A quick plunge into top global trends

The newly elected President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has been telling those working on climate change and related innovation in the United States to move to Europe, in particular to France (here), stating “We want innovative people, we want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technology.”

In spite of dramatic and highly disappointing indicators of climate change policy change in the United States, opportunities for companies to help solve this global challenge and the other 23 issues identified by the BSL Gap Frame research have never been so diverse, or even so compelling.  But it is not easy to break down the complexity of our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world into manageable chunks. Let’s look at some of the main trends currently emerging from that complexity and their relevance for business, and also for business students: a quick round up of things to note:

1.The globalization pressure valve: Always controversial, globalization is under pressure as never before. The dream of a liberal, multicultural shiny new world with no trade barriers and unparalleled social equity has simply not materialized. And it will not so long as the top 10% wealthiest on the planet own 90% of global wealth. This has led to severe social inequity pushing a new wave of populism and protectionism with looming trade lockdowns and even xenophobia. As with every new development, there are opportunities for some companies, whilst for others, it may spell impending disaster. On the plus side, what seems certain is that days may be over of companies charging into a community, building it up with the usual positive externalities such as jobs and infrastructure etc., only to switch locations at the drop of a hat…leaving serious negative social and environmental externalities in their wake. Companies are moving from seeking License to Operate (LTO) from local communities to seeking License to Grow (LTG). Strategy-makers in companies should take heed.

2.The SDG fanfare: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have entered the scene with aplomb yet corporate awareness has not moved substantially beyond senior executive level and, of course, Sustainability Departments. Widespread concrete and tangible commitment to the SDGs is still very far from a tipping point. Because of this, most companies are not yet actually building strategies around the SDGs, setting goals and objectives or building in SDG-friendly targets or metrics to their activities. For companies reading this, think about setting up a corporate learning program so that your executives can start identifying solutions and innovative ways of acting and reporting on your progress towards the SDGs. The opportunity is to start with the SDGs most material to your business.  Then, join key discussions and relevant fora to communicate your company’s contributions, gradually moving to position your company as a pioneer on the forefront of SDG action.

3.The 2 degree tipping point: Climate change is a highly mature sustainability issue – despite the hubris of deniers in the United States. This means that the urgency of addressing it is generally accepted. The question is ….how and how quickly can we go? According to the World Economic Forum, leaders of the world’s most high profile companies recognize climate change as the top global risk in terms of potential and substantial impact. Climate change is also a prominent undercurrent of the SDGs.   For companies, carbon disclosure is increasing rapidly. COP21 produced the hope of a tighter policy environment, long terms goals for global decarburization, and more investor interest in the issue. Participant governments recognized that they had to tackle it together. And then along came the US election. What a massive climate leadership shift in the last year! We are still seeing the new reality play out but who would have thought even two years ago that China would fashion itself as the new climate leader on the world stage?

4.The news is dead; long live the news: “Fake news” proliferation – with the most high profile being around the US election and the Trump administration – is swaying elections and public opinion as never before. Today, personal, institutional, and corporate reputations can be lost in a matter of minutes, even seconds. With billions of $US dollars tied up in their brands, concerned companies have started to put pressure on high tech companies to scrutinize the boundaries of their responsibility for content on sites such as Facebook. I remember school debates back in the day around whether, in must-win battles, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Today, it appears that “social media is mightier than the bomb”.

5.Grow ’til you pop: The “shop ‘til you drop” mindset of the new millennium continues but on the web! Just how counterintuitive is it that economies are still so bent on growth when resources are so finite? Denying limits to growth is the “emperor’s new clothes” equivalent of modern times.  Everyone knows it is truly madness but no one wants to say it. Virtually no mainstream business leaders are questioning the growth paradigm for now. Hugely growing consumption, facilitated and enabled by emerging E-commerce opportunities, are great news for the Amazons and E-Bays of this world…..but they are also leading to vast environmental damage, with substantial social issues raising their ugly heads too. This is particularly so in emerging economies that lack infrastructure to absorb the massive waste (particularly plastics and Styrofoam) resulting from said consumption. These countries simply cannot keep up with the pace of their own waste.  Meanwhile social pressure has increased on companies to show that they can minimize their impacts everywhere. In this context, innovation hubs are emerging across the spectrum of business and industry to encourage more collaboration amongst technology start-ups, businesses, NGOs, governments, and academia. Why? To find creative and effective solutions to resource challenges and to tackle negative consequences of rapid growth.

