The future of us

Amid climate catastrophe and pandemic-induced disruption, a new era is taking shape. Here’s a field guide to navigating the ‘net zero era,’ in which leaders will lead with digital, empower consumers and act with purpose.

Most of us would agree the world no longer functions as it once did. We’ve moved past the time of relying on the familiar modes and certainties of a stable climate and a pre-pandemic reality. Amid widespread dysfunction (unprecedented weather events, snarled supply chains, labor shortages, new health protocols), it’s easy to sense the old world fading away. Less obvious, but as certain, is the dawning of a new era.

This new reality will be defined by a volatile planet whose citizens, businesses and governments discover new ways of functioning productively, safely and meaningfully in a world beset by environmental disruption and global illness. Equally and just as importantly, however, it will also be infused with huge technological progress and innovation and hope.

Call it the “net zero era”— not because carbon reduction is the only need of the day but because the term encapsulates the many challenges the world faces, the most threatening of which is sustaining a planet healthy enough for humans to keep calling home. For business leaders everywhere, it will be essential to recognize the glimmers of this new era and grasp what's important and what's possible:

The major pillars of society rapidly digitizing products, services and experiences to remake how we learn, govern, heal, manage our finances, protect ourselves and spread opportunity.

Consumers acting with increased self-agency and in accordance with their values. As traditional purveyors and processes become unavailable, unreliable or out of alignment with their individual needs or values, consumers seek new ways to source goods, services and information.

A new generation of citizens and workers turning to their own sense of what matters to energize their personal and professional endeavors, as well as those of their employers.

Call it the “net zero era”— not because carbon reduction is the only need of the day but because the term encapsulates the many challenges the world faces, the most threatening of which is sustaining a planet healthy enough for humans to keep calling home.

A field guide for the net zero era

What you, as steward of your enterprise, do next is critical. How the future ultimately unfolds is up to the collective “us” and how we respond to the dizzying pace of social, environmental and technological change and stakeholder demands. This is what will define society, commerce and organizations for decades to come.

That’s why we’ve developed this field guide to what the net zero era entails, one we hope will help business leaders see ahead, get ahead and stay ahead of the drivers shaping the future. We’ve organized the guide into three main sections that explore the essential drivers for forward-thinking businesses to embrace, why each is vital and how they can ensure they are future-fit:

1

Digital+

View everything through a digital lens.

2

Consumer empowerment

Understand the newly “conscious,” self-reliant consumer.

3

Purpose

Promote and support a sense of purpose and belonging. 

Facing the challenges of the net zero era will require targeted investment, innovative thinking and quick action. In the end, the future holds no guarantees — it’s our own actions that will create a future that’s healthy and productive.

Net zero demands a digital-first mindset

The complex solutions needed to solve our interconnected social, economic, health and environmental challenges will rely on the speed, automation, intelligence and connectedness that only a digital-first mindset can bring. New business and operational models — from “everything as a service” (XaaS), to circular business models, to systems-thinking — will be supported by advanced modes of information sharing, collaboration and intensive analytics.

By instrumenting assets, products and spaces with sensors, gathering massive amounts of data about everything, and using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to sift and mine for meaning, business can begin to understand where changes are needed and how to execute them. Meanwhile, they will accelerate innovation through application programming interface (API)-driven ecosystems that lead to new ways of operating, inspired by net zero needs and ideals.

Meet Zac, the new stakeholder

From auditing carbon to removing carbon and reducing other environmental impacts

Each element of our consumption comes with a cost — not just the price tag, but also the many other elements involved: energy, carbon, fresh water, land, chemicals added (and released again). These inputs and their externalities are embedded in companies’ products and value chains. Corporate sustainability initiatives must now extend to analysis of which issues are most relevant to key profit drivers. To set targets and track progress will require a sophisticated approach to data collection, management, analysis and interpretation.

