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What does our desired future look like?

Posted by Susanah Stoessel on July 25, 2011 at 2:49pm

It was Albert Einstein who advised that we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that we used when we created them. When we are standing within the confines of a problem circumstance, it is difficult for us to be generous about the range of possibilities we are willing to entertain. Especially when operating under a heightened sense of urgency, the prospect of achieving a desired future that will require deep change from a highly complex system appears to be manifestly unrealistic. And there are not many people who feel motivated to pursue something that they perceive to be unrealistic.

How do we achieve goals that appear to be far beyond our reach? Is there a way to leap-frog over the distances we need to cover in a very short amount of time? In grappling with these questions, more and more people are coming to understand Einstein’s idea and are looking to tools like scenario development and backcasting to help plan for a future that must depart radically from current trends.

Scenario exercises shift the bounds of our thinking about the future, and backcasting in particular invites us to take an entirely different approach to problem-solving – or solution-finding – whereby we envision a desired future and make that endpoint our starting point. The process of describing a desired future clarifies the quality of future that we are committed to creating and are unwilling to compromise on. This in turn highlights what we perceive to be imperative and compels us to push the limits of our innovation and imagination to find a way to connect our present to that desired future. At the same time it draws our priorities into alignment and requires us to be accountable to our long-term goals in our short-term decision making because any decision that does not send us toward our desired future puts us off track and sends us away from our desired future.

Of course the largest limiting factor here is the strength of our common commitment to a common desired future.

One of the activities we have undertaken in the OPEN:EU project is the development – together with stakeholders – of a set of future scenarios describing what a One Planet Economy in Europe in 2050 could look like. This variation on the backcasting approach to scenario development set a One Planet Economy (OPE) in 2050 as its end goal, but also accounted for our high level of uncertainty about how technological innovation and our development paradigm will evolve over the next 40 years. The objective was not to describe a single desired future, but to consider how we might have to act – if we are serious about creating a One Planet Economy in Europe by 2050 – given the uncertainty of these two very large variables. The result was a set of four scenarios describing four variations on what life in Europe might look in 2050 and what kind of a policy path might lead us to each of those futures.

The first of the four OPEN:EU scenarios is “Clever and Caring”. It assumes rapid technological change combined with a high level of preparedness to move away from materialism and the traditional focus on economic growth. This enables a relatively painless shift to a high-tech, but more caring, collaborative and sustainable society. In this world, Europeans recognise that sustainable lifestyles are paramount to the continued function of global ecosystems and the livelihood of future generations. Competition has largely been replaced by cooperation. Planned obsolescence of technology has been replaced by planned durability and reuse. The European health and education systems reflect holistic social values. Social innovation [1] flourishes at the neighbourhood, city and regional levels due to robust participatory governance and ample time availability for personal activities. Nearly 95% of farms in the EU are organic or permaculture-based. The financial system is radically different and has broadened its focus from the short-term and profit-driven models of lending to include social and environmental considerations. Energy infrastructure is largely decentralised and flexible.

In scenario 2, “Fast Forward”, the economic growth focus of today will continue to be a driving force. The transformation to a One Planet Economy has to be spurred on more aggressively by policies designed to maximise the potential of technological innovation to improve resource efficiency, to constrain overall consumption and to deal with global distributional issues. Without a “green tech revolution” and strong political action, Europe would have been unlikely to stay within the limits of a One Planet Economy, and there would have been a high risk of social and economic instability at global and regional levels. About 70-80% of Europeans live in a highly modern city in high-tech accommodation located in close proximity to work and personal, social and community services. Improvements in energy efficiency have helped drive the decoupling of energy use from economic growth between 2011 and 2050 beyond current trends (in transport, for example, there has been a large-scale reduction on the dependency on fossil fuels). While energy demand in Europe has increased compared to 2011, by 2050 there is almost full decarbonisation of the power sector and a large scale switch to renewable electricity in the heat and transport sectors). Competition has catalysed a transformation of the global economy into one centred on low-impact growth and development, operating under a system of global production zoning.

Scenario 3, “Breaking Point”, combines slow technological change and an enduring growth focus in people’s mindset about development. The prices of high-impact goods and services have reached levels that are unaffordable for many people in society. Society is strongly divided by a large social gap between those who can and those who cannot afford an affluent lifestyle. This world is characterised by greater inequality and tension and it is more prone to conflict, which is exacerbated by political and resource-related uncertainty shocks and vicious competition for resources. These shocks eventually force this unwilling world to decrease its consumption levels and institute severe policies in order to meet the One Planet Economy goal by 2050. Since only limited gains in resource efficiency are possible through technological solutions, the emphasis has been on changing consumption behaviour. There has been a renewed shift to a more labour-intensive economy with greater food production within the EU for internal consumption, driven by the high prices of energy and other inputs and the fierce competition in world markets for increasingly scarce raw materials. Both imported and domestically produced goods are expensive. Prices for services are also generally high, and nearly every aspect of European life is heavily regulated to control demand and force conservation and efficiency measures.

Scenario 4, “Slow Motion”, illustrates a more equitable transformation, with the vast majority of people embracing a “back to basics” and “doing more with less” lifestyle. Technological innovation does not play as great a role in enabling the shift to a One Planet Economy as in Scenarios 1 and 2. Instead, Europeans quickly learn to make the most of today’s available technologies, to collaborate more, and to share limited resources more effectively. In this world, most Europeans have embraced frugality, simplicity and sustainability as core lifestyle choices. Average working hours are roughly half as long as they were in 2011. The average European walks, rides a bike or uses state of the art public transport rather than private road vehicles. The EU’s economy is reflective of “greened” societal values and has become famous for its Beyond-GDP approach. In business, cooperation and knowledge sharing are more important drivers than competition, resulting in a more limited amount of innovation and growth but a more stable, albeit more insular, economy. Demand for imported goods is low due to large-scale de-materialism and self-sufficiency and due to high trade barriers or tariffs for products and services with high environmental and social harm. Notwithstanding this “ethical” trade policy, Europe actively engages with the global community to promote peace, fair trade, and eliminate trade barriers for technologies that maximise resource and energy use efficiencies.

The question that these scenarios beg is: What does our desired future look like? How strong is our desire for that future and for its integrity? Is it strong enough that we will take the steps needed to get there?

[1] A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals (Phills et al., 2008: 36).


Programme Downloads and Outputs

OPEN:EU Scenario Storylines Report: Scenarios for a One Planet Economy in Europe

OPEN:EU Scenario Scoping Report



WP6: OPEN:EU Scenarios

7th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement N° 227065. The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of the One Planet Economy Network and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union. 
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