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UN Global Compact Russia


John Elkington. Challenge of Tomorrow


John Elkington

Founding Partner and Chairman & Chief Pollinator at Volans

One of the key partners of the Platform is Volans – a London-based agency, founded in 2008 and working to help market leaders in finding solutions to system tasks of global scale. Principle methods encouraging business to understand its opportunities involve breakthrough mindset implementation in its strategy. John Elkington, Volans Co-Founder and Chairman, a thought-leader, business strategist, a writer and serial entrepreneur, known as one of the pioneers of sustainability movement for over 40 years.

John, why breakthrough technologies? It seems to be the most complicated topic to discuss with business, which prefers more concrete and short-term perspectives.

The climate agenda and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals signal that there is a huge gap between what even leading nations are doing and what needs to be done. Realizing the fact we have come to a project related to breakthrough innovation. Innovation comes in many forms – and often proceeds in great waves and cycles. Such economists as Nikolai Kondratiev and Joseph Schumpeter spotlighted the phenomenon, and now we are in the middle of another great cycle, with a previous wave of innovation and investment giving way to a new one. There is a huge spectrum of innovation, from incremental through to systemic one. The system character of innovation leads to transformation of markets, institutions of all kinds, and, ultimately, the whole society. Leading businesses have often been happy to focus on incremental change, because they know how to do it and it is often rather easy to pick the low-hanging fruit. Most business leaders still claim to have “embedded’ the sustainability agenda, when at best they have taken on board elements of the closely linked Corporate Social Responsibility agenda. All good, as far as they go, but with system change now on the agenda they do not go nearly far enough. The sustainability agenda is beginning to push into the commercial mainstream. Anditsdeterminativedimensionistheinnovativeexponentialone. To succeed in the new economic order emerging businesses must let go of the old way of doing things – keeping the valuable parts and discarding those that harm wider economic, social and environmental systems.  

Why did your agency become the major partner of this Platform? 

We have been promoting the concept of Breakthrough technology, business models and mindsets for years– convening a major Breakthrough Capitalism Forum in London in 2012, for example. We have a long history of working with the Global Compact, new leaders of which make grand changes in its strategy and shares our approach to the Breakthrough thinking mission. At the same time we support the United Nations GC belief that the global agenda means not only new commitments, but also new opportunities for business all over the world. We have been working with the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which combines the forces of organisations like the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the UNGC and so on. We highly recommend their market opportunity analysis, predicting the global market valuations in just four clusters of the SDGs could reach $12 trillion a year by 2030. Our work has involved exploring some of the business models that can help deliver that market value.

It is claimed that the UN Global Compact’s Breakthrough Innovation for the SDGs Action Platform will connect companies that are no strangers to sustainability thinking with some of the world’s leading exceptional thinkers and innovators. How will it happen?

The foundation stone for the work is the Project Breakthrough website. I will become a major communication tool and already features filmed interviews with a growing number of innovators pushing the boundaries in a wide range of different sectors. In addition, we have been organizing Basecamp events, on such themes as Carbon Productivityand on the accelerating confluence between Money, Data and Trust – the second of these in collaboration with the Swiss bank UBS. Wherever we work – in Silicon Valley, Berlin, Tokyo or Johannesburg – we learn from the planet’s most innovative people. Together with leading companies we will investigate opportunities and weaknesses of many new technologies and business models, which attract now great interest of investors, mass media, activists and regulators. There is a stand-alone program within the Platform – Breakthrough Innovation Challenge. The idea is rise new stars among the UNGC member and to help them working out the best ways of delivering Breakthrough innovation in their own organization and sector on the whole.

Research and identification of pathbreaking business models to advance the SDGs are among the main aims of the Platform, aren’t they? Do you have an understanding what it stands for? What exactly does it mean?

The answer to this question would be very vast. You can find it in our report for the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, Breakthrough Business Models: Social, Lean, Integrated and Circular, and in the book that I wrote with former PUMA CEO Jochen Zeitz, The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways To Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line.In brief, in the center of progressive business thinking, needed for new market priorities achievements, sustainability, exponential potential, society, integrity and cyclical nature should stand. Basing on research by academics at the Judge Business School in Cambridge, UK, we also outline six key features found in many Breakthrough Business Models. These include personalization, closed-loop, asset sharing, usage-based pricing, collaborative ecosystem and agility. 

What examples of disruptive technologies that even now help to create sustainable business models of the future do you find most interesting? 

Smart grid technologies are coming on by leaps and bounds. Big data, machine learning and AI are beginning to be used to track global social and environmental challenges – and to identify solutions. Drones are being used to plant trees. Electric cars are making huge inroads, with France and the UK already announcing that they will ban gas-powered cars from 2040. Autonomous vehicles could take tens of millions of trucks and cars off the road, freeing up huge areas for other uses.

How do you estimate a current business demand for consulting that motivates to change business thinking and teaches breakthrough innovative thinking in the context of sustainable development issues? Do you have relevant experience/plans to work with Russian business?

There is obviously a demand considering at least a growing array of advisors and consultants in this sphere, including people like IDEO, and universities – including Singularity University. Our aim is not to compete with such providers, but to help them open out the overall market for Breakthrough innovation. In this context Russia is still the territory of opportunities. Clearly, because of its disproportionate dependence on fossil fuels, the Russian economy is currently poorly placed for the new order. Besides, since the early 1990s the well-known problem of corruption has remained relevant. Resting mainly on this image we have consciously not worked with Russian partners. However, it is enormously important for the future of the world as a whole that Russia and Russian business do come up with a system allowing to fully implement the United Nations Global Compact principles, Paris Agreement agenda and the SDGs and to make this process clear. Achieving exponential progress will require a scale of collective effort rarely seen outside wartime conditions. We call on business leaders in Russia and all over the world to embrace this sustainable development agenda and promote a mindset shift to increasingly exponential, experimental, breakthrough thinking to achieve the goal.

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