Why now

Climate is increasingly on the minds of business leaders, politicians, and consumers. Western countries are busy legislating for net zero emissions — the European Union has set ambitious goals and adopted legislation to implement international commitments whose impact on industry will be profound.

What to look for

Corporate sustainability commitments are proliferating. Even energy-hungry and carbon-dependent brands like Formula 1 are considering future F1 races featuring hydrogen-powered cars. Driving change will be increased taxation, higher resource costs, regulatory compliance mandates and fines — and business risk, such as for industries that rely on fresh water in their production processes, and those that find themselves too dirty for insurance companies to underwrite.

How to get ready

Emerging solutions measure, reduce and offset a range of environmental and social impacts. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can monitor anything from air and water quality to power use. Beyond the physical workplace, IoT sensors embedded in products will further XaaS models that enable providers to better manage product lifecycles and customers to better control their environmental footprint.

Analytics technologies will be needed to correlate variables and get new insights into steering interventions for maximized co-benefits and minimized cost. By creating digital twins, businesses can reconfigure their logistics networks to remove carbon and alter sourcing strategies.

Of course, all these sensors, data and analytics technologies will have an environmental impact themselves. Digital technology will require environmental footprinting as well, to prevent it from adding more impact than it seeks to reduce. Business must avoid the old trap of looking for a perfect solution, instead seeking data centers, clouds and other resources that run off renewable energy.

Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can monitor anything from air and water quality to power use.


From solo endeavors to collaborative ecosystems

For the daunting challenges of the net zero era, organizations won’t find solutions in isolation — they’ll need deeper collaboration through tech-enabled ecosystems that pool ideas, opportunities, capabilities and risk.

Businesses should learn from a group of European engineering firms that stopped fiercely guarding their intellectual property and created Adaptive Manufacturing Open Solutions, a non-proprietary platform for sharing resources and tech knowledge for the benefit of all participants. With fast emerging needs and the need to meet them in real-time, open collaboration enabled by digital tools will be the name of the game.

Why now

By forging collaborative ecosystems, sellers and producers can align themselves around the greater good as they allow unique insights, capabilities, data and knowledge to flow through a value chain. Large-scale, interconnected databases of API-driven environmental parameters could underpin joint actions aimed at preserving the environment, as well as automating the next best action through smart data governance.

IoT projects have the potential to help companies collaborate. It’s not just about connecting machines together to improve productivity through automation at scale; it’s also about better collection of data from your own and third-party processes, operations and spaces to drive transparency, trust and better decision making.

What to look for

Digital ecosystems will reshape an array of industries, from the manufacturing of sustainable consumer products, to the rise of interconnected healthcare services that leverage patient data across wellness specialists, nutritionists and doctors.

A future example could come from utilities, with a holistic and systemic vision to restore natural water cycles by collaborating with equipment manufacturers, city designers and researchers to make the places where people live green, healthy and future-proof.

How to get ready

Empower dedicated teams to swarm around a specific challenge, and connect these teams with other industry partners and innovative startups to unlock insights. Businesses can also improve the value of their collaborations through “systems thinking,” in which they map the impact of their business decisions beyond the immediate next step in the value chain and optimize processes with objectives that extend to the benefit of a larger subset of players.

Climate is increasingly on the minds of business leaders, politicians and consumers.


From linear value chains to circular business models

Few companies or people consider what happens to their products after selling or buying them, but this must change. Circular business models can build economic, natural and social capital by designing out waste, keeping products and components in use and returning materials to the product lifecycle. Through IoT and XaaS, it is now possible to digitally track, measure and conserve assets and materials so producers and customers can derive the maximum value from them.

Why now

An array of trends including supply chain disruptions, new legislation, carbon taxes, the service economy, and a shift toward partial/temporary ownership models, are driving a rethink of traditional product lifecycles.

Product stewardship programs are now emerging worldwide, from “Swap and Sell” Whatsapp groups to business-led moves such as IKEA’s Circular Hub. Government-sponsored initiatives are also emerging at city, state and even national levels. And innovative companies have identified business opportunities in the transition to circularity.

