The world is changing in rapid, complex, and unpredictable ways. This makes it more challenging than ever for businesses to create strategies that are fit for the future. At the same time, what were once seen as primarily sustainability issues—such as the climate crisis and the struggle for racial justice—are increasingly transforming the corporate agenda. There has never been a greater need for business to anticipate and prepare for disruptive emerging issues—and sustainability offers a crucial north star to navigate the turbulence ahead.
Introducing The Fast Forward
To address this situation, BSR’s Sustainable Futures Lab is launching The Fast Forward, a new quarterly publication exploring emerging issues at the nexus of business and sustainability. It will focus on nascent trends that are likely to disrupt the operating context of the future and that will require a robust and forward-looking sustainability strategy to navigate. Some of these may be niche developments that we believe are likely to become mainstream; others may represent the acceleration or intensification of existing trends in ways that materially change their impacts on business.
The inaugural edition of The Fast Forward was written during the height of the COVID-19 crisis and, like everything else in the world today, has been strongly shaped by that experience. The pandemic, and our response to it, is a truly transformative historical event. Equally important has been the movement for racial justice exemplified by Black Lives Matter, which has made more visible the urgent need to address ongoing structural inequality.
The confluence of these global historical developments shaped the selection of the seven issues we decided to cover in this inaugural edition of The Fast Forward. As we identified the issues and delved into their business and sustainability implications, two overarching themes became apparent:
- Technological disruption is accelerating on several key fronts. The COVID-19 crisis is turbocharging investment in automation; driving employers, educational institutions, and others to abruptly embrace a shift to the virtual; and creating the conditions where more and more people may feel compelled to trade their personal data for participation in social and economic life.
- The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating longstanding disparities and systemic inequities. Women; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities; youth; and migrants are bearing the brunt of many of the changes wrought by the pandemic. Women’s role in the economy is being threatened by the COVID-19 crisis; young people are being challenged as jobs for new college graduates evaporate, school is disrupted, and developmentally critical socialization among children is curtailed; and the combination of COVID-related travel restrictions, climate impacts, and growing nationalism are creating new hurdles for migrants. And each of these challenges is intensified for members of BIPOC communities.
The Business Response
These emerging issues are global in scope and will impact every area of business—from new opportunities to improve operations to challenges in far-flung supply chains. Above all, these changes will require business to intensify its focus on people. Although the impacts of these wide-ranging changes are manifold, these emerging issues will require a particularly strong business response in three key areas.
An Expanded Focus on Human Rights
The COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating long-standing disparities and systemic inequities. Women; Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities; youth; and migrants are bearing the brunt of many of the changes wrought by the pandemic. A comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy grounded in the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights will be needed to adequately address the needs of employees, customers, local communities, and other stakeholders. As health data become increasingly important, businesses will also need a human rights approach to worker data protection that is grounded in principles of privacy, non-discrimination, and human dignity.
Advocacy and Collaboration for a New Social Contract
Several of these emerging developments will create challenges that are beyond the capacity of business to solve alone. Rapid and widespread automation will require changes to the labor force and social safety nets that go beyond reskilling efforts at individual companies. A systemic approach—one that engages business, government, and civil society—will be needed. Given the scale of the challenge, experiments with expanded unemployment insurance, portable benefits, and universal basic income may be needed. As pressures intensify on migrants, business will also need an approach to immigration policy that is firmly grounded in international human rights principles.
Agility, Flexibility, and Foresight
Finally, these changes will require business to be even more agile, flexible, and attuned to the future. Several of these changes will manifest in radically different ways in different regions of the world. Business should anticipate that laws around data privacy and migration, for example, will become increasingly divergent in the U.S., Europe, and China. Other changes will accentuate the differing needs among diverse stakeholder groups, such as women, BIPOC, and rising generations. Finally, the speed with which the COVID-19 crisis unfolded should leave no doubt: massive disruption can happen on a very short time scale. As volatility continues to intensify, strategic foresight techniques such as scenario planning will be more important than ever to enable business to anticipate and prepare for these sorts of changes.
We hope that the The Fast Forward will prove to be a valuable resource to business for anticipating emerging issues, meeting the moment, and building the future. To better understand how these issues will specifically impact your business or industry, the Sustainable Futures Lab can facilitate a trends and emerging issues assessment that will generate new insights for how to prepare for these issues and create more resilient business strategies. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to learn more about the work of the Futures Lab and how futures thinking can help you prepare for what comes next.