6…and grow ’til you drop: Obesity, diabetes and other related medical risks have finally surpassed hunger as a global health crisis and issue. Furthermore, as emerging economies increasingly adopt meat-based diets, animal protein is under scrutiny for both its negative health impacts and the devastatingly huge carbon footprint of livestock rearing (a full 18%, and rising, of global greenhouse gas emissions). There is an opportunity for companies to focus on the inevitable fact that in the future we will all be eating much less meat, more vegetables, less sugar and less salt. Time to get creative with diets! Discussions around health care in the US show us that access to medicine is increasingly a developed world issue also, not just a developing world conundrum (where already some 2 billion people still lack access to medicine). These facts present opportunities for plenty of disruption. We will see the emergence of new business models to serve these massive markets.

7.The global transparency fishbowl: Despite pending deregulation in the US, financial disclosure expectations and regulations have actually increased substantially globally, and with this, transparency. And it is really good news is that investors are taking environmental and social criteria much more seriously than before.  Stock exchanges which long avoided public scrutiny on environmental and social risk are now under the investor spotlight to review disclosure requirements. In 2016, who knew that more than one out of 5 dollars under professional management in the US – yes the US, and that’s almost $9 trillion – was invested according to some kind of sustainability screening? Companies are under pressure to disclose sustainability risk data to shareholders and increasingly undergo stress tests.

8.The big shrink: Finally, as a message to business students, what is happening out there as your local supermarket store replaces people with machines (it happened me the other day, to my chagrin), is a worldwide phenomenon going “from farm to fork” (production to retail). As artificial intelligence and robotics irreversibly move into the mainstream across industries and sectors, we can say goodbye to the world of work, as we once know it! With the social consequences of these massive shifts is in mind, Finland is currently pilot testing the idea of providing universal baseline income (unconditional) in the expectation that automation will massively do away with jobs.  Other countries – such as Canada and Italy – are also testing the waters. Switzerland held a tentative referendum in 2016 but people were not yet ready to vote “yes”; too much of a mind bending change for conservative Switzerland. So what kind of job will YOU do in the future, students?  Make sure a robot cannot easily replicate it. Note that many initially risk averse firms are boldly outlining digital strategies and fostering the right skills and capabilities in their managers to embrace the business world of tomorrow. Soft and subtle human skills, ethics, values, imagination and conceptual intelligence re-enter the picture again as the greatest benefit humans can contribute to business of the future. This may be good news for sustainability.

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.

Hacking for chocolate

“Chocothon” hits sweet spot of collaborative innovation in Ghana

Key question….what went on in Ghana last weekend that might have something to do with BSL’s vision and mission, and especially its three pillars of entrepreneurship, sustainability and responsible leadership in a context of collaborative learning?

The first Chocothon, that’s what! BSL has partnered with Google, the International Trade Center, the Future Food Institute, Crowdfooding and a host of other cool organizations to promote a “techno” focus on the sustainability and business threats around world cocoa supply. How? By holding a hackathon for chocolate (hence the term “Chocothon”). For those not yet in the know, a hackathon is an event, typically lasting a few days, in which groups of people meet to engage in collaborative computer programming. The idea of “hacking for chocolate” was born some two years ago at the Google Food Innovation Lab (where BSL partner and thought leader Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers is an expert participant). The first Chocothon in a series became reality in Accra, Ghana this weekend!

img_9925Threats…around chocolate? What? When you look at supermarket shop shelves today, it is hard to believe there is a problem. After all, we seem to have a plentiful supply of cheap, delicious chocolate treats. But don’t be fooled; our business system is overly short-term oriented. The economics barely work for now and benefit too few stakeholders. Long-term, if the crucial farmer producer of cocoa is not protected, then it’s a zero sum game. In other words, no supply = no business (so bad news for companies) = very expensive Easters, Christmases, Valentine’s days and Birthdays in the future (so terrible news for consumers).

