In the early 2010s, the United Nations sparked a debate that has led many to wonder about what lies ahead in the future. They shone light on a simple question, "Can corporations save the world?"
While this question is both contentious and profound, the many answers have been difficult to prove. But with a recent risk report predicting an uncertain future, the role of corporations in society has never been more important to consider.
Global Risk Report predicts a very different future
Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab alluded to this when he introduced the 2016 Global Risks Report. He explained how our world is changing not just faster than we anticipated, but in unexpected ways. There is a cluster of high-impact and highly likely risks from our failure to mitigate climate change to cyberattacks and water crises. He suggests that how we respond to this shift, as communities, countries and even corporations, will define the state of our future.
"Advances in technology and rapid digitisation are fundamentally transforming societies, economies and ways of doing business," said Mr Klaus.
"This development presents great opportunities for all actors involved and a previously unimagined solution space for some of the world's most pressing problems."
But is it really something that the private sector should be responsible for?
The changing relationship between corporations and society
George Serafeim from Harvard Business School explored the relationship between business and society, considering the fact that corporate influence extends beyond economics to social and political realms. In effect, it is essential to how our species evolves and responds to change.
However, from a neo-capitalist point of view, businesses exist to please a single stakeholder – the investors. But now we understand that, especially in democratic societies, organisations are transcending the boundaries of financial imperatives and thinking about the triple bottom line: profits, people and the planet.
So let's return to the question, "can corporations save the world," and reveal a truth that may surprise you. It was not the UN that asked this. In fact, it was PepsiCo who published a three-page advertisement in the National Geographic exploring the idea.
Essentially, the answer comes down to the way we understand the role of corporate affairs as it functions today and in the future. Will it be driven by commercial agenda and social influence, or can we encourage honest dialogue and engagement to create lasting and positive change?