The Elkington Report

Taking sustainability to warp speed

warp speed
Presenting breakthrough business models that "offer huge new opportunities for those who can move fast." 

No, I wasn’t a true Trekkie, but I know what warp speed is. And something in my bones tells me that to live long and prosper, human societies must work out how to jump into a very different space — technologically, economically, politically and, above all, culturally.

VERGE, of course, was early into the field, building critical mass for new types of value creation as old industry and sectoral boundaries blurred. The same imperative has driven us at Volans, with our latest paper — whose U.S. launch will be at VERGE 2016 in Santa Clara — focusing in on the role of breakthrough business models.

Some business top teams felt that they were hit by a triple whammy last year, especially those thinking they could get away with a skim of change-as-usual to lubricate the continued forward progress of business-as-usual strategies. The triple whammy kicked off with the papal encyclical, followed up with the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and then landed a potential knockout blow for industries such as fossil fuels with the COP21 climate agreement.

[Check out John Elkington's talk "Project Breakthrough: Exponential Solutions to Global Goals" on the mainstage of VERGE 16 in Santa Clara on Sept. 22. Can't make it in person? Sign up for the free livestream.]

Technology will be a key factor in delivering against this emerging global agenda, but unfortunately it can’t just be conjured into existence as in "Star Trek." And even where they exist, technologies need wrap-around business models to bridge between the lab and the market.

We will launch two initiatives in Santa Clara to help expand the spotlight to new mindsets and types of business model designed to deliver breakthrough solutions to tomorrow’s most urgent market needs. The initiatives are closely entwined.

The first is a new report, "Breakthrough Business Models," prepared by Volans for the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, with the results feeding into the commission’s final report, due to launch at the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Davos summit.

The second is Project Breakthrough, a showcase of "where Breakthrough is already happening," co-evolved by Volans and the U.N. Global Compact, the world’s largest sustainable business platform — with some 8,300 corporate members.

Under the leadership of Lise Kingo, for many years in leadership positions at Copenhagen-based Novo Nordisk, the Global Compact has embraced the breakthrough innovation mindset and agenda developed since the 2012 Breakthrough Capitalism Forum by Volans and a growing range of partners. The thinking is that this can help corporate leaders get their brains around what will be required of the "business of the tomorrow."

In the spirit of long wave economists Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter, we see an accelerating shift from a fifth economic cycle to Wave 6, as summarized in the panel below. The timing of Wave 6, needless to say, are guesstimates:

elkington waves

But what do we mean by the term "Breakthrough"? We use it as shorthand for a business agenda that: (1) accepts that, while incremental change has its place, it is no longer remotely enough for what comes next; (2) market disruption is happening — and is likely to accelerate; (3) such times offer huge new opportunities for those who can move fast — and in the right directions; and (4) business mindsets are shifting from doing less bad towards doing more good.

The Breakthrough Business Models work is aimed at business leaders and identifies five key characteristics of the sort of business models that will help deliver key elements of the Global Goals agenda by 2030. Noting that just about any business model can be repurposed for the task, the report then zeroes-in on one overarching breakthrough trajectory — and four areas where this approach is being adopted.

The four areas where all of this will have the greatest initial impacts are in terms of "Social X" (with exponential mindsets, technologies and business models applied to key social goals), "Lean" (ditto in the field of efficiency across multiple forms of capital, lean production and lean start-ups), "Integrated X" (ditto across value webs, with radical new forms of transparency and intelligence flowing both from farms, fisheries, factories and economies and from the atmosphere and biosphere) and "Circular X" (involving the accelerating closing of resource loops).

The overarching message is that — whether we are talking about boards, brands or business models — the new agenda is shifting from incremental to exponential forms of change, at least for a decade or two. In the process, there needs to an accelerating process of cross-pollination between today’s business incumbents and the new breeds of insurgent, championed by organizations such as Google’s "X" initiative, The X Prize Foundation and Singularity University.

To this end, Project Breakthrough is launching with a set of new filmed interviews, co-produced with Atlas of the Future, of some of the world’s leading breakthrough innovators and entrepreneurs such as Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase, X Prize and Singularity U co-founder Peter Diamandis, Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek and Eric Rondolat, CEO of Philips Lighting, talking on subjects as varied as peer-to-peer business models plant-based egg substitutes through to selling lumens rather than lighting equipment.

The aim: to shift the C-suite needle from incremental to exponential — and from the sort of negative impacts spotlighted for much of that period to the sort of positive impact sought by leading social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, and by the new breed of impact investors.

At the same time, we must work out how to evaluate and shape next generation technologies so they don’t trigger next generation problems. We are immensely excited about the prospect of working more closely with the VERGE ecosystem to ensure that technology doesn’t just meet sustainability by the watercooler — but that new conversations spark and partnerships form, helping shift business onto the sort of warp speed trajectories needed to create a new economic operating system that is fit for a very different future.