US30 - The Future needs US
It’s time to face the future and find new ways to create communities that address the changing needs of people and planet.
In this article, our colleague and director of future Suzy Jones, outlines the dynamic forces shaping our tomorrow, profiling the business models of the future, and the new ways in which we will judge commercial success.
Since around 1945, the world has been living through an unprecedented period of exponential growth and activity. The scale and speed of advancement during this very limited period in human history, known as the Great Acceleration, has resulted in a technological revolution, thriving wealthy cities, more productive farming, and tremendous medical advances extending life expectancy from 50 to 80 years in less than a century.
The phenomenal growth in the global socio-economic system has provided firm foundations on which to flourish – relative peace, population expansion, escalating global GDP, swelling cities, increased productivity, vast reserves of oil and gas and minerals, large scale global mobility and extraordinary advances in planetary scale communication. Operating in the near vertical curve of the Great Acceleration is a great place to do business.
It is, however, an unsustainable trajectory causing multiple inter-related global challenges. In Homeland Earth: A manifesto for a new millennium Edgar Morin and Anne Brigitte Kern write of “interwoven and overlapping crises” affecting humanity and argue that the most ‘vital’ problem of our time is not any single threat but the ‘complex intersolidarity of problems, antagonisms, uncontrollable processes, and the general crisis of the planet’ – a phenomenon they labelled the Polycrisis (or William Gibsons Jackpot if you prefer that reference), a term and theory reiterated in the World Economics Forum Global Risk report 2023 describing a “cluster of related global [challenges] with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part.”
J. R. McNeill, originator of the term the Great Acceleration, argues it is idiosyncratic of the current age and is set to halt in the near future when activity and growth will slow.
If this is accurate, what does Post Acceleration business look like? What will be valued? In what ways is success defined? How will Urban Splash operate, thrive, make a difference, and deliver its purpose over the next 30 years?
According to Morin and Kern, successfully operating amongst the unprecedented changes we are beginning to see materialise, lies in our ability for complex thought and solidarity, recognising uncertainty and ambiguity as opportunities for creative solutions, learning and transformation via partnerships and common endeavour. This all suggests a future where commercially successful business is less about ego and individual prosperity, and more about sharing knowledge, collective success, partnerships and unanimity.
Like any individual business Urban Splash is not responsible for, nor does it have the ability and capacity to overcome the world’s problems. Our responsibility is to maximise what we can do and apply our resources where we have control and influence – not only because it’s the right thing to do to prevent all those blue graphs from going off the chart, but also because it makes commercial sense. The past is littered with corporate failures who failed to recognise what’s ahead of them, and where the opportunities exist within a new context. Yes, the next chapter includes huge technological possibilities, I don’t think any of us can ignore that march, but I would argue the opportunities for businesses to thrive are less about fixating on digital widgets and more about understanding what people and our societies more widely really need.
As Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of Blackrock, said in his letter to CEO’s last year “The next 1,000 unicorns won’t be search engines or social media companies, they’ll be sustainable, scalable innovators.” As an interesting aside, Fink also asks “what are you doing to disrupt your business?”.
For the last 30 years Urban Splash has delivered exceptional places for people to live and work, and better futures for our towns and cities and the people in them. We want to continue to learn, challenge and innovate for good reason, championing good design and collaborating with the best creatives and thinkers. Working with, and learning from people with brilliant ideas, being willing to take risks and challenge orthodoxies are all things Urban Splash has been translating into commercial success since its inception.
None of that is going to change – Urban Splash is still an exceptional regeneration partner, an industry agitator, and a firm believer in the power of good design. What is going to change is the context in which we are operating and how that context determines how we generate value and therefore commercial success.
One way of looking at business in a future post acceleration is what’s valued will be different. The companies who succeed will be those who recognise where value will come from in a future where commerciality means more than generating a profit. I am of the opinion this future has already arrived - Our impact on people and our impact on the planet, where positive, is increasingly generating a commercial gain throughout our entire value chain from investors to customers and end users. The ability of a business to be resilient, to be able to navigate the new context we find ourselves in, is already forming part of our commercial worth. Historically rhetoric has always been that ethical change will be driven by consumer demand, and I don’t disagree with this. As the influence of Boomers wanes and is replaced by the buying power and political persuasions of Millennials and Gen Z, what these generations value is becoming more commercially influential. In a democratic world their social and environmental expectations are beginning to impact who thrives commercially and who does not. If a company makes its profits by knowingly accepting investment from big oil, authoritarian dictatorships, misogyny, ethical mistreatment or other dubious sources these generations want to know and will take action.
Having said this, in my experience its not consumer demand which is driving significant change, that pressure is trickling through from financial markets and insurers, big debt providers whose influence over business is almost instant. Returning to Larry Finks letter, he is clear “[Blackrock] focus on sustainability not because we're environmentalists, but because we are capitalists and fiduciaries to our clients.” Investors and insurers want to back businesses who are resilient and able to identify opportunities and mitigate the risks associated with the change and uncertainty of Morin and Kern’s ‘Polycrisis’. I like to think its because they believe it’s the right thing to do but I know its because they are aware it makes commercial sense.
So what does business in the future look like? We don’t have all the answers, we never did, but the approach we have taken over the last 30 years provides a solid base from which to demonstrate our commercial value in the next. We focus as we always have on creating extraordinary places where people can thrive; we preserve existing buildings because a building that already exists is always the most sustainable; and we continue to be willing to disrupt, agitate, question convention and do what we believe is the right thing even when its not the easiest. Our future challenges, like that of all businesses, may be very different but our purpose remains the same and freakishly relevant ‘We will leave this place not less, but greater better and more beautiful than it was left to us’.
Who’s with us?
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