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Working with the United Nations Global Compact to reveal disruptive technologies that will drive progress

By Mark Lancelott, Business Design and Circular Economy Expert, and David Rakowski, Innovation and Circular Economy Expert

Technology innovation has been one of the great drivers of progress for humanity. From access to clean water and sustainable methods of production, to reducing poverty and ensuring health and well-being for all, we’ve looked to technology to help us solve these challenges. 

In an increasingly crowded and connected world however, the barriers to progress can appear impossibly difficult, and we now face a set of systemic challenges of a scale and complexity not seen before. The UN Global Compact's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in 2015, set an ambitious and transformative vision for peace and prosperity on a healthy planet. They are pledges to overcome some of the biggest challenges the world faces by 2030. Challenges like poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.

Achieving the SDGs will also open up an estimated $12 trillion a year in economic growth, 50% of which will be in developing nations. But to get there we urgently need to disrupt the status quo. Business as usual is not enough. We need breakthrough solutions: new mindsets, new business models and new applications of an array of emerging technologies. 

Creating new opportunities and improving sustainability

So what are the new technologies that will transform our world? How can technologies help new and old businesses develop innovative business models that are more sustainable and which outperform existing ones? 

These are some of the questions we’re trying to answer through Project Breakthrough, a collaboration with the UN Global Compact, and Volans (an organisation that focuses on breakthrough change). We increasingly see examples of organisations using technology to create new business opportunities that improve sustainability – by increasing food productivity, or helping make healthcare more accessible, for example. When technology feasibility meets consumer desirability and financial viability, you have the potential for breakthrough success. 

We can help you reap the benefits from Circular Economy

We can help you reap the benefits from the Circular Economy

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Understanding the potential for breakthroughs

We’ve created a series of Disruptive Technology Executive Briefs. In them, we explore a range of technologies with the potential to help companies do business in a better way, and to make a breakthrough contribution to achieving the SDGs. Working with technology experts, companies and entrepreneurs around the world, we’ve identified an initial set of 12 technologies we think can open up completely new ways of doing things. Some are revolutionary in their underpinning science, others revolutionary in their application. Some are in the mainstream awareness already, others are less well known. Much of their power comes from when they’re applied in combination rather than in isolation, and with an understanding of the business model implications. But they’ve all reached a point of maturity where they have transformative potential over the timeframe of the SDGs. 

Technology that imitates life:

•Next generation robots – increasingly we’ll see robots carrying out jobs that only people could do previously. That can have huge benefits in areas like social care but also has risks. How is your organisation preparing for this shift?

•Artificial Intelligence – AI will allow more effective and efficient production and consumption to be designed and managed, at a scale and complexity that’s beyond existing approaches. What are the possible unintended consequences?

•New realities – with significant investment flowing into this area, augmented, virtual and mixed realities will change the way we interact with technology and each other.  How can this be applied to education in both developed and developing worlds?

Technology that affects our well-being:

•Gene editing – this technology has the potential to rethink many of the healthcare, food and energy challenges we face at the fundamental building block level. How do you take advantage of these while still carefully considering the many societal considerations that arise?

•Microbiome – we’ve evolved to work with the bugs around us and in us, but haven’t taken full advantage of the wide ranging benefits that harnessing them can have. Do you understand how broad an impact new understanding into Microbiome is likely to have over the coming years?

•Digital agriculture – a 60% increase in food supply is required to feed the population in 2050. Why will digital agriculture be key to achieving this?

Technology that makes connections:

•The internet of things – IoT will fundamentally change the way we interact with equipment, automating many manual processes and making vast volumes of data and insight available. What does that mean for sustainable business?

•Big data – the exponential increase in data is giving us brand new and valuable insights. How can applying big data techniques help us improve our wellbeing, communities and environment?

•Blockchain – perhaps one of the most exciting and talked about, yet least understood, technologies of recent years: how much do you understand it?

Technology that affects how we move and make things:

•Unmanned aviation systems – $3.9 billion is estimated to be invested in this R&D in 2020. How can drones be used to deliver medical or nutritional supplies to remote areas or reduce congestion and related emissions from road transportation?

•Autonomous road vehicles – over the next 30 to 40 years travel and logistics will completely change.  Almost all of the focus to date has been on the developed world, but what opportunities does this present for the developing world?

•Additive manufacturing – it’s now possible to ‘print’ anything from concrete to biological tissues and to manufacture things at point of need. What new applications to reduce waste and challenge global supply chains are we likely to see?  

What do you think?

The aim of this series of Executive Briefs is to introduce a broad range of disruptive technologies to business leaders and give them an overview of the potential these offer, both good and bad. We’re gazing into the future, so how these technologies develop and where exactly they make a difference is uncertain. But working as part of Project Breakthrough, we aim to help business leaders identify where disruptive technologies can help deliver more sustainable business models and products. That will not only help meet the SDGs, but also enable companies to win in tomorrow’s market realities.

The SDGs set out the big challenges we face as a species, as a planet. Our hope is that these briefs will help engage leaders in exploring new possibilities for technology to create a better and brighter future that leaves no one behind.

The twelve technologies we’ve selected don’t form an exhaustive list, and we want to hear your ideas and examples of success. Get involved and join the conversation at http://breakthrough.unglobalcompact.org/

Find out more about our work in Technology innovation.

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