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 truly mind-blowing, but it has also created a series severe social and environmental sustainability problems.

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, and conventional  strategies for business development worked relatively well. But in the globalized, hyper-connected, and rapidly changing world we live in today, successful business development requires a fundamentally new set of strategies.

The great acceleration

In just two generations the world has changed profoundly. The graphs below show how 12 socio-economic trends and 12 biophysical trends have developed since 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 development

While understanding the full effects of the Anthropocene is a complex issue, the consequences for business development 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, no longer can be assumed. Rather, we must now expect the unexpected.

To sum it all up, the Anthropocene is changing everything, for everyone, everywhere. Creating business futures fit for the Anthropocene, will require advanced skills in navigating change to identify both where risks are lurking and where new opportunities emerge.

At the verge of the sustainability disruption

We are at a critical time in history now. The choices of today’s business leaders will make a pivotal difference for the longevity and prosperity of their enterprises. In the coming decades, the world economy will go carbon neutral, AI and other exponential technologies will revolutionize sector after sector, and we can expect drastic policy changes shaking the foundations for how businesses develop and prosper.

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

Dr. Elin Enfors-Kautsky

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 massive disruption ahead of us, tailoring what a sustainable business future should look like to their advantage, whereas those that are to slow or resist to change, either will go out of business or be forced to play by the rules set by others.