“Walk into the board room of a typical Fortune Global 500 company today and the talk will be about today’s challenges. In an environment that rewards short-term gains, immediate concerns understandably dominate management’s time and attention. Many companies with relatively long business horizons are still effectively looking at their watches rather than their calendars. So what would happen if the people in those board rooms asked themselves this simple question: What will the world look like in 2050?”A
The paragraph above is an extract from a letter sent to WBCSD members in January 2010, informing them of the launch of Vison 2050 – an ambitious, leading-edge study mapping out the transformative changes that would be necessary to allow over 9 billion people to be living well, within the boundaries of the planet. Created with 29 WBCSD members from 14 industries, and including insights from more than 200 companies and external stakeholders in some 20 countries, it declared that business as usual was not sustainable. Vision 2050 explored what a sustainable world would look like in mid-century, how such a world could be realized, and the role that business has to play in making that vision a reality.
Vision 2050 had at its core the attributes of successful business planning: understand the current situation, identify the obstacles to success, and create a pathway to overcome those obstacles. The resulting conclusion was the need for a fundamental transformation of the way the world produces and consumes everything from energy to agricultural products. And in that shift, Vision 2050 identified unprecedented opportunities for those businesses that understood they could no longer operate in business-as-usual, autopilot mode.
Reviewing Vision 2050 in 2019, the key concepts it explored had largely stood the test of time. The pathway that it put forward accurately identified the importance of systems transformation and predicted the key action areas for initial progress from 2010-2020 including new concepts, such as the circular economy, which had become firmly established as part of the broader business landscape. It also coined the term “Turbulent Teens” to describe the decade – of course we now see that this turbulence has clearly continued into the next decade.
Inevitably however, a number of topics had either increased in importance or emerged as critical new areas within the sustainable development landscape and even beyond, such as deep changes driven by technology. Furthermore, the world that business operates in is always evolving, with social tensions and environmental impacts significantly on the rise. These escalations were already leading to fundamental questions being asked about the role of business, and the economy as a whole, within society. Business has a material interest in shaping a viable long-term operating environment and there is no doubt that addressing this interest and responsibility will require system-wide transformations in food, energy, mobility, cities and communities, materials, work and education and the economy itself. But do we really understand what systems transformation will involve?
It was to answer that question that WBCSD embarked on its refresh of Vision 2050 in 2019. Revisiting our strategy at the highest level offered the opportunity to analyze social, economic and political shifts, to incorporate new critical elements that have emerged; to review these developments to understand how we need to shape systems transformations and establish what the role of business will need to be. And through this process we would create a renewed collective, positive, business action and leadership agenda for the 2020-2030 decade to come.
Vision 2050: Time to Transform was launched in March 2021, and we believe that it can meet the goals we set for it at the outset – but of course, it will take hard work from us and our members and the partners we work with.
The original Vision 2050 remains a groundbreaking piece of work that shaped WBCSD’s work for a decade. There is much that can still be learnt from it – please feel free to Download the original Vision 2050 Report (several languages available).