An expert in sustainability and head of disruption at PwC, Leo Johnson is also co-presenter of Radio 4’s FutureProofing, which examines how new technologies is reshaping business and society. We sat down with Leo to discuss how megatrends – seismic shifts in our world like rapid urbanisation, climate change and technological breakthroughs – will up-end companies and unlock opportunities for innovators.
THE STAND: Leo, how would you define a megatrend?
Megatrends are long-term, gradual trends that are working their way towards us. What’s especially interesting now is that we’re starting to see combinations and collisions of megatrends. We’re seeing tipping points and moments of accelerated impact and disruption.
It’s not just that we’ve got technological revolutions – such as social media – underway. We’re moving from a time when fossil fuel-driven technology powered economic growth to the age of the algorithm, where data shapes business strategy. As that new technology sweeps in, it has profoundly destabilising effects, which have the potential to be both positive and negative, on existing businesses.
And what is the impact of these shifts on business?
According to [futurist] Thomas Frey, there’s not a country in the world that doesn’t face the prospect of automation ultimately accounting for 50 per cent or more of its jobs. And it’s the middle class that is the most vulnerable. If we do see the deployment of new technologies that cause job losses, the risk is that an economic model based on high-volume, low-margin, mass economics, and which depends on people with disposable cash buying things they don’t really need, starts to look vulnerable. If businesses can’t break even or start to make a profit, there’ll be the increased possibility of populist policies as jobs are lost, which decreases economic activity and leads to more job losses.
“An economic model based on high-volume, low-margin, mass economics, and which depends on people with disposable cash buying things they don’t really need, starts to look vulnerable.”
Are there any positive disruptions?
Yes, there’s also a massive upside to the confluence of megatrends: some technologies suddenly put the powers of production into the hands of the people; they democratise productivity.
Look at the big sweep of history: in the feudal era, the means of production was the land, owned by the barons. In the industrial era, the means of production was the factory. If you didn’t own that, you were a worker, and the rents went to the owners of the means of production. In the era we appear to be moving into now, the age of the algorithm, the age of mashable, mixable and shareable technology, we’ve suddenly got people making their own stuff, and potentially producing their own energy with local micro-manufacturing, maybe through a shared service to 3D printing. So we’ve got a new arsenal of technologies at our disposal that could solve the social and economic problems we face, no question.
For big FTSE 100 companies, this poses quite a challenge. How can business leaders prepare?
It’s about purpose. There’s an argument, for example, that if we do move into a world of universal basic incomes where there’s enough cash on tap to survive, we won’t be as dependent on the big corporations for jobs as we used to be. It’ll be the death of the bullshit job. No one will want to work for a company that doesn’t deliver meaning.
The ultimate decision all business leaders need to make now is: what do we care about? Do we want a world in which we have ample levels of life expectancy, of income, of health, of education? A world in which, actually, this stuff matters, the physical process matters, the people around us matter? Do we want a mindset that wealth is life – or that life is wealth? If the latter, I think we’re better placed than any other generation to do something about it.
See more from Leo Johnson on the future of work:
What would you say to a CEO reading this and working on their 2019 strategy?
Look to the next trends and think about what they’re going to do to your business. Spotting megatrends and figuring out how you can deliver value is going to become a fundamental driver of success.
And are there any megatrends on the horizon that people haven’t spotted yet?
I think quantum computing is definitely one to watch. There’s a giant race to quantum between the US and China at the moment, which dwarfs the current trade war in terms of its long-term significance. Whoever wins is going to be in an extraordinary position of economic dominance.
Lysanne Currie writes about business, travel and luxury for a variety of magazines, including Tempus, Victor, Robb Report UK, The Ethicalist and Meet The Leader.
The opinions and views expressed in the above article are for general information purposes, they should not be construed as recommendations or advice for any individual nor should any action be taken on account of the information presented.