Megatrends: The game-changers that are shaping the future of sustainable business

What will the world look like in five, 10, 50, or 500 years' time? It's a question that ultimately underpins the raison d'etre of corporate sustainability. But a definitive answer can be incredibly difficult, and in some instances impossible, to be sure of.

Megatrends: The game-changers that are shaping the future of sustainable business

We do, however, have a good idea of the direction that the world is heading in. We know that globalisation, digitalisation and urbanisation are radically changing the way companies operate. We know that the populations are continuing to grow and people in all regions are living longer, and thus there will be an increased demand for energy, food and water. We know that average global temperatures are increasing at a rate which scientists believe will cause significant and potentially irreversible environmental changes. And, of course, there are the ‘known unknowns’ we are about to experience through the likes of Brexit and President Trump.

The impacts and influences of these ‘megatrends’ can be charted now, right across the globe. Here in the UK – one of the world’s richest countries – we are already seeing a gradual increase in average annual temperatures along with some evidence of more extreme weather events. We are seeing the Government place a heavy focus on technology and innovation as a key driver for business growth. And we are seeing the Internet of Things (IoT) – that ever-expanding ecosystem of digital sensors, home appliances and wearable smart devices – gathering pace as our cities become ‘smarter’ to cope with an increased population.

Challenges and opportunities

But it’s not just in the developed regions that we are seeing transformational change through these megatrends. In fact, it is in the developing nations where the negative impacts of these megatrends are often felt. This week, the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF has warned that almost 1.4 million children “are at imminent risk of death” this year from famine in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen — the first time in six years that famine had been announced anywhere in the world.

There are, however, some positive trends emerging in the developing world. Take Africa’s oldest independent country, Ethiopia, for instance. With 99 million inhabitants, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest nations in the world, but the country actually leads the pack of fastest-growing economies — not just in Africa, but in the world — due to the dominance of the state in the economy and an increased investment interest from China. While 80% of the Ethiopian population is still rural, urbanisation is accelerating fast, with the capital, Addis Ababa, going through an infrastructural transformation, setting an example of what is possible in other regions facing similar issues.

Climate change, meanwhile, continues to pose a huge challenge for the East African nation, with the complete failure of seasonal rains driving a humanitarian crisis in recent times. But this challenge is broadly being viewed as an opportunity for the Government. Ethiopia was among the most daring signatories of the Paris Agreement, committing to cut carbon emissions by 64% by 2030. The country is already 100% powered by renewable energy, but the Government continues to position clean technology and green innovation as key economic drivers – it has already ploughed billions into hydropower megaprojects and is now gearing up to become the wind power capital of Africa, with its second Growth and Transformation Plan – a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and spur national development – pursuing an increase of wind energy output from 324MW in 2015 to more than 17,000MW by 2020.

Creating the future

So, it is clear that these megatrends – climate change, technology and innovation, urbanisation and smart cities, population growth and social change, and economic growth – are all having a profound effect on people and businesses across the globe. In this sense, these megatrends together form a useful barometer of the environmental and social trajectory of our planet.

But what do these megatrends look like through the lens of corporate sustainability? It was the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who said “the best way to predict your future is to create it”, and nowhere are these words of wisdom more fitting than when interpreting all of these megatrends. From championing the renewable energy revolution to engaging and empowering millennials, business has a critical role to play in shaping a positive future.

A sustainable business is one that successfully decoupled economic growth from environmental impact. It is one that harnesses technology and innovation to lower emissions and drive positive change. It is one that embraces resource-efficient business models and IoT-based products to help deliver the smart cities of the future, today. And it is one that adapts positively to demographic shifts and population growth and empowers millennials to meet key social challenges. Ultimately, a sustainable business is one that helps to ensure that it leaves a positive environmental and social legacy, and that in five, 10, 50 or 500 years’ time, the world is a better place.

edie’s megatrends series

It is this mantra that has inspired edie to launch a new series of thought-leadership pieces on these megatrends. Written by an array of industry experts from the likes of The Climate Group, New Climate Economy and PwC, the articles will provide an overview of the environmental and social impacts these megatrends are having; and explore how they are helping to shape the low-carbon, resource-efficient business of the future.

The first megatrends article focuses on the megatrend of climate change and has been written by The Climate Group’s corporate partnerships director Mike Peirce. Read Part 1 here.

All of the articles in the megatrends series will be made available when published via this link.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie