Future Tense: Four Sustainable Worlds in 2050

Sustainable future scenarios

Looking forward to 2050 through the lens of sustainable scenarios, we know that deep, radical, paradigm level changes may lie ahead. As part of the EU-InnovatE project we have been developing a series of scenarios set in 2050, which depict what sustainable lifestyles might look like and the different ways in which we might get there.


The scenarios (see picture) represent very different worlds and paradigms: Singular Super Champions, Governing the Commons, Local Loops, or Empathetic Communities. They highlight a number of key future shifts that could fundamentally reconfigure the culture and dominant paradigm of Europe: sustainability is a dynamic state of continual transition that’s best described by the social conditions in society:

  • Sustainability is a dynamic state of continual transition that’s best described by the social conditions in society
  • Sustainable lifestyles are interdependent, nested systems within a sustainable society, and are dynamic by extension
  • Achieving and sustaining dramatic resource efficiencies transforms capitalism
  • Change takes place at an uneven pace of change along scenario pathways to 2050

User-innovator roles in the transition towards a sustainable future 

A key insight from across the scenarios is to recognise that the role of users becomes increasingly more important, especially with regard to the transition to a more sustainable society. In order to take advantage of the full impact of these changes, the notion of how we understand ‘user’ will also need to change to allow for the full transition to take place. The most significant role played by user-innovators in the transition to a sustainable society is through bringing about changes in culture and governance that enable society to ‘self-regulate’ a stable relationship with the living systems of the Earth: either through accepting and helping to co-create changes in governance and cultural change put forward by the regime, or by bringing forward those changes in a context of inaction and resistance by mainstream institutions.

From our analysis of the SPREAD scenarios, we put forward a typology that describes the role of user-innovators in transition according to their active, passive, or resisting role in contributing to processes of innovation for social change and innovating at key sites needed for the transition to a self-regulating society. The latter fall into four types: (1) product and service innovation, (2) place and network-related innovation, (3) innovation of governance and social structures and (4) paradigm innovation. These sites for innovation contribute to wider sociotechnical transition by creating change through direct and indirect impacts (see table for examples). Their systemic effects may vary according to context. For example, the same place-related innovation could have the effect of building capacity for change in the Local Loops scenario, while disrupting and displacing the status quo in the scenario of Empathetic Communities.

Direct impacts (example) Indirect impacts (example)
(1) Product and service innovations Digitally-enabled transparency: Users develop, test and use new services to help monitor where their goods come from Mass uptake of digital fabrication has a knock on effect to product and service innovation, and forces a shift in business operations from value chains to networks
(2) Place and network-related innovation Experimentation leads to the reinvention of ‘guild’ structures for artisanal and other small businesses, resulting in hyper local product and service innovations ‘Modern subsistence’ living emerges, e.g. in neighbourhood cooperatives
(3) Inno-vation of governance and social structures Development of new education systems that identify and nurture those with high potential through specific educational tracks Platforms for dialogue and processes for community building, governance, conflict resolution, and decision making emerge
(4) Paradigm innovation Dominance of ‘living life online’ shifts people’s identity, impacting how societies organize and, where & how people consume Giving rise to a new economic policy narrative and ultimately to the ‘Local Loops framework’ for city regions in Europe

Food for thought about a sustainable future

What the scenarios make clear are that there are a number of future shifts required in society for sustainable lifestyles to exist, and to enable the transition to happen. The scenario content provokes new questions about how those transitions could emerge:

  • How can you unlock potential of users, entrepreneurs, communities, and citizens to play a role in the transition to a sustainable society?
  • How can we expand the definition of users and entrepreneurs to fully reflect the potential they have for enabling sustainable transitions and ultimately systems change?
  • What is the role of policy in managing the transitions to sustainable lifestyles? How can policy and management be a site of innovation as well as enabler of innovation for others?
  • What will be the dominant paradigm that emerges from the future? How can that be catalysed and how can the transition of society be best managed?

It is important to keep in mind there are no answers to these questions as the future is unknown. But the scenarios provide rich and powerful stimulus through which to explore these questions.

by Corina Angheloiu

For comments and feedback, do get in touch at c.angheloiu@forumforthefuture.org

If you’re based in London and you’d like to explore the Future Scenarios further, join us on the 19th September for second event part of the Living Change series, where we will be exploring what radically different futures look like. You can register here.


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