Working towards the SDGs through political and economic flux: Three recommendations for business

Our existing governance models are no longer fit for purpose, and are breaking. In their place, we are witnessing the unsettling rise of populist nationalism, a symptom of a fractured political settlement characterised by deep inequality, insecurity, and lack of proper representation.

Working towards the SDGs through political and economic flux: Three recommendations for business

At the same time, technology – so often a force for good – is catalysing the problem through the structural bias of social media that favours divisive campaigning and polarising content. And this is not to mention the use of micro-targeting by actors in the emerging paradigm of surveillance capitalism.

There is now the very real danger that in the context of breaking governance models, rising nationalism will turn toxic in the 2020s as climate change ramps up the pressure on the economy through mass migration, agricultural failure and a host of other probable impacts. If this spurs a protectionist response, it could evolve into a significant barrier to the co-ordinated global action we so desperately need on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate change.

Countering the trend

While nationalism is making ground in response to our inadequate governance models, there are hopeful signs of an emerging countertrend in which politics of place and localism are manifesting to develop forms of participatory governance and democracy.

Although a nascent movement currently less prominent than nationalism, there are numerous examples that hint of rising popularity and influence, such as ‘flatpack democracy’ in Somerset, Ireland’s citizen assembly (for finding a non-polarising way forward on legalising abortion), and Ghent in Belgium becoming a commons city, managed for – and by – its citizens.

And it’s not just at a political level. This countertrend is also appearing in the commercial sector, as revealed in our recent report on the role of community enterprises in a thriving economy, and across civil society.

Transport social enterprise HCT Group, for example, which reinvests its profits into the community, establishes local governance whenever it starts operating in a new area. Devon-based Atmos Totnes, as another, is a community-led redevelopment project helping to solve the housing crisis while simultaneously experimenting with accountability structures to drive renewal in local connection.

Implications for business

Rising nationalism and participatory democracy are two of seven megatrends identified in Forum for the Future’s recent Future of Sustainability report as having a very significant role in shaping the future. But what does that mean for the commercial sector? 

What we know is that the continued rise of nationalism threatens to disrupt progress on urgent challenges requiring global participation, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and the SDGs. To ensure we continue to make progress, three important things need to happen:

1) Recognition and mitigation – businesses need to understand that inequality, insecurity and lack of representation within the political system are the underlying drivers fuelling populist nationalism. The corporate world has an important role in advocating for greater fairness, but to do that they must also understand their own systemic impact as a company and sector, and how their business practices contribute to the dynamics in play.

Does your business contribute to employment stability or precariousness, for example? Does it bolster the local economy and environment or extract from it? Do your technological and advertising practices contribute to issues such as polarisation and surveillance capitalism?

2) Development and growth of positive alternatives – the world of community enterprise offers plenty of examples of schemes boosting participation, as well as the bottom line, that businesses can learn from. Companies need to develop their own dialogue and links with civil society and local government that are not limited to CSR programmes, but are core to their business. This will help them to understand what net positive means in a local context and how to get there.

In Preston, for example, businesses are working with the council on procurement to strengthen the city’s economy and local accountability. Are local governments in your vicinity trying out more participatory approaches that you can get involved with? Is there scope for your company – and this is particularly relevant to construction companies designing new developments – to try out participatory approaches that are tied to actual outcomes and budgets?

3) Resilience preparation – nationalism is likely to persist in some form over the next decade and may intensify if resource crunches appear, with practical implications for supply chains. As a business, now is the time to be asking yourself how you could shorten your supply chains in such a way that supports decarbonisation and the SDGs? How can you move to more circular value chains?

Failure to take action on the SDGs and other global challenges we face today will negatively affect us all sooner rather than later. The shift to a fairer society is as much about justice as it is about sound business practice. How we move forward from here is up to us all.

Joy Green is Principal Futures Specialist at Forum for the Future

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