In 1987, the Brundtland Commission published the path-breaking book Our Common Future, which first introduced the term “sustainable development” into the global lexicon. Now, more than three decades into this journey, I write with some good news and some bad news. First the good news: A growing number of corporations, entrepreneurs, multilaterals and NGOs have incorporated “sustainability” as an important part of their strategies. Indeed, “clean technology” has become a large and growing investment category with more than a quarter billion dollars of investment each year. And, my 2002 article with C.K. Prahalad entitled “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” helped to ignite a new business-led movement described variously as “base of the pyramid,” “social enterprise,” and “inclusive business.” In addition, the advent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has reinforced the scale and scope of the social and environmental challenges we continue to face.
Now for the bad news: We have not yet begun to fundamentally change the unsustainable trajectory of the global economy. Instead, over the past twenty years, we have added nearly two billion more people to the global population and further intensified our ecological footprint on the planet. By 2030, the global “middle class” is expected to grow from the current three billion to more than five billion people, with consequent increases in material consumption, waste generation, and greenhouse gas emissions. And while the quest to eradicate extreme poverty is necessary and important, the science is also clear: we have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet and serious repercussions are now inevitable.
To make matters worse, over the past twenty years we have added two new and foreboding crosscurrents to the global sustainability challenge: First, a growing number of people in the developed world that have been left behind by globalisation have realised their plight and flexed their political muscles—witness BREXIT in Europe, the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, and a growing hostility toward global trade pacts. Second, the global spread of information technology and social media has inadvertently helped to fuel extremist movements, information warfare, election hacking, and misinformation campaigns around the world. The result? Nativism, atavism, protectionism and isolationism are now on the rise at precisely the time that we need more cooperation and multilateralism to address the mounting transboundary challenges that we face, including climate change, loss of natural capital, rising inequality, mass migration, and terrorism.
We have thus arrived at the Day of Reckoning for business—and the world. With governments in retreat and civil society overburdened, the world is turning to the private sector to address the monumental challenges we now face. The time is now to move beyond “environment” and “poverty” as separate company initiatives. We are now past the point where even aggressive “clean tech” and “base of the pyramid” initiatives enable us to change course rapidly enough. Business cannot long thrive within deteriorating environments and failing societies. This means nothing less than reimagining the world’s inequality and environmental challenges through a new, more integrated business vision.
Many emerging “clean” technologies, including distributed generation of renewable energy, biomaterials, plant-based proteins, low-cost connectivity, blockchain, IoT, and 3D printing could hold the keys to addressing both the world’s environmental and social challenges. Indeed, because these emerging technologies are often “disruptive” in character, the base of the pyramid is often the ideal place to focus initial commercialisation attention: China’s towns and small cities, Brazil’s favelas, and Africa’s slums, India’s rural villages, and America’s forgotten towns and deindustrialised cities present vast opportunities to build the markets—and commercialise the clean technologies—of the future. Taking such a “green leap” to the base of the pyramid avoids the resistance, inertia and incumbent bias which pervades the established markets at the top. Once established, these innovations will “trickle up”—and disrupt—the top of the pyramid. First, they must be proven more reliable, affordable—and environmentally sustainable—than the legacy technology and infrastructure at the top. And, inclusive business entrepreneurs must play a central role in building this movement.
In my view, taking the “Green Leap”—the creative fusion of environmental and inclusive business agendas—is key to achieving the SDGs. If I am right, this holds important implications for both executives and policy-makers. Rather than circling the wagons, building walls, and doubling down, the best thing we could do is craft policies and strategies that get our most promising technologists and entrepreneurs into the urban slums, shantytowns, deindustrialised cities, small towns, and rural villages of the world, where five billion plus underserved (and increasingly disenfranchised) people currently reside. It is here that the Green Leap will take place. And, it is here that the corporations of the 21st century will rise, like the proverbial Phoenix from the Ashes.