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Where is the world headed post-COVID-19?

The COVID-19 health crisis is causing unprecedented disruptions to our daily lives, transforming social, economic, and governance systems around the world. While challenging, this moment also provides an opportunity to collectively reflect on and reimagine our future. Key to this process is sparking and fostering new and more pluralistic dialogues around how to rebuild our systems and institutions to be more equitable, sustainable, and resilient.

Pluralistic foresight exercises are fast gaining traction as a highly effective method to scan the horizon to develop resilient development pathways. To respond to this unique moment in time, Future Earth with Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute and the Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative  launched a rapid foresight survey in April 2020 “COVID-19: Where do we go from here?”. The survey took the pulse of two populations: the Sustainability Community and the General Population. The goal of the survey was to tap into a broad diversity of perspectives from around the world on expected societal trends, key drivers of societal change and to explore the evolving role of the digital sector in managing global systemic risk. Results from this survey aim to  inform recovery strategies as we begin to rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis. 

So where is the world headed post-COVID-19? Potential Sustainability Trajectories 

Key findings from the survey analysis (see full report here) suggest that most people expect that societal changes following the COVID-19 pandemic will be propelled by four key classes of drivers:  policies, power dynamics, norms, and mindsets. Of these, shifts in policy (e.g. policies to provide Universal Basic Income, Green New Deals, or strengthening commitments to global agreements) was the most frequently-cited driver. Power dynamics, however, was the class of driver most commonly mentioned in conjunction with other drivers, suggesting that it will play a central role in how society builds back from the COVID-19 health pandemic. These classes of drivers underlie trends in society that respondents expect to see in the coming three years. 

Expected trends in society

No one knows exactly how society will evolve post-COVID-19. While we cannot predict the future, understanding how people’s expectations of societal trends in the near future differ – or don’t – across sectors, segments of society, and around the world is critical to informing conversations about what type of world we want to rebuild and how we might get there. Survey respondents were asked to characterize five societal trends over the next three years. 

Economies and Governance: On average respondents across the two populations (Sustainability Community and General Population) expect little change in the degree of economic interdependence amongst nations or centralization of governance. However, those surveyed who think the world will be on a trajectory towards a ‘More Sustainable’ future (see below) in three years time also expect that there will be a trend towards more locally and nationally self-reliant economies. Many respondents linked these trends to shifts in policy to protect local food and energy industries and shifts in social and economic norms that foster more local markets and lifestyles. 

Digital surveillance: The vast majority of respondents across backgrounds and regions expect digital surveillance will increase substantially in the near future. Surprisingly, the majority of both the General Population and the Sustainability Community surveyed were not opposed to the use of digital surveillance in times of emergencies such as COVID-19 when it could save lives. A smaller, though still substantial, proportion of respondents were not opposed to its use to also tackle the climate crisis. 

Inequality and Ecological Footprints: Respondents were more divided on how they expect inequality to change in the near-term. On average, surveyed members of the General Population expect inequality to decrease over the next three years, but ecological footprints to grow, while a large number of respondents in the Sustainability Community expects inequality to increase, but our ecological footprint to decrease. The report dives deeper to explore how these trends vary across regions of the world. 

Sustainability Trajectories

Respondents’ answers were classified into one of five alternative Sustainability Trajectories based on their responses to two societal trends that are cross-cutting features of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – reducing inequality and reducing society’s ecological footprint. 

A larger proportion of respondents expect the world to be on a trajectory towards a Less Sustainable future (characterized by increased inequality and growing ecological footprint)than a More Sustainable future (with less inequality and a smaller ecological footprint). This was particularly pronounced in the Sustainability Community (Figure 1). The remainder of survey respondents were split between trajectories characterized by only reduced inequality (Equality First) or only smaller ecological footprint (Environment First). Interestingly a greater proportion of the General Population expect inequality to decrease while ecological footprints remain large. Meanwhile, a greater proportion of the Sustainability Community expect society’s ecological footprint to decrease with no major improvement in the level of inequality. Only 6-10% of respondents across both surveys expect little or no change in these two societal features from the pre-COVID-19 era.

Where people think the world is heading in three years

Varying perspectives on which of the four Sustainability Trajectories the world will be on in the next three years. These will be determined by changes in societal trends driven by shifts in policy, power dynamics, norms, and mindsets.

What’s Next? 

The findings from this report will provide the basis for additional surveys to track people’s evolving perceptions on societal trends and to explore emerging issues that arise as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis. The next report from the first survey will focus in depth on the role of the digital sector in managing global systemic risk and supporting the transition to a more sustainable future. 

This report was written by the Future Earth Project team in coordination with an Advisory team:

Kalpana Chaudhary:  Shah and Anchor Kutchhi Engineering College;  Institute for Sustainable Development and Research, ISDR,

Maurie Cohen New Jersey Institute of Technology

Casey Cronin ClimateWorks Foundation

Ajay Gambhir Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London

Maria Ivanova Center for Governance and Sustainability, John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts

Markus Reichstein Department of Biogeochemical Integration, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry

Qian Ye State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology, Beijing Normal University

Where is the world headed post-COVID-19? Expected trends in the coming three years. This report summarizes the results of the first in the Rapid Foresight Survey series, which we launched in April to take the pulse of the global population as the world navigates through this COVID-sparked social and economic crisis. It was produced in partnership with Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, with support from ClimateWorks Foundation, and under the guidance of an international team of advisors, which draw from our GRPs, KANs and beyond. Click here for more information on this initiative and current surveys.