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Sustainable Futures

How to spot the best opportunities for action these next two years

<p>If you know what the mainstream is ready for, then you can have a greater chance of success. How might you tell? And what might be bubbling under right now?</p>

Will global governance splutter back to life? Will there be a backlash against the sharing economy? Will companies have adjusted to high commodity prices — or will the need for traceability undermine why there are commodities in the first place?

Scanning for answers to questions such as those can help change agents prepare to seize opportunities.

If you’ve worked in sustainable business for a while, you’ll know that some topics never grow old — we need to make progress and you can find some examples of effort, if you look hard enough, but will there really be take-off this time?

For instance, when I started as a sustainability accountant in 2003, the interest from corporates in valuing externality metrics was dwindling. By the time Puma produced its “first” environmental profit and loss account (EP&L), enough senior executives had moved on from "why sustainability" to "how" and needed familiar-enough metrics to act. Puma’s pioneering effort came at the right moment, and now many companies are pushing the field of sustainability accounting forward.

Clearly, if you know what the mainstream is ready for, then you can have a greater chance of success. You can direct your attention, time and money to take advantage. But how might you tell? And what might be bubbling under right now?

On the first question, you can ask a diverse range of people. You can analyze what they tell you and draw a picture in three dimensions: big, macro trends that set the landscape for everyone; developments in the mainstream of industries and countries; and activity in the disruptive niches, including new technology and new business models.

Then you look for patterns across all three dimensions. Is there pressure from the landscape that the mainstream is struggling to react to? Are there new technologies that can solve that struggle? Are there new management practices being adopted in mainstream companies? Are there new institutions being funded?

Having identified some potential hotspots, then you can check your insights with a crowd of informed people.

We are part-way through just such a scanning process. My colleagues and I have interviewed diverse people and spotted patterns. We’ve found 16 potential hot spots. These include the points listed in the opening paragraph of this column on global governance, the sharing economy and commodities. But also: NGOs getting more sophisticated by targeting leaders, the rise and rise of biotechnology, and more.

What we need now is a crowd of informed people to rate which patterns will be more important.

This scanning process is one of the things we are creating with our Futures Center. With investment from the Singaporean Economic Develop Board, we are creating a global hub for futures insight, anchored in Singapore. We will want people to use those insights to accelerate change wherever they are.

Scanning for what will be important in sustainable business over the next two years is just the latest of our efforts. We’ll be able to share our findings in columns over the coming months. For now, please contribute your insight.

Top image by Photodiem via Shutterstock.

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