Nobel Laureate and former US Vice President Al Gore posed a piercing question to us at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Oslo.
"Will our children ask us why we didn't act?", he asked.
"Or will they ask us how we found the courage and rallied the resources to rise up and change?"
Gore is focused on the looming global climate crisis, and is frustrated about the world's neglect of a catastrophic problem. But a still larger - and related - issue is illustrated by the march of successive industrial revolutions that the modern world has witnessed. Each has intensified the risks of dehumanizing economic progress, to the point that we now face an existential threat in both environmental and humanitarian terms.
The advance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality and the like) has produced a developing scenario in which the service of humanity seems too often eclipsed by the momentum of technology and commerce. This challenge has been highlighted recently, as some of the leading innovators of the Fourth Industrial Revolution have begun to relinquish their intellectual property because of the risks to them as the owners of it. These captains of the Fourth Revolution surmise that the new technologies have the capacity to be an Orwellian "enemy of the people". Meanwhile, our economic engines continue to roar and belch proverbial smoke into the air, as the world's population grows and the ideals of human flourishing are left wanting.
Indeed, in many ways we are unprepared to meet the challenges ahead. According to The Future of Jobs Report 2016, 65% of children entering education today will end up in careers that don't yet exist, and much of this will be attributable to the rapid advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. However, there are now five “beacons of hope”.
1. Profit with purpose
First, there has been an unprecedented connection of business to purpose. In an ironic way, at the moment that capitalism is more derided than ever in many circles, business is emerging as the world’s most powerful and active force for doing good. Consumers are demanding it, and many businesses are responding, with sustainability-minded brands winning market share.
This is the driving factor in the second beacon, which is the rise of the Fifth Industrial Revolution. In contrast to trends in the Fourth Revolution toward dehumanization, technology and innovation best practices are being bent back toward the service of humanity by the champions of the Fifth.
Forbes contributor Lawrence Wintermeyer highlighted this recently, with reference to the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the fintech markets.
"Most of the conferences I attend focus on ‘the next big tech thing’ and what it can do", Wintermeyer observed, “often to the exclusion of the utility and impact the technology will have on society."
"I am most often asked what the next ‘smart money’ tech trend is in fintech. I am now happy to report it is not blockchain, bitcoin, or AI. It is humanity."
In the Fifth Industrial Revolution, humans and machines will dance together, metaphorically. At Davos 2019, an event sponsored by Forbes, MIT and Tata had the theme “Blockchain+AI+Human = Magic”. This equation seems impossible to some, but it can, and will, prove true. AI will help increase human labour productivity. Blockchain will help give access to banking (and intangible forms of capital) to the unbanked. Robots will help humans align returns on investment (ROI) with purpose. But it will require intentionality and moral clarity.
3. Targets for progress
The third beacon of hope is the increasing prominence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide history’s first universal matrix for achieving a flourishing future. Adopted by the heads of governments from 193 UN member states, the SDG framework addresses the key physical facets of life in our global village - social, environmental and economic.
According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)'s World Investment Report 2014, an estimated annual investment of $3.9 trillion is required to achieve the SDGs. Currently, there is an estimated $2.5 trillion annual gap. But businesses are rallying. This is evident in advancing public-private partnerships (PPPs) that are gaining momentum as a model for sustainable impact initiatives. Helpful frameworks for leadership are being widely adopted by various sectors, such as this one in the impact investing community:
One apparent way to fund the gap is by targeting private capital in a manner that requires businesses to be SDG-aligned. Larry Fink, CEO of investment community leader Blackrock, wrote an open letter to CEOs that sets the standard in this regard.
"Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them", he wrote. "Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose - in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked."
Beyond investing, businesses will need to think outside of the box to engage more than $2 trillion in brand marketing budgets to help advance the common good. One example of this gaining global attention is 5th Element Group’s Good Exchange model. A Good Exchange is a marketing framework by which a brand engages its consumers with content activation that unlocks a donation to a cause that matters to both the brand and the consumer. The consumers become the media beacons for brand and cause-connected content, so that a growing portion of brand funds can flow to cause, rather than to media intermediaries.
Companies like 5th Element are creating traffic on the bridge between key performance indicators (KPIs) and SDG-aligned social impact. These “omniwin” models, when supported by clear and compelling case study data, are changing the traditional marketing mix at many companies, and producing PPP opportunities.
4. Closing the gender gap
The fourth beacon sits at the centre of the SDG framework as the fulcrum to lifting all the others. SDG5 is about the empowerment of women and girls worldwide. There is no hope for achieving the SDGs unless SDG5 is central to the agenda. If women and girls are empowered to lead campaigns for human flourishing, all the other SDGs will rise.
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Open platform movements such as the SDG5 Global Alliance have been created to promote aspirational examples of women who are leading the way in getting things done. The Fifth Industrial Revolution must include the strategic voice of women in leadership. Businesses, through best practices in hiring and development and other kinds of support, will be essential facilitators.
5. Scaling and spreading
The fifth beacon of hope is that these kinds of cross-sector, SDG-aligned movements are going global and becoming increasingly democratized. SDG-aligned leadership is emerging in countries such as India, which is experiencing an historically unprecedented demographic dividend of young people with a keen desire for a better world.
Forward-thinking companies are taking note. Tech leader IBM, for example, is recruiting 200,000 girls into STEM learning programmes in India to help change the gender imbalance in the tech sector. Tata Trusts, the philanthropic arm of the Tata conglomerate, is spearheading solutions to the country's water and sanitation crisis through PPPs.
New platforms are reflecting the democratized nature of the push toward the SDGs. The People’s Prize, for example, was recently announced at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford. It’s a new series of SDG-focused social entrepreneurship prizes offering hundreds of thousands of dollars to incentivize innovation teams that demonstrate to people around the world why their project should be funded to scale. Like other crowdfunding platforms, this is just one of several prizes that are moving beyond “black box” judging panels, shifting decision-making instead to an emerging class of micro-donors. It’s an encouraging and important trend.
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At 5th Element Group, we work to help businesses move from a “for-profit” to a “for-benefit” operating model. Collectively, our stakeholders are our shareholders, but our stakeholders are also our employees, our customers and more broadly the people and planet impacted by our work.
The challenges are clear. But so is the opportunity. We can create a new socio-economic era that closes historic gaps in last mile inclusion and engages the “bottom billion” in creating quantum leaps for humanity, and for a better planet.
The world needs a Fifth Industrial Revolution to flower like a new Renaissance Age. It will be marked by creativity and common purpose, as we together work to bend progress and profits toward purpose and inclusivity. Are you a part of it?