Let’s focus on the challenges. Undercompensating farmers for quality cocoa ultimately leads to too low an income for farmers to bother staying in the business. It creates a rather vicious cycle: no money = low or no investment in new technologies, new trees or desperately needed training = increasingly lower yields and environmental degradation = lower quality cocoa = even less compensation. Then there are government policy threats, such as lack of knowledge and certainty about land rights and ownership leading to insecurity in land tenure. Macroeconomic issues such as inflation and defective exchange rate regimes also take their toll. So farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and other cocoa producing countries are not only exiting cocoa farming and/or switching to other less challenging crops, but they do not want their children to stay in cocoa farming either.  Farming cocoa is a grueling task. If the economics do not work, it is even harder to make a business case to the increasingly literate children of farmers who, after all, may have other options.

So what does the Chocothon set out to do? Well, can the best of modern day high tech ingenuity contribute to resolving the problems around cocoa production? Can this be done in a context where illiteracy is widespread and access to Smartphones extremely limited? We agree…its a pretty tough call. But the technology landscape is changing rapidly. The Chocothon team figured that if we could get young Ghanaians excited about problems in their own country, through collaboration they could be empowered to focus their ingenuity on thinking forward and fixing them. After all, the problems we mention are man-made, so let’s get some man (and woman)-made solutions!

Need more convincing?  Well, if you get enough stakeholders together in one room with some hackers to work on a problem, you can literally start… hacking away at it.  So, for example, at the Chocothon, we invited government representatives to not only contribute their knowledge as “knowledge brokers” but to also raise awareness with them of the importance of increasing internet and Smart phone technology access, or of increasing institutional knowledge about land sizes, ownership and security. After all, knowing what you didn’t know makes for better decision-making. Looking forward, we can expect that young farmers in Ghana will be – as all young people are – ingenuous about assuring their own access to technology; every single trend in the world indicates that this is the case.

Therefore, the idea of designing collaborative platforms to share farming equipment or expertise to increase quality of work and efficiency and thus productivity, is not a pipe dream.  To set up systems empowering farmers to demand and get the best prices on the market is not a hallucination either. To enable mobile direct payments to farmers – faster cashless money transactions – coupled with now fast developing services like mobile insurance or other business transactions for tools or fertilizers are totally feasible future options for Africa, as they have been for other countries. Micro-financing of farmer investments, even by crowd-sourcing funds from all the chocolate lovers out there might be another possibility. Creating training platforms, or indeed tools that help young farmers with assessing soil fertility, tree age, crop diseases…all this is possible today. We can also look at optimizing transportation platforms to allow for better transport of cocoa beans – a big headache for Ghanaian farmers today. Get it? Good!

So from Saturday to Sunday 20-21 January, 2017 a group of young and talented hackers – IT developers and social innovators – got together with other stakeholders at the Impact Hub n Accra, Ghana. Representatives and knowledge brokers joined from multiple organizations such as the Ghanaian government, Google, Barry Callebaut (Swiss B2B cocoa supplier), the International Trade Center and the Future Food Institute. The Chocathon team assigned the hackers to working groups and provided food, drinks, and even mattresses (yes!) for the all night hack.

img_9852-2The teams had a task of building up a prototype and uploading deliverables step by step during the hackathon. Sounds familiar? It is pretty much the techie version of what the students of BSL did by designing start-ups to tackle social issues during the last Gap-Frame week last December… Yes, this kind of collaborative learning is taking hold in more sectors than one! The Ghanaian Chocothon hackers get tempting prizes to encourage innovation and even conversion of their prototypes into working businesses, such as a co-working space for one year at the Impact Hub or for six months at ISpace, or indeed a cash prize.

Watch this space for the next blog about the Chocothon where we will tell you about some of the cool ideas the hackers came up with. This is the first of a series of Chocothons that will ultimately contribute to saving YOUR treasured chocolate from gradual extinction. Tune in to #chocothon hashtag to find out more. Even better…how about supporting our next Chocothon? Here is our crowd-funding site link:  https://www.crowdfooding.co.uk/deal/188/Chocothon

Why should you get involved? Because YOUR chocolate needs YOU!

Ionescu-AileenPICTURE-150x150Author: Dr. Aileen Ionescu-Somers

Active in thought leadership, consulting, applied research, teaching and supervising DBA candidates in sustainability & responsibility.