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The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the $12 trillion business opportunity

There’s $12 trillion to be made annually by businesses whose work advances the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And time is ticking: The UN has set 2030 as the deadline to achieve all 17 of the SDGs, which cover a range of sustainable development areas including enhancing health and education, making cities more liveable, and eliminating poverty and hunger. With so much potential revenue at stake, it’s no wonder that leading corporations such as 3M, Covestro, SAP Ariba, Unilever, and ING are re-orientating themselves to use the SDGs as a compass for business success.

However, innovation and progress are largely incremental, happening within individual organisations, which doesn’t breed the kind of breakthrough innovation needed if the goals are to be met. In fact, at the current rate, we are unlikely to achieve the SDG targets by 2030.

So what has to change? And what role do business leaders have in making this change happen?

Our view is that businesses need to find catalysts who work together to deliver breakthrough innovation that unlocks exponential change. Easier said than done.

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Yet our experience helping clients move to open innovation, our recent research on innovation, our work on the circular economy and the views business leaders shared during a panel discussion at the UN moderated by our CEO Alan Middleton (starting at 1:30:00), reveal four things leaders can begin doing today. Leaders must…

Put breakthrough innovation at the top of the agenda:

  • Associate sustainability with profit and business resilience, not as a cost of business
  • Find the catalyst and compelling vision that will spur your business into action now. Inertia is a bigger risk than innovation. Doing nothing is a bigger risk than not getting it right the first time
  • Lead from the top with clarity and persistence. Keep a laserlike focus on goals.

Embed sustainability in the culture of the organisation:

  • Make sustainability thinking the norm, then get rid of the label
  • Measure the right things – not just financials. Measure your social, environmental and financial impact. And measure how you are doing things, not just what the outcome is
  • Encourage diversity of thinking. Reward people for being innovative, rather than being right.

Employ new technology to unlock breakthrough change:

  • Understand the potential of new technologies, especially the opportunity for them to solve old problems. For years businesses had a master-slave relationship with technology. The winners in business today understand not only the implications of business choices on technology, but also the other way around. This means that the best leaders look at business and technology as a master-master pair
  • Invest and experiment. Just see what comes out of these activities, rather than trying to pre-determine every outcome.

 Identify partners with whom to innovate

  • Work with those outside of your organisation who can help add value to what you do
  • Be disruptive. Breakthrough innovation is disruptive, both within and across sectors. It requires innovating your business model.
  • Be willing to adopt new innovations and manage the risk. The risk of doing nothing is bigger than the risk of not getting it right the first time. The risk of inertia is bigger than the risk of innovation.

Our experience reveals that most innovation effort and investment is focused within organisations, or in their particular supply chains. But truly disruptive innovation requires collaboration across supply chains and traditional industry boundaries. This is alien to many businesses, but is where a large portion of the $12 trillion opportunity can be found. It also presents the least risk to existing business models.

Business leaders must be having more conversations with those outside of their normal business routines and explore what problems they can solve together. This is how breakthrough innovation will occur, and how business will unlock significant new market opportunities and make progress on some of humanity’s most pressing challenges.

Contact the authors

Contact the circular economy team


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