What to look for

New business models are emerging based on mixed ownership, reuse and remanufacturing. The secondary market for mobile phones hints at the opportunity for companies to retain more of the value of the material and energy used to make their products. It also points to changes required to seize that opportunity, such as new processes for helping customers when products wear out.

How to get ready

Businesses need deeper collaboration across the value chain to develop products that can be managed over their lifecycle. Waste at one end of a value chain could be fresh input at another (using worn-out tires to make playground floors, for instance).

Understanding the possibilities associated with circular business models requires collaboration among multiple players. This is why, again, systems thinking is required. Whether it’s quantifying transactions across the supply chain to put a price on the final product or enabling new services around an enhanced product lifecycle, businesses must coordinate their actions with others in the ecosystem.

Net zero means harnessing the empowered consumer

The past decade has seen businesses tripping over each other to find more personalized and customized ways of transacting and interacting with customers through advanced analytics and AI. This obsession with customization is now being paired with the need to customize for product sustainability. We’ll see the lines between business and consumer blur as new paradigms redefine ownership and power models.

At the same time, consumers have changed dramatically since the pandemic broke. And they’re not waiting around for businesses to help; they’re developing process workarounds, discovering alternative sources and creating their own knowledge bases to get the products, services and information they need.

Businesses must meet these consumers where they are and accept they’re no longer in the driver’s seat. We’ll see the lines between business and consumer blur as new paradigms redefine ownership and power models. Customers will take the helm of the relationship and increasingly expect more say in their overall experience.

Meet Charlie, the co-creator

From personalization to co-creation

Forward-thinking businesses are including consumers as partners in co-creating goods and services so that the end product is completely personalized to their lifestyle and concerns.

Why now

Using technology, consumers are taking a greater role in creating the products, tracking capabilities and experiences they value. Through social platforms, they’re becoming more influential than traditional marketers, building and marketing their own content in the form of beauty hacks, game streaming, wellness lifestyles and more. Businesses and social media platforms are working to monetize this creator economy through subscription services and other means.

What to look for

With their increased power and influence, this consumer-as-creator could ultimately influence businesses’ sourcing decisions around clothing, furniture and electronics, pricing environmental and social factors into the final cost and reshaping the value chain along the way.

Businesses can no longer overlook consumers as co-creators. Already, McDonald’s has added menu “hacks” allowing customers to order popular combinations that emerged on TikTok.

How to get ready

To see where co-creation can work, businesses must identify whether their current market segmentation offers enough insight about customers’ values to engage them in the co-creation process. They should also consider which technologies could make it easier to obtain consumers’ input at different parts of the value creation process and product lifecycle.

For example, AI-enabled mass conversation tools allow businesses to “talk” to hundreds of people at once and then organize their thinking, using research techniques that generate superior insights.

With XaaS models, businesses can retain ownership over the product and its lifecycle. This adds incentive and opportunity to focus on and respond to what users need from the product, whether it’s better quality, easier maintenance or recyclability.

The consumer-as-creator could ultimately influence businesses’ sourcing decisions around clothing, furniture and electronics, pricing environmental and social factors into the final cost and reshaping the value chain along the way.

From individual experiences to community affiliations 

The pursuit of personalization has traditionally been about better understanding the individual consumer. But this may cause businesses to overlook the passions and interests of their wider circle. Depending on whom we perceive ourselves to be and what we stand for, our communities of interest — and the technology platforms that enable them — play a big role in how we part with our hard-earned money.  

Why now

In an age of ubiquitous opinion and information, consumers seek out like-minded people to inform their decisions. Finding an ethical pension fund that commits to diversity and inclusion is less often about contacting your financial advisor and more often about posting on social media.

Community affiliations are a major source for the modern consumer. 

What to look for

In last year’s Robinhood-GameStop stock controversy, not only did a group of Reddit users defy the logic of the market by banding together to drive up GameStop’s value, but the company also seriously damaged its brand image when its response was to freeze trades. When the crowd speaks, it’s best for companies to not just listen but harvest insight into these groups and monetize the ties that bind them.

