ecosystem health and social demographics. About 40 trends – from biotech frontiers to competition for land – will be updated as new signals of change, articles or reports are spotted. The platform will also include topic hubs, the first of which will explore the future of shipping, probing issues such as the financing of emerging climate solutions or the potential of bio-technology.

Crucially, it is designed to be dynamic and responsive. A report which he and colleagues presented in December on new energy systems was “out of date in a week”, said Goodman.

“In that time there were shifts in oil price, announcements from the Bank of England and new data on the rise of renewable energy. Any report describing this trend – and many others like it – would be useless in no time. In the Futures Centre, we can track this change as it unfolds, reflecting not only what we are seeing, but invite the perspective and observations of others too.”

In practice, said Goodman, the Futures Centre may mean a company learning how to improve its business model in the face of water scarcity, or one person using the platform to connect with others and build a powerful coalition to tackle the problem across an entire sector.

“It’s open to everyone – we want to broaden the conversation about the future we want, improve our collective intelligence, and look together for windows of opportunity – where practical action now can have a disproportionate effect on sustainability,” he said.

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“So it’s more than a website, it is genuinely intended to be a platform for communities of interest to explore future change.”

Forum for the Future has worked with some of the world’s best-known brands in this way. They helped teams in PepsiCo re-imagine the company as an agricultural and supply chain company dependent on water availability rather than a snacks and fizzy drinks company. Forum’s experts have also worked with Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels to shape their plans for sustainable luxury and envisaged the future of the global fashion industry with Levi’s.

It can be a challenge to persuade business people to take this longer-term view, said Goodman.

“It’s always tough for anyone to look up from day to day pressures, business leaders included. But at the same time very few people would argue that taking the long view is a bad idea. It’s often about creating the time and space to do it, ensuring that that time is spent well, and then making the value clear. This latter point is often the crux, and it’s important that the future-gazing leads to tangible action whether directly or indirectly.”