Product, Service & Design Innovation
Project Breakthrough:
Can Your Brand Deliver Exponential Solutions to the SDGs?

Declaring intent is oh-so-easy. CEOs and other business leaders do it all the time. But delivering against declared pledges can be a very different matter. In recent years, for example, thousands of companies have signed up to various international charters and business-to-business platforms pursuing sustainable development — and rolled up at the growing number of events celebrating incremental progress. Then, last year, somebody sat on the fast-forward button.

In short order, business top teams were hit by a triple whammy, especially those thinking they could get away with a skim of change-as-usual to lubricate the continued forward progress of their business-as-usual strategies. The triple whammy kicked off with the papal encyclical, followed up with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and then landed a potential knockout blow for industries such as fossil fuels with the COP21 climate agreement.

Project Breakthrough is about setting a new direction for corporate sustainability that aligns with the sense of urgency and stretch ambitions outlined by the SDGs. It is also about joining the dots between companies on the one hand, and exponential thinkers and innovators on the other - to explore the disruptive potential of new technologies and enable the sustainable business models of the future to take shape. The Project Breakthrough website will go live on September 19 and feature interviews with some of the world’s most exciting and impactful innovators, investors and business leaders – and is intended to grow.

Project Breakthrough is now a keystone element of the Global Compact’s multi-year strategy to bring business acumen and resources to bear on the task of delivering the SDGs by 2030.

Also, in parallel, the Business & Sustainable Development Commission will be launching a new Volans report entitled Breakthrough Business Models, in which we identify five characteristics that will define the business models that help deliver key elements of the SDGs.

But what is meant here by ‘Breakthrough’? Volans uses the term as shorthand for a business agenda that:

  1. accepts that, while incremental change has its place, it is no longer remotely enough for what comes next;
  2. market disruption is happening — and is likely to accelerate;
  3. such times offer huge new opportunities for those who can move fast — and in the right directions; and
  4. business mindsets are shifting from doing less bad towards doing more good.

Whether we are talking about boards, brands or business models, the agenda is shifting from incremental to exponential forms of change - at least for a transitional period of a decade or two. In the process, we need an accelerating process of cross-pollination between today’s business incumbents and a new breed of insurgents, championed by organizations such as Google’s “X” initiative — known as the “Moonshot Factory,” The X Prize Foundation and Singularity University.

To carry all of this forward, Project Breakthrough is launching with a set of new filmed interviews, co-produced with Atlas of the Future, of some of the world’s leading breakthrough innovators and entrepreneurs — such as Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase; X Prize and Singularity U co-founder Peter Diamandis; Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek; and Eric Rondolat, CEO of Philips Lighting. The videos will cover subjects as varied as peer-to-peer business models, the potential to develop plant-based egg substitutes and the ramifications of selling lumens rather than lighting equipment.

I’m thrilled that Sabine Oberhuber of Amsterdam-based Turntoo Foundation, which first spurred Philips into its breakthrough pay-for-lumens-not-light-fittings business model, will be joining me for a panel on all of this at SB’16 Copenhagen.

With 2017 marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Brundtland definition of sustainable business, we are on a trajectory to come out the other side with a real chance of shifting the needle from incremental to exponential, and from the sort of negative impact spotlighted for much of that period to the sort of positive impact sought by leading social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and the new breed of impact investors. Fasten your safety belts!

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