To address the realities of climate change and the ways in which we are increasingly overrunning planetary boundaries, we must shift our mindsets, technologies, and business models away from incremental thinking. We urgently need to find real breakthroughs — the kinds of things that will have 100x impact on a billion or more people. Doing so means shifting our mindsets from linear thinking to exponential thinking; chasing technologies that will help us overcome resource constraints and create a world of abundance; and finding business models that are more social, lean, integrated, and circular. According to UN estimates, if we can meet key stretch goals in just four areas –food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and wellbeing — we could open up market opportunities worth up to $12 trillion a year in less than 15 years.
How can we create $12 trillion a year in market opportunities by 2030? How about by meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? The goals, a set of 17 stretch goals and 169 related targets championed by the United Nations, are ambitious. But a recent report concludes that meeting the goals in just four out of 60 sectors (food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and wellbeing) could indeed open up market opportunities worth up to $12 trillion a year in less than 15 years.
But to get there, we have to break out of the zone of incremental change, or “Change-as-Usual.” Incrementalism has its uses, but it is worrying to see even committed business leaders treating the goals as an incremental change agenda. Their assumption: if we do more of what we have been doing, but a little bit faster and a little better, we can deliver many – if not most – of the goals by the target date of 2030. Mistake. Big mistake. Huge.
Instead, we have to admit that our planet has strict boundaries on the activities it can support, and that by exceeding these boundaries, we’re helping climate change to accelerate at an alarming pace. There’s an urgent and intensifying need to shift toward real breakthroughs.
To help support those moving in this direction, Volans and PA Consulting have joined forces with the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest sustainable business platform, with over 9,000 corporate members, to create Project Breakthrough. In the process, we have developed what we call “the Breakthrough Compass” to map the emerging landscape of risk and opportunity. Our conclusion: instead of pursuing incremental goals, we need to start chasing goals that will have 10x or 100x the impact on anywhere between a million and a billion people.
The horizontal axis (“impact”) tracks the spectrum of outcomes created by business, from negative to positive. The billion-people-impacted scale may seem far-fetched, but two brothers define the outer limits here. Google’s Larry Page invests in solutions that potentially benefit a billion people, while his brother Carl (at the Anthropocene Institute) focuses on problems that could disadvantage – even kill – a billion of us. The vertical axis (“scale”) moves from incremental change to increasingly exponential outcomes.
To address the realities of climate change and other ways in which we are increasingly overrunning planetary boundaries, we must now shift our mindsets, technologies, and business models from left to right, and from bottom to top.
Visiting organizations like The X Prize Foundation, Google’s X facility, and Singularity University, one is immediately struck by their conviction that our global challenges will not be solved by hitting 1% or even 10% targets, but instead that business must embrace “10X” thinking – aiming for at least a 10-fold improvement. This, we conclude, is the attitude now needed to make real progress on sustainability.
I have been exploring the edges of exponential thinking for quite a while, trying to work out how it could impact the sustainable business agenda. In 2005, I visited Wired magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly at his home in California. His books Out of Control and New Rules for the New Economy had helped shift my vision of sustainability from a future of scarcity to one increasingly characterized by abundance.
A few years after our visit, Kelly wrote an influential article on his personal blog that captures the conundrum of shifting to an exponential mindset:
[W]hile progress runs on exponential curves, our individual lives proceed in a linear fashion. We live day by day by day… Today will always be more valuable than some day in the future, in large part because we have no guarantee we’ll get that extra day. Ditto for civilizations. In linear time, the future is a loss. But because human minds and societies can improve things over time, and compound that improvement in virtuous circles, the future in this dimension is a gain. Therefore long-term thinking entails the confluence of the linear and the exponential.
Shifting to an exponential mindset is challenging, precisely for the reasons Kelly gives. It’s also now vital — for those very same reasons.
Peter Diamandis – co-founder of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University – has long argued that technology can help create what he calls “a world of abundance.” The world, he has argued, has lots of resources – water, energy, and so on – but we’re hampered because we can’t access it efficiently. But, he says, ultimately “technology is a resource-liberating force.” It could help us solve our resource constraints.
Although technology is central to the exponential and abundance mindsets, much of the sustainability world remains distracted by incremental improvements to incumbent technologies, ranging from gasoline-powered automobiles to energy- and chemical-intensive air-conditioning systems. Moving well beyond that, we now need to do much more to understand and shape the thinking and priorities of those who promise (or threaten) to give us artificial intelligence, the internet of everything, autonomous everything, synthetic biology and, some insist, geoengineering. This is an area that sits at the very heart of the evolving Project Breakthrough initiative.
In terms of the potential upsides, here is an example from Israel, which I visited in April. So great is the pressure for water in the country, with even the Dead Sea dying of water starvation, interesting is growing in aeroponics – which involves growing plants in mist or even air, rather than soil or water. One company is now growing 50 times more plants per meter, and in the process using 20 times less water than traditional agriculture.
In terms of potential downsides, I remind people of Thomas Midgley, Jr. A brilliant engineer and chemist with General Motors and DuPont, Midgley held over 100 patents. He came up with leaded gasoline (a breakthrough in anti-knock technology, but one that had immense unforeseen consequences in terms of children’s nervous systems) and he also synthesized early Freons, chemicals that went on to tear a hole in the stratospheric ozone layer. As a final illustration of the downsides of some innovations, I mention Midgley’s development of an automatic bed, using ropes and pulleys, to get him in and out of bed when he sadly contracted polio. In 1944, the bed strangled him.
The sustainability industry has labored to identify issues that are “material” across the triple bottom line, not simply in financial terms. It has developed sophisticated tools to help companies build and test the business case for action, or inaction. But the spotlight must expand to business models, the essence of how wealth is created.
Business models need to become exponentially more social, lean, integrated, and circular. The challenge is to ensure that emerging technologies meet difficult-to-reach social goals, while being “lean” across scarce forms of capital, integrated from the point of use right out to the edges of the atmosphere and biosphere, and part of an increasingly circular economy.
One example comes from Patrick Thomas, CEO of the advanced materials company Covestro. In a recent interview by the Project Breakthrough team, he discussed why his firm developed – and then chose to license — a technology for turning carbon dioxide into plastic.
“If you make a breakthrough in innovation, you cannot keep it to yourself,” Thomas explained. “That’s very, very important. It’s a different way of thinking about how you make money. To keep it to yourself runs the risk that it would die. If you license it to everybody else, you guarantee that they change their view, they change their method of operation, and they adopt your technology. And that’s why we went from nothing to commercial manufacture of a product in less than 10 years… That is way faster than traditional innovation technologies where everything’s kept secret. You’ve got to blow things open.”
Only if we make the shift from incremental to breakthrough logic will business realize the huge market values now being forecast – and only if we succeed in accelerating a critical mass of business leaders into the breakthrough zone will the sustainability forecast truly brighten.
Powered by WPeMatico