We need an entrepreneurial mindset to tackle the world’s biggest challenges

What entrepreneurs can teach us about thinking out of the box to reinvent our world and tackle its biggest challenges.

Picture from Katharina Reuter — BE.ive speaking at “Start Smart, Start Sustainable” event in Berlin (Feb 2018)

We live in a complex world where sustainability issues are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and difficult to cope with. In today’s highly connected world, there is hardly a day when you won’t hear about climate change, migrant crisis, growing inequalities, or terrorism and armed conflicts.

But there is still hope.

You may also have heard about the many initiatives around the world that try to deal with these issues, of which the two most prominent might be the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. As part of these two agreements, more than 190 countries agreed to keep global warming well below +2°C, and committed to a roadmap of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) for a more sustainable world by 2030.

Are we on track tackling these challenges? So far, not exactly.

According to a study and forecast made by DNV GL, none of the SDGs will be achieved in all regions of the world by 2030. What’s more, some of them such as SDG 13 Climate action and SDG 10 Reduced inequalities won’t be achieved in any of the five regions of the world. Forecasts are not any better when it comes to SDG 5 Gender equality, SDG 8 Decent work and economic growth, SDG14 Life below water, SDG 15 Life on land, and SDG 16 Peace, justice and strong institution. Taking a step back to look at the global picture, it seems that none of the five regions of the world will reach all SDGs, including the richest regions of the world. And this is very concerning.

Illustration from DNV GL

Yet it doesn’t mean we should get discouraged.

It means we have to be even more inventive. We have to be bold. These challenges might stand little chance to be completely solved in the next one or two decades, there is already a lot we could do through cooperation.

As illustrated by the SDG 17 Partnerships for the goals, the achievement of all goals will require cooperation. We all have different pieces of the puzzle, and without this collaboration, we can’t succeed. This is why we need a global coordinated effort in which governments, cities, companies — from startups and single entrepreneurs to large listed companies, NGOs, and individuals join forces.

But before anything, what we need is a change of mindset.

Most people think that sustainability represents challenges, issues, risks. But what forward-thinking entrepreneurs would see is new opportunities, and maybe even a new role for business. In its 2017 report Better Business Better World, the Business & Sustainable Development Commission identified 60 market opportunities in 4 categories: food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. Still according to the the Business & Sustainable Development Commission, the SDGs represent at least a USD 12 trillion business opportunity, of which more than half arising in developing countries.

Illustration from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission

So how can we seize these opportunities now and use business as a force for good at the same time? Remember when I said we need a new mindset? What I meant is that business as usual just won’t do. And the closer to what we need might well be an entrepreneurial mindset. A spirit of adventure and innovation.

Entrepreneurs are very good at working efficiently and creatively through problems.

Contrarily to most bigger organisations, startups and entrepreneurs are not stuck into a constraining structure forcing them to follow very specific and time-consuming processes while potentially having to protect other important sources of revenue. Although they may lack the manpower and financial cushion larger organisations can have, this freedom can give them an edge when it comes to developing radically new ideas or business models.

What’s more, startups are facing a huge competition while having often much less resilience to failure than bigger companies. While this certainly isn’t ideal for those brave enough to jump in this arena, having to play out of one’s comfort zone also forces to be highly adaptive, creative and sometimes even disruptive. And this is definitely a strength when it comes to solving issues that require thinking out of the box. To survive in this highly competitive business environment and with often scares human and financial resources, startups also have to be highly efficient, as exemplified by the lean startup movement. Because without a cushion, most simply won’t survive over the next weeks or months.

Illustration from BE.ive

That is why an entrepreneurial mindset is what we need to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, while building partnerships with other organisations, such as NGOs, large companies or governments, could greatly help startups and entrepreneurs increase their positive impact on society and the planet by creating the conditions under which they could do what they do best: reinvent.

The future of our society and the planet — our shared future — depends on this. Let’s have an impact together!