Dealing with disruption means embracing opportunities

Dealing with disruption means embracing opportunities

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This article is drawn from the VERGE Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Wednesdays.

Disruption. Risk. Resilience.

Buzzwords become buzzworthy for a reason. If you’re not paying close attention to how a changing world will reshape your business — perhaps, even, the global economy — you’re not positioning yourself or your organization for leadership, let alone sustainability in the conventional sense of the word.

Let’s take the first buzzword: Disruption, the primary theme of an event in which I participated recently. Hosted by the BSR Sustainable Futures Lab, the meeting convened about 20 thought leaders and "doers" to address a set of scenarios, each defined by major disruptions that could reshape the landscape of business and sustainability.

The basic premise is that the world is changing in rapid, disruptive, complex and unpredictable ways, and that we need to deploy more "futures thinking tools" to prepare ourselves and our organizations to anticipate and adapt.

It’s one thing to understand this, conceptually. It’s entirely different imagining you’re working as part of a "centaur team" of blended human and machine intelligence, and being asked to articulate in as much detail as possible the potential implications of such a world.

Consider, for example, a few possible future scenarios we unpacked over the course of the evening, beginning with ranking a list of about 20 for their disruptive potential to business, society and the planet:

  • Lab-grown meat is indistinguishable from conventional meat and costs the same.
  • Blockchain, sensors and ubiquitous wearable micro-cameras have created near-total transparency in supply chains.
  • Climate change significantly has altered agricultural patterns.
  • Many governments have started to ration land and water.
  • (And even) Creativity, empathy and the ability to learn are ranked as the three most valuable traits in human employees.

Things got really interesting when we moved beyond the scenarios and into the host of potential consequences — that is, mapping out the consequences of consequences and how they interact with one another. As Jacob Park, BSR Sustainable Futures Lab director, put it, "Not only are the speed and scope of these changes hard to fathom, but they are all interacting with each other to produce bewildering complexity."

What struck me most about the exercise is the dramatic polarity in possible futures, based on how disruptions are navigated today. As we gathered around one another’s sticky-note covered flipcharts for windows of insight into where the other groups had landed, a striking similarity emerged: Either we had achieved the SDGs, educational opportunity and economic prosperity were equitably and evenly distributed, and world peace was proven possible; or, we found ourselves in a dystopic world of geopolitical upheaval and civil unrest, massive migration and wars over scarce resources, with a robot takeover of the global economy well underway.

Ultimately, it was impossible not to come away with a newfound perspective about how essential it is that businesses and society at large embrace multiple possible futures, and the extent to which the decisions we make today dramatically will determine that potential. I feel more emboldened than ever about ensuring we set ourselves on the trajectory towards a world that works for all — especially given that the alternative scenarios are a world that works for no one.

Speaking of potential — especially in contrast to this week’s disheartening news about the U.S. administration’s efforts to repeal California’s rights to uphold bold climate policy — I’m struck by the number of stories at GreenBiz last week that demonstrate how businesses are embracing disruptions as opportunities:

  • Evolve or bust: Ride-hailing players Uber and Lyft are pivoting as autonomous technologies hit the road — but will they end up more like Netflix or Blockbuster? Katie Fehrenbacher unpacks those potential scenarios.
  • Data and disruption: From a nascent startup trying to become the frequent flyer program for ground transportation to a new "emissions inventory" that turns national data into actionable information, companies and cities are finding new ways to manage, monitor and maintain data to navigate uncharted markets.
  • Supersize this: In the face of climate disruption and crop failures, the vertical, indoor farming industry is taking root — growing new businesses in addition to greens.
  • 100,000 by 2020: That’s the goal the Global Impact Sourcing Coalition (GISC) is challenging businesses to achieve to ensure leading companies build more inclusive global supply chains.
  • Time to transform: Future-thinking companies are turning externalities into solutions by seeing global problems as innovation challenges — here’s a compelling excerpt on how.
  • Circularity going mainstream: A recent GreenBiz 350 podcast features three approaches to circular solutions — from the launch of a $150 million fund jumpstarting circular economy innovation to an all-women eXXpedition charting the course to address ocean plastics.

Who is driving the future of energy, transportation and the circular economy? Friday is the deadline to nominate leaders in those categories and beyond for our upcoming VERGE Vanguard awards.

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