Is Your Business Ready for a Radically Different Future?

November 6, 2018
  • Jacob Park portrait

    Jacob Park

    Director, Transformation, BSR

With rapid automation putting millions out of work, a new “Humans First” movement emerges—determined to fight back. Saudi Arabia decides that emissions mitigation efforts are too slow to prevent severe climate disruption and announces plans to launch a risky geoengineering program, prompting threats of retaliation from other nations. The rate of Type 2 diabetes has dropped for the second year in a row, thanks to a powerful new health AI that guides consumers toward healthier behavior—and punishes those who make unhealthy choices.

None of these things have happened—yet. But what would it mean for your business if they did?

During times of rapid change, the greatest danger lies in being unable to imagine radically different futures.

BSR’s new report, Doing Business in 2030: Four Possible Futures, combines research with imagination to help you consider disruptive possibilities such as these. The report presents four scenarios describing alternate future contexts for business. These scenarios explore key factors that could reshape the world over the coming decade and describe how they might develop, interact, and transform.

From climate disruption to automation to artificial intelligence, these changes are rapid, complex, interconnected, uncertain, and nonlinear. They are creating an entirely new operating environment for business.

While the scenarios explore numerous factors reshaping the future, on a high level they are organized around two critical uncertainties: 1) whether the forces of centralization or decentralization prevail, and 2) whether we will stick with the current economic paradigm of endless growth and profit maximization or shift toward a new paradigm that views the purpose of the economy as providing for equitable prosperity on a healthy planet.

Each scenario, summarized briefly below, imagines different answers to those questions.

Scenario 1: A Tale of Two Systems

Automation and environmental disruption cause global turmoil. China promotes a vision of “prosperity, order, and sustainability” and draws emerging economies into its orbit. Western government and business leaders realize they need to radically reform the social contract if free market capitalism is to survive.

Scenario 2: Move Slow and Fix Things

Health concerns, misinformation scandals, and a global recession undermine trust. People become disillusioned with consumerism, big business, and social media. As more localized economies emerge, people rediscover the benefits of community, and a culture of healing starts to take root.

Scenario 3: Tribalism, Inc.

The notion that “all business is political” drives social, economic, and cultural fragmentation. New “tribes” emerge with profoundly different experiences of reality. As collective action becomes increasingly difficult, some of these tribes experiment with radical approaches to global challenges like climate change.

Scenario 4: Total Information Awareness 

Highly personalized AI companions become an essential part of everyday life. Concentrated networks of huge businesses leverage extreme data to provide affordable, effective, and seamless services. Privacy is gone and much work is automated away, but most people embrace the new reality.

Scenarios are neither predictions nor forecasts, and none of these will “come true” exactly as written (although elements of each are likely to happen). Instead, they are a tool to help us think differently—and to consider truly radical changes that escape the bounds of our current models. Rather than providing us with a single answer about the future—which would almost certainly be wrong—they enable us to embrace uncertainty and develop more robust and resilient strategies.

So, how should you use them?

First, suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in each of these worlds. Imagine it is 2030, and the scenario you’re reading accurately describes the world you inhabit. What would your life be like? Where do you live, what do you care about, and how do you spend your time? Use questions like these to develop an intuitive understanding of what these worlds would be like to live in.

Second, explore what new challenges and opportunities each of these worlds would present for your business and for sustainability, and consider how your company would need to operate differently in 2030 to address these. How has your supply chain changed? What new competitors have entered the market? Who are your employees, and how is their work different from today? What do your customers need, and how are you meeting those needs sustainably?

Finally, consider how you could make your company’s strategy more resilient to the entire set of scenarios. Are there any elements of your current strategy that would fail in one of these scenarios, but which could be reconsidered? Are there any no-regrets actions you could take that would work well across all the scenarios? What sorts of hedging strategies could you use to avoid risking everything on one big bet? Once you’ve identified the most promising strategic initiatives, consider what you’d have to start doing today to bring them to life.

Much of what characterizes our current reality—from highly accurate facial recognition technology to Brexit—was not so long ago considered unlikely or even crazy. Scenarios offer us a unique opportunity to step outside of the box for a moment and consider truly different possibilities. While nobody can predict the future, thinking about the ways things might evolve can help us make wiser choices today. During times of rapid change, the greatest danger lies in being unable to imagine radically different futures.

Business—and the well-being of people and the planet—depend on new strategies for the future that account for the profound changes underway and imagine transformative new opportunities to create a more just and sustainable world.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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