There is little that is guaranteed but change is certain. In the words of Lawrence Bloom, the co-founder of B.e Energy (a triple bottom line energy company), we are no longer in an age of change but in a change of age. The world faces three converging crises – economic, environmental and social – that require urgent and visionary action. Behind these crises are the failure of a worldview based on the single-minded pursuit of growth and the failure to work collaboratively to ensure that benefits are shared widely.
In the next decade, we will certainly see the effects of our failure to proactively address challenges such as inequality, the regulation of financial markets and youth unemployment. The effects of our failure to make capitalism inclusive will become apparent: we have a generation of young people with uncertain prospects and we face rising inequality with a rising share going to the wealthy even as our wages stagnate. The corporation will be increasingly associated with these problems due to its status as the place where much of the distribution of the benefits of capitalism take place.
We have already started to see the effects of climate change and business has started to sit up and take notice. How will we react and will we be able to turn the ship around? The answer to this question largely depends on the readiness of the corporate sector to support progressive political solutions. It is becoming patently clear that exhausting the planet’s resources is not an option – a growing number of politicians and business leaders recognize we cannot burn our fossil fuel reserves without destroying the world as we know it.
Not all is grim; in the next decade we will witness the continued rise of a new generation of leaders pushing for responsible business, broader recognition of the need for gender and racial diversity in boardrooms and C-suites, and the shift of power from the global north to south and from west to east. Companies from emerging economies will certainly take on a key role in the global economy. They will bring with them different models of governance which might be more able to respond to changing conditions, although they will also introduce new challenges. Finally, the line between public and private will continue to blur. There will be mounting pressure from civil society and the general public for sustainability in business and for corporations to take responsibility for the impacts generated by their value chains and off-shore operations. The reordering of transnational legal and political frameworks will offer us the opportunity to revision the respective roles of the State, the corporation and civil society. Concerted effort is needed to nudge the process in the direction of democracy and broad-based participation.
On our current path, another crash of the financial markets is highly likely. We have not addressed the root causes of the 2008 crisis and momentum for a significant overhaul of the markets has slowed to a crawl. Will the erosion of trust in business caused by the cyclical boom-and-bust nature of markets have an impact on policy-making? It’s hard to say.
The relative power of stakeholders within companies is similarly uncertain: will employees regain their voice? Will responsible investors play a more important role in influencing companies?
There are several events that could occur at the world stage that would have a profound impact on the global economy: another global energy crisis, the eclipse of Western economies by emerging economies, and the dissolution of the European Union.
The overarching uncertainties are whether we will see a rebalancing of power between different stakeholders, whether big business and key interested parties will lead or resist a rebalancing of influence, and how big a crisis is needed to jar us from our current trajectory. The risk is that entrenched interests that benefit from the current state of play will thwart reforms that threaten to limit their influence.