The beginning of a decade of reimagining and rethinking

February 1, 2021


How will we remember 2020? As shocking and devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been and will likely continue to be for many more months for many millions, it is important to reflect that we have been here before. This is not the first global pandemic in recent memory. In early spring 1918, the H1N1 virus passed almost unnoticed through Europe. In the months following, it mutated into one of the deadliest transmittable diseases in recorded history. By the time the fourth wave of the “Spanish Flu” had passed in March 1920, one in three people around the world had fallen ill, and an estimated 50 million to 100 million people (a staggering 5.4 percent of the global population) had died.

COVID-19, a manifestation of our fractured relationship with nature, must be a reality check that something is not right, and that everything about how we navigate our everyday lives and do business must be questioned.

As we enter 2021, still navigating a pandemic world but with the hope of vaccines on the horizon, we must urgently address the unsustainable lifestyles that have brought us here, and recognize that we are at a crossroads and must change business as usual, even as we crave  going “back to normal”.

Just over five years ago in 2015, the world came together to agree on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a pathway for a better future. Entering this final decade of the SDGs in a pandemic world presents an opportunity that we must seize. The pandemic has tested the global systems we depend on. It has exposed vulnerabilities in the delicate tapestry of social, economic and environmental aspects of human activity that must be addressed and strengthened if we are to realize the SDGs.

In 1972 a book entitled “Limits to Growth” Donella Meadows, analyzed data on population, food production, pollution and industrialization. She predicted that if the trends continued humanity would by 2020 experience a sudden and uncontrollable downturn.  And here we are. In the same year, the first ever UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden and 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of this conference. Coming on the wave of a global pandemic, Stockholm +50 provides an opportunity for this collective reimagining and rethinking of our sustainable futures.

As we navigate 2021 and beyond, this reflection and relearning are necessary if we are to step forward with commitment into the unknown, rather that slip back to the old, unsustainable pre-COVID world. How then do we shift our envisioned futures that are so different to now align with Planetary Health?  What needs to change? How do we effect that change? How do we redefine sustainable development on a planet where our relationship with nature is fractured? What role does systems thinking and systems leadership play in a sustainable and resilient future?

In trying to respond to these questions and many others, there will be need to revisit our past, to learn from it to reimagine a different, better future, and in doing so to not forget 2020 so quickly, however much history suggests we will try.


The Rome Centre: The Rome Centre for Sustainable Development is UNDP’s office in Rome working in close collaboration with the Italian Ministry of Environment, Land and Sea.  The focus of the centre will be to convene, connect, collaborate on matters related to climate change, sustainable development and nature protection.  

Musonda Mumba: Dr Musonda Mumba, a Zambian National, is the incoming Director for the Rome Centre for Sustainable Development.  She joins UNDP from UNEP bringing more than 20 years of experience in environmental and conservation issues.