BSR 2011 Preview: Redefining Businesses for the Future

BSR 2011 Preview: Redefining Businesses for the Future

The world is becoming more and more urban: The population is growing, cities are getting larger, the problems confronting them are many -- and at times seemingly contradictory.

Financial, political, social and environmental systems are in decline, yet furious innovation has brought rapid and sweeping advancements in technology, science and human health, say Ted Howes, BSR's director of advisory services, and Linda Hwang, the organization's research manager.

How can businesses meet the challenges of today and scale themselves for the future? Howes and Hwang are leading discussions on the topic at the BSR Conference 2011 next week in San Francisco, where the focus will be on "Redefining Leadership."

Today Hwang and Howes provide an early look at their session, "Scaling for the New Local," in this Q&A, which was conducted by email.Linda Hwang

Leslie Guevarra: Would you give us a preview of your session for the upcoming BSR conference?

Ted Howes and Linda Hwang: Our session is about business in transition. Today we are at a point in time where many of our systems -- financial, political, social, environmental -- are in decline, and yet we are also constantly pushing the frontiers of technology, science, and human health in unprecedented ways. We have pieces of the solutions, but we could be smarter about how and where they fit, and we can't be afraid to try different things on for size.

For companies, this means they need to start shifting the way they make decisions and start experimenting with new ways to offer products and services that match people's needs and work within planetary constraints.

Ted HowesThis is a two-hour collaborative, hands-on session that will have attendees taking a systems approach to finding solutions recognize co-dependent ecologies related to energy, food, water, productivity, information, shelter and health.

How would the apparel industry work together with food and agriculture companies to enable better flows of information and therefore create solutions that address multiple challenges tied to food, energy and water? If you're a telecommunications provider, can you provide the connective mesh that would allow information to flow more readily between different industries? If you're a food or consumer products retailer, how might your sourcing decisions change if you knew how the natural systems that you depend on will change in the next five to ten years?

This session won't be for the faint of heart. We want people to interact, challenge each other, and throw some new ideas out there that will inspire us all to be more thoughtful and bolder in our approaches to solving these big, hairy challenges.

LG: What prompted BSR to focus on this topic? Your session is the only one on the schedule so far that's offered twice, which seems to be a good indicator of its significance. Tell us about that.

TH and LH: The Research team at BSR focuses on emerging sustainability issues and offers companies practical solutions to these challenges. We launched the Future Trends in Sustainability program, which is the evolution of our Sustainability Outlook project with the Institute for the Future, to help us question some of the assumptions about the way the world works, and therefore help corporate managers match up more closely with reality as it is and as it's going to be.

We do a lot of interviews with people in big and small companies, professors, researchers, designers -- pretty much anyone we come across that can help shape our thinking on what's disruptive in their line of work, what inspires them, and topics, ideas, and people that they're tracking.

As we were conducting this research, a set of trends started to emerge around this idea of the "new local." That might not be the right word to use -- "local" typically conjures up ideas of "getting back to nature," getting everything you need from 100 miles around your house, and all the things associated with local living economies.

The new local draws from these ideas, but it's also tied to a new focus on tracking human well-being and happiness, a renewed appreciation for how we rely on ecological systems that are in decline, and the reality that our global economy may be destroying the very foundations on which it depends.

So solutions like low-impact housing, off-grid water and energy, seed-sharing programs, and community-supported agriculture are sprouting in different corners of the world in response to urban regions that need redesigned infrastructure, goods, and services that match peoples' needs and work within planetary constraints.

The really interesting thing is large, global companies are tracking these ideas and starting to think about how they might apply them across their own range of activities.

And against this backdrop we're also seeing the interesting and troubling demographic trends. In 2005 (the last date for which we have UN population statistics), there were six cities with populations of 10 million people or more, our so-called megacities -- and the environmental and social problem with these cities is well known today. About zero cities have a population between 4 and 10 million people, and another 330 cities have between 1 and 4 million people. Fifteen or 20 years from now, these 300-plus cities may become megacities.

You realize pretty quickly that we need to start scaling a very different set of solutions. If we all know that "business as usual' won't cut it," then what is going to work? And we thought what better place to start generating these ideas than at the BSR Conference. We don't need to rebuild the world from scratch, but we will need the capacity to scale smart ideas that offer real resilience. And the private sector has to be part of the solution.

LG: What are the chief challenges to progress in this area?

TH and LH: Historically cities have always been incubators of innovation, yet most fundamental systemic shifts are a challenge for citizens, companies and policymakers to act on -- the scope and scale of the endeavor can be paralyzing. The opportunity is to start to facilitate understanding and conversations, spark ideas and inspire experimentation to scale for the new local.

We need to get ahead of the trend by designing better solutions that meet people's needs while incorporating a new understanding of the connectedness of these challenges.

Some of the challenges may be tied to not knowing today what the future will look like and how we're supposed to adapt to our new set of circumstances. For example, we all know the problems associated with continuing on our current path of consumption, and there's a lot of talk about the need for new business models.

But what do those models look like? Turn all products into services? Engage through our mobile platforms better? If we're only focused on the impact to the bottom line of producing less more efficiently, and not also on the types of social goods we can create, it's difficult to want to change our current paradigm.

LG: What do you hope people will learn from the talk?

TH and LH: This will be a highly interactive session engaging participants to help think about how businesses can respond to this fundamental demographic trend. We hope that they'll come away with a better understanding of the issues and opportunities this shift will create.  We hope participants will generate ideas and creative approaches to meet the evolving needs of the citizens of these mega regions and that they will be inspired to start experimenting with new ways to design and deliver more sustainable products and services.

LG: What will BSR be doing to make sure the conversations and work in this area continue?

TH and LH: We're working in a number of dimensions in areas that are both directly related and adjacent to this issue, such as continuing to explore the intersection of shifting demographics and resource issues and people's needs.  We've also been thinking about issues like sustainable consumption and ecosystem services and ways we can work with our members to take action in these areas.  These are themes that keep bubbling up and are squarely in our mission to create a just and sustainable world through business.

Image Credits: Photo of futuristic city via Shutterstock. Inset images courtesy of BSR.

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