Can the global C-suite break through?

Volans chairman John Elkington unveils the Breakthrough Innovation Platform, a collaboration with the UN Global Compact which showcases business innovation and leadership in sustainability.

vietnam strawberry farm
A worker tends a high-technology strawberry farm in Vietnam. The newly announced Breakthrough Innovation Coalition aims to highlight innovative business models that advance Sustainable Development Goals such as alleviating poverty, hunger, and fighting climate change. Image: xuanhuongho /

We are thrilled to announce a new Business Innovation Platform, co-evolved with the UN Global Compact, and going live in September. It feels like a—very timely—quantum leap. Secretly, too, I hope that some of the Compact’s members, to whom the initiative will be directed, will find the initiative disturbing. Let me explain why. 

The clock tells me I have spent four decades focusing on the business end of sustainability—and that would have surprised my economics professors. Both the sustainability and business bits.

I originally went to university to study the dismal science, but dropped out in 1968—a seismic year when an old order came apart at the seams. Economics seemed to have little useful to say on what was happening in the streets. But I found economic history fascinating, particularly long wave economic cycles.

Just as well, it turns out, since they are now central to the work we are beginning on breakthrough innovation.

In the Sixties, long wave economists Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter were dismissed by the economists who taught me. But these days—following clear evidence that policymakers haven’t quite worked out how to apply a steam iron to long wave cycles—Kondratiev waves are back. And as information-technology-driven Wave 5 fades, data-saturated Wave 6 is building in the wings.

 Happily, the long waves theory has resurfaced. In 2009, for example, The Economist launched what for me has been its most interesting column, bylined ‘Schumpeter.’ From the outset, the spirit of the Schumpeter page was powerfully aligned with what we were trying to do at Volans, launched the previous year.

Our motto: ‘Helping the Future Take Flight.’ Having long used images of the ill-fated pioneer airman Otto Lilienthal in my presentations, I was intrigued by the image The Economist used to launch the new column. Lilienthal is the birdman in the middle.

The creative destruction theme was uncomfortable, though, because much of the work we were doing for business at the time still involved trying to find ways to make the old order a bit better. Among other things, by linking incumbent companies with new types of social innovators, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs.

Great fun, and useful work we were told, but something kept nagging at me. Happily, we found a way to exorcise that ghost when, exactly four years ago, in 2012, we convened the TED-style Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London. As part of the set-up, we created a series of posters based around images of radical economists, including Schumpeter and, yes, Karl Marx.

Our breakthrough work went into overdrive. One of my favourite recent projects in this area was a dramatization called The Stretch Agenda, which zooms in on board-level discussions in an international holding group as it confronts critical social and environmental challenges. A key inspiration for that project was a sensed need to engage the “Global C-Suite,” the top teams of the world’s 1,000 most influential (but not necessarily largest) businesses.

That idea had been given a boost by the thinking of one of our Advisory Board members, Professor Bob Eccles, Also in 2012, he and George Serafeim had argued that “globalization has concentrated economic power within a group of large companies who are now able to change the world at a scale historically reserved for nations.

The Breakthrough Innovation Platform is a key element of the UN Global Compact’s multi-year strategy to make global goals local business by mobilizing companies around the world to understand and act on the SDGs.  Video: UN Global Compact

Just 1,000 businesses are responsible for half of the total market value of the world’s more than 60,000 publicly traded companies. They virtually control the global economy.”

So imagine our delight when, in Madrid late last year, the Global Compact’s incoming Executive Director, Lise Kingo, asked how we might work together to help their thousands of corporate members to take a jump into the unknown. (I’d love to see The Economist’s version of that image.) Suddenly, it seemed, the door was being thrown open into the Global C-Suite.

If we are to have any hope of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030s, we simply must break through to new ways of creating long-term value. 

Here’s how Lise Kingo sums up the challenge: “Change is coming at business at an accelerating rate, signalling an era of profound disruption.

Our 8,300 corporate members include pioneers in corporate social responsibility, shared value and supply chain management, but the launch in 2015 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 climate agreement signalled a new era of opportunity—where companies must shift from considering the business case for action to evolving the business models which will be at the heart of tomorrow’s economy.”

When it launches a few months hence, the Breakthrough Innovation Platform will explore and showcase new ideas and emerging practice around:

1. The Exponential Looking Glass

Whether from Silicon Valley, Berlin, Tokyo or Johannesburg, the platform will spotlight some of the most innovative people on the planet and share their thinking around exponential technologies and organizations, and their take on how to facilitate and sustain radical innovation.

2. Disruptive Technologies for Sustainability

The platform will identify and analyze the upsides and downsides of technologies that have the potential to disrupt industries and, in the process, create opportunities for sustainable performance. These include technologies ranging from big data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things through to driverless vehicles, 3D printing and synthetic biology.

3. Tomorrow’s Business Models

Business model innovation is now on many top team agendas. Bridging between corporate incumbents and market insurgents, the platform will explore and outline promising and potentially more sustainable business models made possible by the combined forces digitalization and sustainable development.

If we are to have any hope of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals by the 2030s, we simply must break through to new ways of creating long-term value. A wave of insurgents is showing the way. So the $64 trillion question now is whether the Global C-Suite will now cling on to its perch—or choose to spread its wings and take flight?

John Elkington is chairman and chief pollinator, Volans. 

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