In the mid 90s there was a buzz in the air. A new technology was on the horizon and the business world was starting to get their head around the opportunities associated with it. The internet was just around the corner and it was going to change everything.
You can bet your bottom dollar that your average successful 50-something business(wo)man rode the dot-com wave – in some form or another – all the way into the doorway of their second home in Padstow.
As Peter Thiel (PayPal) recounts, “The dot-com bubble was a goldrush: there was money everywhere, and no shortage of it, and no shortage of people to chase it … Appending .com to your name could double your value overnight” (Zero to One). The titans of business today were forged in the dot-com furnace – fueled by limitless information.
The dot-com wave irreversibly changed everyone’s lives. For the better? That’s not what this blog is about. The important point here is that today, 20 years after the large-scale adoption of the internet, we spend a sizable portion of our days thinking about the internet. In the eight hours a day we spend at work, we spend at least two of those hours thinking about the internet.
An important clarification: what I mean by “thinking about the internet” isn’t the time we spend navigating the internet, but the time that we spend making decisions in which the internet is a player. “Thinking” in this should could be more accurately thought of as consideration.
In the mid 90s, the internet was a fringe concept: open to debate and not universally accepted as a norm. At this point, the innovators and early adopters were turning the wheel and setting sail towards new ways of conducting their business which included the internet. The laggards and late majority, had their fingers in their ears and took the “I don’t think the internet’s going to change our business too much” stance (Context if you don’t understand these groups).
In the end, it was those who had full faith in this new way of thinking (pre-2000 in the graph above), changing their internal decision making to adopt an unproven and futuristic way of thinking who shaped the world we live in today. Those who were resistant, were forced to join the future at some point – and most likely don’t have that second home in Padstow today.
It will be no surprise — especially given the nature of our work at Future Shift — that I will pull this internet analogy into the world of 2022: a world just starting to adopt sustainable thinking into business. If you add 20 years to each of the values in the X axis in the graph above, you are seeing a picture of what the future trends will look like for sustainability being adopted as a core element of a business day-to-day.
For businesses and the people that work in them, thinking about sustainability today is just like what thinking about the internet was like 20 years ago. One had to think about a complicated, risky, futuristic system that we’re all moving towards, and no one had any idea of the social consequences. I can completely understand why people are opposed to making complicated, systemic changes — there’s definitely a lot less brain-ache involved with keeping your fingers in your ears (but I guess that’s why only 2.5% of the population are innovators). It is the job of this 2.5%, who quite like the risk and brain-ache to make thinking about sustainability accessible to everyone – just like Microsoft, Google and Apple did in the 00s. This is the business challenge of our working lives (unless you are in your second home in Padstow) and one that Future Shift is embarking on now.
The Microsoft’s, Google’s, Fa***ook’s and Apple’s of the world succeeded because they took the unbearably complicated concept that was the internet and made it so simple your nan could use it. This is the nature of the sustainable business arms race of the next 20 years. The internet’s market size is about $2 trillion. If you’ve heard Mark Carney speak on sustainability in the financial space, you’ll know that $2 trillion are baby numbers compared with what must be circulated to combat the climate crisis.
So, how is sustainability going to change your life? If you are a director or working in the innovation space, then everything you’ve already read is for you and how sustainability will penetrate your every business thought over the next 20 years.
For everyone else, think about your day-to-day job — and I want you to be honest here — and answer the question: “do I think about sustainability in my every-day decisions?” (sustainability here means how this decision will compromise the ability of people to live forever). If the graph above is anything to go by, only 3/10 of you can answer yes to this, and that’s pretty accurate in my experience of working with developing sustainable thinking in businesses.
Here are just some examples of how sustainability will be involved in your day-to-day, for some of the most common roles in a business:
Procurement – “keeping our supply chain in line with carbon limits/taxes is the bane of my life!”
Operations – “what is the climate-related disaster risk for our factories in Bangladesh? This is the second factory closed down due to flooding this week!”
Recruitment – “no innovative or progressive graduates are looking to work for my business”
Sales – “no-one wants to buy our individually plastic-wrapped dishwasher tablets any more”
R&D – any future facing role will have to be resilient to climate risks. This is perhaps the only role within a business, where thinking about our longevity as a species is close to enough, but people in R&D are kind of cheating because it’s their job to think about the future.
HR – “Climate migrants have created new challenges for language and ethnic diversity in our workplace”
In reality, a lot of these problems are on people’s minds right now and will become every-day consideration in the all too near future. When we get to a sizable chunk of the world thinking about these ideas before they are risks, that is when we transition into a sustainable society and start to address the fundamental sustainable issues we face today.
“Invest in emotional intelligence and emotional resilience because for the first time in history people will have to reinvent themselves multiple times throughout their life”
Yuval Noah Harari on what children should be taught today.
Our mission in the world is to redesign sustainability for business. Our mission for our clients is to change everyone’s job description to include sustainability principles, thus nudging people to start thinking about sustainability and pulling sustainability into the equation when making day-to-day company decisions, however seemingly futile.
If we change enough people’s job descriptions, we begin to redesign what sustainability means to business – not some limitation or harsh boundary in which a business can operate, but an ideological shift within a business’ inner workings that can be induced by nothing more than the ability to see the world a little clearer.
Future Shift is a sustainability consulting firm using technology and science-driven sustainability to redesign sustainability for businesses.