With Greta Thunberg named Time’s person of the year, the latest societal pressure wave may be peaking. Now the going for sustainable business gets really interesting, says John Elkington

I will remember 2019 for many things, including the fact that both my parents died during the year; he aged 98, she 97. They saw vast changes during their unusually long lives. He learned to fly on rickety biplanes, then, little more than a decade after fighting in the Battle of Britain, was monitoring the fallout from nuclear bomb tests in the Pacific and later flying jets that would once have been inconceivable. Born into a radio world, they died enmeshed in the internet.

Even so, I believe the next couple of decades will see more change than they saw in nine. Let me explain. My forecast for the 2020s, which I have come to call “the exponential decade”, is that this will be a period where things move at a blistering pace and in directions that take many – perhaps most – of us by surprise.

This is a theme that Volans will explore at our Tomorrow’s Capitalism Forum on 10 January, co-hosted with Aviva Investors. The provocative sub-title is “Step Up – or get out of the way”.

One-time disruptors will themselves be disrupted. Whatever we're doing, and however well we think we're doing it, it's not working

The first round of our Tomorrow’s Capitalism inquiry suggests that the coming decade will see things once considered impossible becoming not only possible, but seemingly inevitable. To use a phrase coined by Ernest Hemingway and more recently adopted by Silicon Valley watcher Tim O’Reilly, this will be a “gradually, then suddenly” world.

Elements of the sustainability revolution that have moved so slowly that they almost seemed to be going backwards will suddenly take off, confounding us all. As a once largely linear world becomes increasingly exponential, as sketched in the diagram below, the result will be chaos, amazement, or both.

One-time disruptors will themselves be disrupted. The global sustainability industry is a prime target for disruption. It has managed to move the needle to the point where business publications like the Financial Times and The Economist are spilling over with insightful coverage on related themes, but what we have learned to call the climate emergency is increasingly seen for what it is: an existential crisis for our civilisation. Whatever we’re doing, and however well we think we’re doing it, it’s not working.

The United Nations Paris Agreement in 2015 kicked off a new surge of activism energy. (Credit: UN)

The emerging fault lines between old and new-order thinking became starkly obvious to us early in 2019, when we threw our weight behind the Extinction Rebellion protests. The CEO of a key client company emailed me wanting to know how I “dared” become an activist, how I dared become “political”.

Put aside the fact that I have been a lifelong activist in service of a radically different future and this outrage expressed by an intelligent business leader spotlights the growing clash between different priority sets, different senses of urgency and, albeit not in this case, different senses of the ultimate direction of travel.

At the same time, dramatically, we had issued invitations to bring the new breed of activists into corporate boardrooms, a direction we have since been pursuing both through our own projects and through such initiatives as Business Declares.

The sustainability agenda is being recreated with new energy – and fury – by younger people

Civil society organisations we work with have been shaken by the sudden shift in the political landscape. True, progress in the formal climate negotiations continue to be glacial at times, but school climate activists – including the incomparable Greta Thunberg – have upturned expectations that the rising generations would go quietly into the climate and environmental night.

In company after company I hear senior executives saying that their children have been turning up the heat under what they see as their complacent parents. Having seen earlier youth movements flash over into violence when they sensed that the “system” was rebuffing their demands, I approach the 2020s in some trepidation, but also sensing that something has switched.

The sustainability agenda, in large part a baby-boomer project, is being recreated with new energy – and fury – by younger people, who see their futures under increasingly urgent threat.

(Source: Singularity University)

I am a boomer, having hit the tender age of 70 in June 2019. But at a time when some of my friends have retired or are planning to do so, I see the next 10-15 years – if I survive – as the most exciting, challenging and dangerous of my working life. Indeed, I see yet another seismic shift coming.

The fifth societal pressure wave since 1960 is now peaking. It may be hard to see when Greta has made it onto the cover of Time magazine as person of the year, but it is nonetheless true.

Let me conclude with a few thoughts on how we got here, and where we may be headed. The first societal pressure wave (Wave 1, keyword: environment) built through the 1960s, and peaked between 1969 and 1972. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a key milestone. Downwave 1, running through to 1987, saw a massive wave of regulation across the OECD world, with business largely on the defensive, forced to comply.

Past experience suggests that the really useful work tends to get done in the downwaves, rather than in the frothy peak periods

Wave 2 (keyword: green), peaking between 1988 and 1991, saw the collapse of the Soviet-centred communist bloc. In parallel, there was a new focus on moving business “beyond compliance”. One result was the launch through the subsequent downwave (1992-1998) of a range of voluntary market standards such as AA1000, the Global Reporting Initiative, ISO 14000 and SA8000. Business analysis embraced total quality management, triple (and then double) bottom lines, and environmental (and then sustainability) reporting.

