A globalized and hyper-connected world on a small planet

Over the past 70 years we have gone from being a small world on a big planet to becoming a big world on a small planet. The economic and technological development that the world has seen over this period of time is mind-blowing. At the same time, it has created severe social and environmental sustainability problems that we need to find solutions to.

As long as we were still a small and predictable world on a big and stable planet, the effects of our global development trajectory were not yet felt. At this time, conventional  strategies for business worked relatively well. But in the globalized, hyper-connected, and rapidly changing world where we live today, successful business development will require a fundamentally new set of strategies.

Beyond break-even lies a prosperous future

The Anthropocene changes everything, for everyone, everywhere. The disruption underway is enormous, and will mean the end for many companies with traditional business models. But there will also be winners, among those who realize that the Anthropocene is already here, and are ready to seize the opportunities for sustainable business development that are opening up.

Sustainability is at the front and center of what is happening now. But working with sustainability in the Anthropocene requires a new perspective. And the key to success is found well beyond break-even sustainability. Instead of aiming for less negative impact and make small adjustments to comply with increasingly tight regulations, the future belongs to companies with business models that aim beyond break-even sustainability – companies that can honestly say they have a positive impact on our planet, and on people’s lives.

To position yourself among the frontrunners, you need to understand what the Anthropocene means for the future of your business. You need to be prepared to navigate continuous change, and aim for true transformation. It's not about anything else than business. But good business will be different from now on.

Living in a time of great acceleration

In just two generations the world has changed profoundly. The graphs show the development of 24 socio-economic and biophysical trends from the the industrial revolution to present day.

Since the 1950s, the world population has increased three times, real GDP has increased ten times, and international tourism has gone from non-existent to reaching astonishing 1 billion international arrivals per year. At the same time, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 270 to 390 ppm, marine fisheries have gone up from 12 to 70 million tons per year, and we have lost about 30% of all tropical forest.

Looking across the graphs, the pattern is strikingly similar, with an exponential increase on all fronts, starting about 70 years ago. This phenomenon is referred to as the “great acceleration”, and reflects the largest transformation in human history in terms of how we relate to our planet.

Source: Steffen et al. 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the great acceleration.

Importantly, these trends do not operate in a vacuum, but economic, social and environmental processes today interact with each other in ways that create cascading change around the globe. What is perhaps even more striking than their individual change patterns demonstrated in the graphs above is the complexity that arises when they interact. This makes for a hyper-connected and rapidly changing world, which scientist today agree is so fundamentally different from what the world used to be like that it constitute a new era – the Anthropocene – or the age of humans.

A new context for business is emerging

While understanding the full effects of the Anthropocene is a complex issue, the consequences for successful businesses can be boiled down to three main issues.

1

Limitation of resources

We use more resources than what the biosphere produces. Current global production and consumption patterns is estimated to require an equivalent of 1.7 Earths, and this number is steadily increasing. As resources becomes scarce they also become more expensive.

2

Internal challenges emerge

As the world becomes increasingly full and connected, issues that in the past relatively easily could be considered externalities, now pose internal problems.A typical example is when pollution starts to affect system productivity negatively.

3

Rapid and surprising shifts

The complex interaction between economic, social and environmental processes, creates a rapidly changing world, world full of uncertainty and surprise. This means that the relative stability that characterized both the resources base and the marked in the late 20th century, can no longer be assumed. We must now expect the unexpected.

“We are at a critical time in history. The choices of today’s business leaders will make a pivotal difference for the longevity and prosperity of their enterprises.”

Dr. Elin Enfors-Kautsky, Founder Prosperous Planet

For those who realize that the Anthropocene is already here and manage to make sense of the interacting macro trends around us, there is a plethora of new opportunities for sustainable business development to seize. Frontrunners will be able to shape the sustainability disruption as it unfolds, tailoring what a sustainable business future should look like to their advantage. Those that are too slow or resist to change will either will go out of business, or be forced to play by rules set by others.