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Why business success depends on enabling humanity’s long-term resilience

By Olivier Blum, Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer, Schneider Electric and Mathis Wackernagel, Founder and President, Global Footprint Network.

The coronavirus crisis has been reminding us of one essential truth – we are vulnerable. For all its ingenuity, its resilience, its courage even, humanity has been humbled by a microorganism that has disrupted, even destroyed, many lives around the world.

While we are still weathering the storm, we are also equipped with fresh insights on how to position ourselves for a better and safer future for all.

The global pandemic has reduced our Ecological Footprint by about ten percent, largely due to travel reductions and construction slow-downs. This massive shift pushed the date of Earth Overshoot Day out by three weeks compared to 2019, according to Global Footprint Network’s assessments. Forced through global mischance, it is a far cry from the kind of carefully designed transformation we need to build a sustainable future.

We can benefit from some powerful lessons. First, ignoring the ecological context in which we live poses a massive risk to everybody’s success; second, we are one biology, and our fates are interwoven; third, humanity can reverse the course on its ever-growing resource consumption.

While all our attention and efforts are geared towards recovery, this is our chance to make our economies one-planet compatible by making resource regeneration, biodiversity, circularity, and climate central to our decision making.

The recovery will succeed in building a better future only if it embraces the limits of our planet. We face a unique opportunity to re-shape our economy and society to be more resilient, inclusive, collaborative and thrive sustainably. We need to ensure that we are building a far more resource-efficient infrastructure and economy that will allow us to thrive within the ecological means of our planet. Nothing less can deliver the kind of future to which all of us, especially the youngest among us, aspire to.

For example, greenhouse gas emission levels have been tightly correlated to human and industry activities – through travel, transportation, manufacturing, consumption practices, and energy generation. We need to break this link: digitisation is an essential way to create a better, more resilient world. With the right digital tools, data can be used in ways that lead to better decisions, more efficient resource use, and more significant achievements. Digital buildings, for example, including retrofitted ones, can reduce energy consumption, increase building resilience, and increase the comfort of their occupants. Key to this is remote monitoring and operations, predictive and preventive maintenance, and advanced design.

For business models to succeed, they need to enable humanity’s long-term success, or they risk becoming obsolete: good examples are circular business models, where value gets delivered while keeping products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

Humanity’s success is simply defined as the ability of all to thrive within the ecological means of our planet (one-planet prosperity). It can be measured: whether all can thrive can be assessed through the United Nations’ Human Development Index; the extent to which we operate within planetary constraints can be tracked with the Ecological Footprint. Combining both defines the safe and just operating space where people thrive within the resource budget of our planet. Businesses who can help their customers move closer to this space are the ones that will be needed ever more in the future.

Take Schneider Electric’s strategy, where innovation is designed to meet the double challenge of improving humanity’s resilience and wellbeing while reducing the dependence on our planet’s resources. The company’s dual commitment to digitisation and decarbonization translates straight through to improving people’s safety and wellbeing, while getting to a world that operates within planetary budgets, through deliberate circularity and massive efficiency gains. Schneider’s innovation capabilities focus on maximising decarbonisation opportunities for its clients, and with them, for the world’s buildings, industries, data centres, and infrastructure. That is the idea behind “one-planet prosperity”.

One-planet prosperity is not just about doing well while doing good. It’s a necessity if we want to maintain business success in a world constrained by climate change and increasing resource and biodiversity constraints. It is about improving and sustaining humanity’s wellbeing within the ecological resource budget afforded by our finite planet.

Together we can move from the COVID-19 crisis forced onto us, to a future that is resilient and workable for all, by design. One key ingredient is to shift the sustainability conversation from noble to fundamentally necessary. This can help unleash the groundswell for one-planet prosperity, the most viable strategy we know of. It surely beats one-planet misery.