The COVID-19 pandemic taught a stern lesson: to shape a sustainable world, societies must improve their decision-making.

COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works of sustainability, undermining progress on health, food security, and clean energy. But it has also been an eye-opener, helping to highlight some of the snags in the global system and what needs to change to set us all on a more sustainable path.

To study the implications of the crisis and look at how the world might recover, IIASA and the International Science Council (ISC) launched a consultative process in early 2020. “Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World” brought together ideas from more than 200 experts, and synthesized them in four reports focusing on governance, science systems, energy, and food.

As the governance report shows, when faced with the common threat of COVID-19 the world failed to mount a coordinated response. This echoes a wider problem in sustainable development: we already have the technological tools to deliver clean energy and other sustainability goals, but governments and other agencies have struggled to pull together and wield those tools collectively. The report made several recommendations to improve collective decision-making across all levels of government, for example, establishing a global commission on resilience.

Other recommendations from the project include focusing on resilience and equity in the food system; putting more effort into cutting energy demand, rather than just cleaning up supply; and expanding open science and international scientific collaboration, in order to bring reliable and relevant data to decision makers.

“COVID-19 and climate change have strong parallels,” says Systemic Risk and Resilience Research Group Leader and senior IIASA researcher, Reinhard Mechler. “The impacts of climate change cross political boundaries; they can cascade through interconnected global systems; and they include sudden unpredictable shocks such as heatwaves and floods.”

Mechler helped to explore these parallels in a policy brief co-authored by IIASA and the European Commission, which built on the IIASA-ISC project. The brief emphasizes the need to meet this threat with a systems perspective, for example with climate adaptation that aims for system-wide resilience.

This year the project has moved to the next stage, named Transformations Within Reach, a consultative platform collecting the ideas of scientists, citizens, and other stakeholders.

”We want to work out how to improve decision-making across society,” says IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis Program Director Elena Rovenskaya. “We will find out what governments and everyone else can do to bring about the much needed sustainability transformation, while stiffening our resilience to threats, and improving our ability to adapt quickly to new opportunities.”