The Wave 3 (keyword: globalisation) agenda included many Wave 1 and 2 agenda issues but increasingly in the context of the processes of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation. Globalisation also weakened many governments, as did the hyper-power status of the United States. As markets and supply chains globalised ahead of global governance systems, the spotlight was on multinational corporations, particularly their stumbles: think Shell, Nike, Monsanto. Then, after Wave 3 was cut short by the events of 9/11, the third downwave (2002-2006) focused on much narrower definitions of security.

Wave 4 (keyword: sustainability), peaking around 2010-2012, saw a growing use of the “S” word, with many business leaders announcing they had already “embedded” the agenda. Meanwhile, we saw the beginning of a generational handover as the boomers began to retire, and Gen X and Y made their priorities felt. New forms of social media and social networks began to transform not only business (eg, Amazon, iTunes) but also activism (eg, 350.org, Avaaz, 38 Degrees).

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center cut short the globalisation agenda. (Credit: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

With governments distracted by the “great recession”, we saw the emergence of multiple theories of change, including a growing emphasis on the role of entrepreneurs (eg, cleantech, social), plus a growing interest in the rise of the BRICS and MINT economies. Business analysis increasingly embraced concepts like integrated reporting and shared value, but even deeply entrenched organisations like the World Economic Forum began to signal the systemic crisis building across what it called the water-energy-food-climate nexus.

Through the Wave 4 period, Volans was evolving its “breakthrough capitalism” agenda. We also began to shift our work from observing and mapping the waves and downwaves to creating the conditions in which the next upwave would be more like a rising tide.

Wave 5 (keywords in contention, but how about “Greta”?) kicked off in 2015, with the United Nations Paris Conference on Climate Change and Sustainable Development Goals. The surge of energy associated with this latest wave has been extraordinary, though I suspect that the Time cover may signal that this latest wave is peaking. Some may see that as a bad thing, but past experience suggests that the really useful work tends to get done in the downwaves, rather than in the frothy peak periods.

The likely next economic cycle could see a possible breakdown trajectory as our civilisation overshoots planetary boundaries

All of this has had me racing back to the drawing board with my long-standing colleague Rupert Bassett, to map out the latest trends. There have been five great economic cycles to date, tracking back to 1800, which I first studied in Schumpeterian economics in the 1960s. Now we seem to be heading into another round of Schumpeterian “creative destruction”, with an older order coming apart at the seams and a new one struggling to find its feet.

Overlaid on those long-term cycles are the more recent societal pressure waves we have now been tracking for 25 years. The obvious question is where we are headed next?

The likely next (sixth) economic cycle could see a possible breakdown trajectory as our civilisation overshoots planetary boundaries. The key question here: How do we get onto an exponential upward trajectory?

To get a better sense of where all this might take us, I used the Harvard Business Review platform in June 2018 to “recall” the triple bottom line and embarked on my 20th book. This will be published in April by Fast Company Press. Its title: Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism.

Riffing off Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan, events that often take us unexpectedly in exponentially bad directions, the idea here is that green swans potentially take us in exponentially better directions.

These will be the worst of times for those clinging to the old order, yet potentially the best of times for those embracing and driving the new

The green swan, the opening paragraph of the book declares, “is a symbol of radically better times to come. It’s also a template for exponential change toward the distant goal of a sustainable future for all. Getting from here to there will be no trivial task, however. Times of disruptive change upend market and political pecking orders, creating political shock waves that can last for decades – even generations.”

As a decade, the 2020s do not yet seem to have sticky branding like the “zeroes” or the “teens”, but they will have branding, and it will likely reflect a period of exponential change. So, again, the “Exponential Twenties”? To paraphrase Dickens, these will be the worst of times for those clinging to the old order, yet potentially the best of times for those embracing and driving the new. Buckle your safety belt.

John Elkington has been described as the “godfather of sustainability”. He has co-founded four companies, including Volans Ventures, where he is chairman and chief pollinator. He is the author of 19 books and has served as a member of over 70 boards and advisory boards

Main picture credit: Willyam Bradbury/Shutterstock


This article is part of our in-depth Decade of Delivery commentary from sustainability leaders. To view all articles, please see our January 2020 digital magazine.

#deliverydecade  Extinction Rebellion  climate activism  Business Declares  Earth Day  sustainability agenda  Paris Agreement  globalisation 

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