Stress testing systems of the future

On the 1st and 2nd of February, the Deep Transitions Futures research team held two “stress testing” workshops in which experts from the food, mobility and energy systems were invited to critically scrutinize the three future worlds that the project team developed. The three futures display what a transformed and more sustainable version of the food, mobility and energy system could look like in 2050. The aim of the workshops was to discuss the desirability of each of the worlds from an expert’s perspective, as well as the credibility of the pathways that could lead to achieving these worlds. Currently, the three futures are also being tested as part of a global crowdsourcing campaign, asking academics, policy-makers, investors and citizens from across the globe to indicate their desired future and building blocks for reaching it.

Experts attending the two workshops were professors, researchers and technology experts, from the natural as well as the social sciences and arts coming from all parts of the world, including China, Norway, England, Chile, South Africa, Japan, Sweden, America and the Netherlands. Their experience ranged from authoring IPCC reports to advising and actively participating in organisations and government networks working on sustainability issues.

Specific questions addressed during the workshop included:

  1. Are the three future worlds developed fit for tackling the most pressing social challenges for the food, mobility and energy systems?
  2. Are the described transformations of the three systems credible?
  3. How can Deep Transitions theory contribute to other areas of research?

The experts shared a number of valuable reflections and observations, voiced important aspects yet to be considered and dwelt on potential pitfalls and opportunities of the three future worlds. Topics addressed included the issue of value changes, stressing that for transformations like the ones displayed in the three future worlds to come about a shift in people’s values and beliefs was crucial. In relation to this, the question was raised what such values would look like in the future and that specifying those might be a good starting point. The issue of employment and the future of work was said to be a crucial one, as sustainability and the transformed systems illustrated by the project team would naturally lead to significant loss of jobs, for instance through abandoning coal. Comparable to recent labour market developments as a consequence of the COVID crisis, where masses ended up unemployed or retraining, it remains to be seen how countries and regions respond to the situation and whether they will be quick enough to recognise and promote new opportunities and train future generations accordingly.

Furthermore, the experts stated that current macroeconomic models had to be rethought as contemporary success indicators (e.g. growth and productivity) may hinder the desired transformations. This reflection aligns well with the project aim in which the Deep Transitions Futures research team collaborates with a Global Investors Panel to develop a new investment philosophy for transformative investments, aimed at mobilizing the finance sector to redirect investment towards transformation and a sustainable future.

Contemplating the role of digitalisation in each of the futures, it was questioned whether international travels could effectively be replaced by virtual reality solutions, voicing concerns about the implications that the expansion of digital technologies into all spaces of life will bring, which new forms of social relations and inequalities this would create and how to govern these. In relation, experts emphasised that the three future worlds did not acknowledge geographical differences sufficiently as systems of provision and sustainable solutions will unfold very differently in various parts of the world.

The crucial question of “how to unmake” current systems was raised as needing more attention since simply introducing more sustainable alternatives is likely insufficient. Simultaneously efforts are needed for phasing out fossil fuel-based practices backed by new incentives and practices that promote viable alternatives. Related to this, the issue of governance and the role of the state was discussed. Will the nation-state drive transformation? Or will transformation be built from grounded efforts gathering momentum?

And finally, external shocks, like climate events, economic and geopolitical developments or pandemics, will affect the transition process and should be considered when illustrating the future.

Recommended Readings:

Emerging from the workshop discussions and supporting some of the issues and questions raised, the experts pointed to some recommended readings, including:

Related Deep Transitions Publications: