Preparing for uncertainty

Business engagement with the SDGs

This June, I went hiking up Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. Weather conditions on Mount Washington are notorious for changing quickly. One minute it was sunny and blue summer day. The next minute the fog was so thick visibility was limited to a few feet. The next minute we found ourselves amidst a heavy hailstorm.

Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Mount Washington

At the foot of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail in the Hermit Lake Shelter, a list of fatalities that occurred on Mount Washington hangs on the wall. The list serves as a reminder that uncertainty can sneak up on us at any moment. Hikers must prepare for conditions that are difficult to predict and calculate in advance.

Just like a hiker climbing Mount Washington, companies need to prepare for unexpected changes.

The SDGs are a universal agenda to transform the world by 2030. The agenda is ambitious and the goals are diverse. Businesses committed to the SDGs from day one. Leaders in corporate sustainability gave input and feedback and helped to shape the SDG agenda. The CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, served on the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel of eminent persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The role of business and the ability to scale sustainable innovations is critical if the world wants to achieve the SDGs by 2030. The SDGs represent a massive risk and opportunity for multi-national corporations.

If firms ignore the SDGs, vulnerability to unknown risks and uncertainty may increase. Countries are already passing regulations aligned with the world envisioned by SDGs. Regulatory changes are likely to cause disruptive change to current business models. The Netherlands already banned the production of new gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2025 and Germany by 2030.

The SDGs are not only a risk agenda. The SDGs present massive opportunities for business as well. A report by the Business and Sustainable Development Commission values the opportunities presented by the SDGs for business at least $12 trillion. Business must develop transformative innovation solutions to capture these opportunities.

My research, at Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, focuses on firm engagement with the SDGs. The research suggests that instead of applying traditional risk management approaches to engagement with the SDGs, alternative management approaches are needed to build the capabilities necessary for the massive transformation that achieving the SDGs would require. Resilience capabilities allow managers to adapt and change with uncertainty as opposed to controlling it. UNLEASH is an inspiring innovation lab to draw on the talents of a diverse pool of young individuals to capture the many opportunities presented by the SDGs. I am excited to be part of this movement for change and contribute through my knowledge/research. More to come!