How to get ready

When companies comprehend customer affiliations at a deeper level, they can create products and services that are embraced by like-minded communities whose influence spreads to even more enthusiasts. By combining data-based insights with qualitative, ethnographic analysis on not just individuals but also those they interact with, businesses can contextually align their products and services with the power of the crowd. 

From growing mistrust to shared authority

Consumers have decided that institutions and organizations don’t always have the answers, at least not in a timely fashion. So along with the shift in power from businesses to consumers comes a shift in trust.

Enter blockchain, whose distributed ledger architecture replaces (or, in some cases, may reduce) the need for a centralized authority or intermediary with an automated, secured, transparent and trusted way to process, validate and authenticate transactions across a decentralized platform. Blockchain points to the reality that consumers don’t necessarily believe centralized authorities have their best interests at heart. During the pandemic, several governments experimented with blockchain to ensure the vaccine status of their population.

Why now

Developers are seeking to rebuild both the financial system and the internet economy from the ground up using blockchain: databases distributed over many computers and kept secure through cryptography. The goal is to replace intermediaries like global banks and tech platforms with software built on top of networks that, in the case of cryptocurrency, incentivize the users who run them by proportionally distributing the value they generate.

What to look for

Because it eliminates the need for a trusted authority, blockchain will increasingly be used to certify activities such as sustainability reporting, carbon offsetting, carbon credit, and carbon consumption. Through smart contracts, which remove the need for notaries and other such authorities, buyers and sellers could more securely interact with each other. Achieving full privacy in transactions, where even the authority is not able to access it, is another aspect of such zero-knowledge digital protocols.

How to get ready

Companies should ask how the logic of decentralization can improve different areas of the business, and should seek out use cases in which trust, transparency and provenance are crucial to success. Bold companies are experimenting with decentralized autonomous operations to manage their own work. A daring example comes from London, where AI company Stalia has embraced a “swarm-like” operating model; it has no managers or key performance indicators, and employees vote on each others’ salaries.

Businesses should use pilots to explore the trust dividend that comes with blockchain innovations, such as automated market makers, arbitrage systems and self-stabilizing currency regimes.

Energizing the soul of the net zero enterprise

Navigating the changes and challenges ahead will only be possible with energy and a keen sense of purpose from senior leaders and the people they manage. Businesses need to lure the next generation of talent, and that will require a workplace experience that fits their lifestyle needs and desires as well as their commitment to wider social goals.

Young skilled workers on which businesses depend increasingly are unwilling to join companies that don’t share their personal commitment to sustainability and a supportive work environment for people of all races, genders, nationalities and abilities.

The workplace itself increasingly should reflect the business purpose. This is as true for its physical design and the diversity of its workforce as it is for the design of its processes, policies and organizational culture.

From money matters to money matters less 

For the next generation, financial compensation for work performed is not enough. The youngest generation of workers has grown up watching climate change evolve from a distant scientific theory to a tangible reality, and income inequality and social injustice tear at the fabric of society. Top talent wants to work for companies that bring about positive change.

Why now

Conversations about these issues are global, fueled by social media, unprecedented natural catastrophes and unrelenting headlines. A watershed moment came in 2019, when more than 180 US CEOs signed a letter published by the Business Roundtable signaling a move away from “shareholder capitalism” and toward the “stakeholder” variety. And ESG investment has grown rapidly, with funds in the segment now capturing at least $120 billion in new investment.

What to look for

Young talent is now voting with its feet, refusing to work for companies considered dirty or out of touch with the global zeitgeist. As these workers increasingly shun companies with poor ESG credentials, businesses will compete to showcase their sustainability metrics. (For more on this topic, see our report, “The Purpose Gap.”)

