Social progress: a defining agenda, a broad outline, a potential coalition

According to the first IPSP Report, social progress can be affirmed as a key moral compass for action, and forms a substantial actionable agenda, but important obstacles and uncertainty surround its implementation.

  • A core list of values and principles defines a broad agenda for the pursuit of better societies (and also underlies the Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030): well-being, equal dignity, freedom, choice, human rights, justice, inclusion, respect, integrity, courage, democracy, pluralism, solidarity, recognition, environmental values, rule of law, transparency, accountability, social relations, generosity, culture…
  • A broad outline for better societies and a narrative for social progress are available, and include: creating an inclusive and responsible economy by taming markets and corporations through responsible regulatory systems and by fostering economic and social organizations with a broader purpose; bringing circularity into our value chains and modes of living; reducing social inequalities and empowering people through universal services and through pre- and redistribution; deepening democracy through participatory and deliberative mechanisms and better information ecosystems; enhancing global cooperation to preserve common goods; harnessing technology for positive impact and limiting its most disruptive consequences.
  • Planetary crises as embodied in covid and climate emergencies have laid bare the weaknesses of prevailing development orthodoxies and signaled the possibility of a greater willingness among global audiences to be receptive to a social progress agenda and temper hyper-consumerist cultures.
  • Multiple actors, especially from civil society, contribute to this agenda in myriad ways and constitute a vibrant pool from which knowledge and momentum can be drawn.
  • However, although many alliance efforts are underway, there is no unified/global coalition fighting the obstacles to social progress, especially at the transnational/international level. This fight is within the domains of both knowledge and practice.
  • This raised a key open question: How can we help coalitions of actors to emerge and organize, how can we help nurture them, so as to implement the social progress agenda?

Overlapping challenges, opportunities, and aspirations

Humanity has reached a formidable high point of capacities but many economic, social and institutional achievements of the past decades are fragile, raising the prospect of abrupt disruptions. Five broad areas can be distinguished in which challenges but also opportunities and new aspirations appear:

  • The environment: The current development path is unsustainable. Awareness is rising and attitudes toward nature are shifting.
    • Climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution (plastic, pesticides), and water stress are all worsening, approaching tipping points with severe consequences.
    • Health impacts and risks through environmental degradation and zoonoses are growing.
    • Nature (esp. animal) rights gain traction and awareness about planetary boundaries is now widespread, leading to many initiatives at various scales.
    • A large part of the forest carbon sinks and most of the world´s biodiversity are placed in the tropical areas of the developing world, that experience increased pressures resulting from hyper-consumerism of energy, food, minerals and other materials.
    • The poor, particularly in the Global South are more vulnerable to the impacts of the global environmental crisis (pollution, climate change, biodiversity losses, losses of “green water”, etc.) and have fewer resources to address these impacts.
    • Global action on decarbonization, biodiversity, protected areas is insufficient but is underway.
    • Some among the younger generations display greater willingness to distance themselves from consumerism and adopt environmentally responsible ways of life but economic institutions and regulatory frameworks remain a strong barrier.
  • Social cohesion: The Agenda 2030 is on a path to dramatic failure on many SDGs, but there is a growing consensus over effective policies that could stop and reverse social fragmentation.
    • Inequalities (in many dimensions and scales) and poverty persist or worsen, while welfare policies are under pressure, but tax cooperation and transparency efforts gather momentum.
    • Migrations reflect the range of hardship across the world, tear apart communities, and feed demagoguery in destination areas. At the same time, they have been producing many insufficiently recognized economic, social and cultural benefits.
    • Declining levels of interpersonal trust and trust in institutions, observed all over the world, seriously compromise social solidarity, and the feeling of being left behind is widespread.
    • Investing in human development (education, health) through universal provision and an array of social cohesion policies are well proven solutions but their successful implementation requires international cooperation to avoid a race to the bottom.
  • Technology: The dynamics of technological innovation strongly influences societies and new mechanisms attuned to societal needs must be set up to ensure that technological developments benefit social progress.
    • New technologies offer breakthrough innovations in health care, can eliminate tedious and hazardous tasks, provide unprecedented tools for coordination across the world, and develop clean energy and nature-based solutions.
    • Digital technologies feed the current environmental, social and governance crises: disrupting democracy and rational public debate, raising polarization and mental health issues, impacting jobs and social cohesion, boosting the energy demand and the extraction of rare materials, and even inducing new forms of war.
    • New technologies raise existential questions on what it is to be human – exploring taboo frontiers through synthetic biology, AI-augmented humans or “humanized” robots – as well as the role of humans in AI-generated decision-making and in future innovation.
    • Technological innovation operates under a regulatory framework which is associated with the growing concentration of data, power and wealth and impedes the development of knowledge as a global public good.
  • Governance: Democratic backsliding is a widely cited theme, but the governance crisis is much broader and affects all spheres of social life – at the same time, opportunities for deepening democratic deliberation are substantial.
    • Global cooperation is breaking down, a new cold war between blocks is settling in, and a global civil society, or a global demos, which could voice demands for global public goods, is missing.
    • Democratic backsliding is ongoing: authoritarianism, nationalism, hateful and intolerant threats to minorities and opponents, polarization, distrust in institutions and science are on the rise.
    • Participatory mechanisms are however spreading and new possibilities for inclusive deliberation and decision mechanisms are emerging.
    • Fraud, corruption and lobbying are widespread and undermine efficient governance at various levels (local, national, supranational).
    • An economic and governance crisis in the media, the emergence of informational bubbles, and social media abuses distort the public debate and undermine democracy, but also offer new ways of connecting people with common interests, of collective action and of building a global citizenship.
    • Even if authoritarian management and harmful human resource practices still prevail in business organizations, social innovations prove that horizontal, inclusive structures are better for all stakeholders and that corporate governance can be reformed.
  • Conflicts and violence: The most extreme form of societal disruption is the eruption of violence in all its forms. Peace and human security are always the basic priorities of citizens and communities, but various powerful interests at play overcome these aspirations in absence of strong counterforces that would promote freedom, recognition, and justice.
    • Violent conflicts have been increasing in recent years, involving wars between states, imperial and colonial wars, civil wars, terrorism, organized crime, trafficking and criminal violence.
    • Discrimination remains widespread and often induces violence against minorities by mobs or established policing institutions.
    • Peace-keeping mechanisms and regime changes engineered by states, under UN mandates or other alliances, have been very problematic, and the UN security framework is unanimously considered broken.
    • Peace and reconciliation initiatives led by civil society organizations have relentlessly emerged in various crises, and contain promising innovations that deserve further study and generalization.

