Today I’m speaking at a panel hosted by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). The question we’re trying to answer is “how can businesses help us to avoid dystopia?”. Here’s a version of my opening statement:
In my work as an applied futurist, I work with lots of leaders in business. And I confess, I’m often a little apprehensive when meeting a CEO for the first time. Because there is a widely shared caricature of the CEO as some sort of Doctor Evil character, bent on success at any price. I always wonder if I’m going to end up working with some sort of villain. But I have never met a Doctor Evil. I’ve met a lot of type A personalities, and a handful of psychopaths. But I have never met anyone bent on doing bad things for their own sake.
Instead, most CEOs I meet are struggling to balance two sets of demands. The first set of demands are very immediate. The market wants to see returns, whether that’s in the next quarter or the next year.
The other set of demands is less immediate. Every CEO knows that they need to also act in the longer-term interests of their business and their customers. This is challenging when the tenure of a CEO, like that of a government, is typically just five years. And for all the efforts of groups like Extinction Rebellion, the loudest voice in their ear often remains that of the shareholders.
Looking to the future
Professionally, my role as a futurist is to help leaders to look to the future. To help their businesses respond to what they foresee. But this often leads me to much more philosophical conversations about what they are trying to achieve. And increasingly, to conversations about the time frame over which they want to see those things achieved. The question CEOs are asking themselves, is whether they interested in a few quarters or years of maximised profit, or whether they want to leave a legacy of sustainable success?
The answer, increasingly, is the latter. Now, I’d like to say this is based on some level of altruism. That they too are committed to helping us avoid dystopia. And they are. But I think the stronger motivator is that more and more leaders fearful that they won’t get through their five-year tenure without some sort of shock that utterly disrupts their business. Given the choice between laying the groundwork for a legacy of sustainable success and being at the wheel when this shock happens, they choose the former.
When you do this, when you refocus on sustained success, rather than the short term, it has a number of effects. It automatically changes the behaviour of an organisation to make it more sustainable. It aligns the business very well with the steps required to avoid dystopia.
For example, building sustainable success means building a deep and trusted relationship with your customers. That requires greater transparency, and a stronger focus on ethics.
Building sustainable success means ensuring that your business model is adaptable to changing environments and demands. This in turn means listening more closely to shifting cultural trends and responding to the ethical demands of the customer.
Sustainable success means ensuring the security of your supply chain and of your customers against threats like climate change.
Sustainable success means investing in your people.
Short term challenges
In conversations behind the scenes now it is not unusual to hear CEOs explicitly direct people to make choices that cost the business money in the short term but that establish a firmer footing for the future. Because the horizon on which they are focused is further out than it was before.
Unfortunately, none of this is enough to counter what are some very clear and increasingly immediate challenges that are limiting how far ahead most CEOs can look. I often tell people that I am a long-term optimist but a short-term pessimist. In the 2020s and 30s I see a host of challenges from the breaking down of international co-operation, to the rise of automation, to the obvious and very immediate effects of climate change.
How to avoid dystopia
To close, the chair has posed us two questions. First, how close are we to dystopia? I say it depends on your definition. People are very sensitive to relative changes in their standard of life, particularly negative changes. And there is absolutely a risk over the next decade that many people will see relative decline in those standards of living to a greater or lesser extent.
Second, what can businesses do to avoid dystopia? The answer is for leaders to lift their eyes to the further horizon and concentrate their efforts on building sustainable success. With that as a goal, much good follows.