How to get ready

Companies must demonstrate purpose beyond profit generation. In addition to properly quantifying, measuring and reporting on ESG impacts, businesses will need clear, authentic communication about company action, as well as honest acknowledgment of difficulties encountered. 

Businesses can also adopt a “net positive” posture, in which they strive to give more to society and the environment than they take. This may take the form of food companies helping customers stay healthy, or mobility companies focusing on environmentally friendly transport rather than merely selling vehicles.

From workplaces to working spaces

People’s relationship with work — and thus the relationship between employers and employees — is changing. Today, people don’t live to work; they work to live. That includes setting their own schedule and combining their personal and professional interests.

Why now

The COVID-19 pandemic took this autonomy to the next level. In response, companies are making it easier for a newly distributed work force to work the way they want to work when they want to work.

What to look for

While not every aspect of a transformed world of work has clearly emerged, one thing is undisputable: increasingly talented people can, and will, work from anywhere. Witness Airbnb enabling longer-term rentals, and the number of countries that offer special visas for digital nomads. Businesses must set a strategy for harnessing the best talent, no matter where they want to work.

How to get ready

Businesses must ensure their policies don’t create unnecessary location restrictions, and they’re also challenged to nurture cohesive teams when members are scattered across different places and rarely or never see each other. Managers must spend a higher share of their time interacting with team members to understand their personal needs, identify the skills they can bring to the group and ensure team cohesiveness and belonging.

“Metaverse” platforms and other extended-reality tools will likely see uptake to optimize team dynamics, while HR will need to adopt new ways of managing the challenges and opportunities people face when working remotely. (For more on these topics, see our reports, “Infusing XR into Remote Collaboration” and “A Guide to Modernizing Talent Management in the Hybrid-Work Era.”)

From a place for commuting to a place to connect 

Even with rampant shutdowns and slow return-to-office strategies, the idea of the office as a place for people to congregate is far from dead. COVID-19 has shown that while “heads-down work” can be done anywhere — typing, coding, form-filling, etc. — “heads-up work” is still best done face-to-face; there’s nothing like being in the room when we want to create, collaborate, close and feel part of something bigger.

This gives the office a new meaning: Rather than being the only place work gets done, it’s an attractive place to mentor and be mentored, collaborate, exchange ideas and develop cultural cohesion and a sense of shared purpose.

Why now

Newly liberated employees will need good reason to leave their cozy homes and face the commute into work. In the US, 39% of workers would consider resigning if compelled to return to full onsite work mode. There needs to be a good reason and a good environment for getting people together.

What to look for

In the future, offices will serve multiple purposes. They’ll be made up of private spaces for people who for any reason need a quiet spot to do their heads-down work, as well as shared spaces for collaboration, social events and more. All this will turn the office into a place to develop the culture, network and bond.

How to get ready

As organizations shift to more flexible work structures, their success will hinge on adequately investing in the planning, preparation and execution phases of hybrid work. A major piece of this strategizing will center on developing role-specific work-location strategies.

Using a heads-up/heads-down model, work-redesign teams can estimate how much of a given role’s time and responsibilities are spent on activities best facilitated in-office or remotely. The resulting work structures should be customized, best-fit arrangements based on activities instead of functional groupings.

Meet Sadie, the new employee

Young talent is now voting with its feet, refusing to work for companies that are out of touch with the global zeitgeist.


The dawn of a new age

Radical ideas, visionary ambitions, innovation and optimism — that’s what’s needed to propel us successfully into the net zero era. To reset for the new age, forward-thinking businesses will harness the forces of innovation, technological acceleration and rapidly changing consumer sentiment to meet the needs of the day.

Emerging from the swirl of change today, we see abundant opportunities for businesses with the foresight and boldness to find dramatically new ways of working, creating and interacting that prioritize healthy environmental and social outcomes.

Time and again, as old worlds fade, new eras dawn. How the next age unfolds is up to us — as businesses, professionals and citizens of a changing planet. The glimmers of the net zero era are coming rapidly into view. Let’s start building the Future of Us.

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