These environmental, social, technological  and institutional developments take different forms in different parts of the world: environmental impacts are unequally spread, extreme poverty is found everywhere but is particularly salient in low-income countries, top incomes have different sources in different areas, access to technology is very unequal, welfare policies are very heterogeneous, authoritarianism and democracy compete across boundaries and domains, conflicts rage in multiple forms from spontaneous protests to genocidal wars.

The interdependence web

The key fact on which the Panel bases its work is that the mechanisms underlying these challenges and opportunities are strongly interdependent. Recognizing such interdependence and building on it is essential to imagine adequate solutions to these challenges as well as to make the most of the emerging opportunities.

  • The ongoing crises feed one another: an environmental crisis in one place (a drought in the Middle East) can reverberate into a governance crisis in another place (migrations and rising populism in Europe); a conflict in one place (the war in Ukraine) can aggravate social problems in another (extreme poverty and hunger in Africa); a social crisis (inequalities, labor market shocks, poverty, feeling left behind) can destabilize institutions and governance (generating distrust, putting demagogues in power, feeding terrorism and criminal activities); ill-managed technological innovation (social media infected by trolls, labor-saving AI) undermines governance (raising polarization and distrust) and social cohesion (unemployment). A stronger awareness and a better understanding of these feedback loops and vicious circles are urgently needed.
  • Because of these interlinkages between the various domains, a steady path toward social progress cannot be charted without considering them all together. Environmental issues cannot be ignored in order to restore social cohesion and inclusive governance; social cohesion cannot be put aside to protect democracy and the environment; without a reasonably good governance, the environmental, social and technology challenges will never be adequately addressed; and technology issues and opportunities will not be adequately handled in unequal and ill-governed economies and societies.
  • It is essential to develop analysis that fully takes account of the interlocking crises, the feedback mechanisms and the intersectoral solutions. This requires getting out of the “environmental” silo, the “social” silo, the “politics” silo, the “innovation” silo, the “development” silo. Such a comprehensive approach must be applied not only to high-level systemic analysis but also to more specific domain studies. For instance, filling development gaps must involve ecological transition issues and institution building; protected natural areas policies cannot be discussed without considering social impacts and global cooperation; promoting participatory democracy in politics and the economy must build on the consequences of better institutions for inequalities and ecological responsibility; pushing for responsible innovation requires overhauling industrial structures, corporate governance and the purpose of economic development.