How Business Leaders Can Stop the World from Running Out of Water

Today, the people of Cape Town, South Africa are scrambling to avoid the unwanted distinction of becoming the first major city to run out of water.  Local residents of the iconic tourist town only shower briefly and flush their toilets occasionally. Police patrol water distribution centers to quell fights. Hospital administrators are fast-tracking efforts to build desalination plants that turn sea water into fresh water and get their buildings off the city’s water grid.

This may sound like the dystopian future of a science fiction novel. But it’s the global reality coming to major cities around the world in the next decade. By 2025, two-thirds of the planet is likely to be dealing with water shortages. Cities from Mexico City to Beijing to Tokyo to London are among the most probable candidates for severe water crises.

On the face of it, this may seem like a grim, even hopeless problem. But leaders, whom I call future first, embrace global challenges, like looming water shortages­—and the growing scarcity of other non-renewable resources—not as problems to avoid, but as global opportunities for industry-disrupting innovation. This type of leader foresees the market demands that these challenges create for alternative solutions, not just five years out into the future, but ten or twenty years out.

For example, water scarcity hobbles sanitation systems. What new technology will prevent the resultant outbreaks of disease? Pollution in countries like China has destroyed up to 20% of their arable land. What innovations can feed the 9 billion people on earth in 2040? New sources of zinc, silver, gold, copper, and lead may shrink dramatically over the next twenty years. What new materials will we use to make cell phones or computer batteries? With a future first mindset, the coming decades are ripe with deep innovation opportunities.

While future first leaders may seek opportunities in the midst of potential catastrophes, they are not disaster profiteers. They’re a new kind of leader who plays the long game of innovation while operating within the parameters of commercial success and profitability. Rather than leveraging desperation for short-term profits, these leaders are reimagining how we source, make, market, sell and deliver products and services. This is how future first leaders get out ahead of tomorrow’s market demands and beat the competition, while also responding to the global challenges that will reshape their industries. Here are three elements that define this future first mindset:

1. Overcoming Presentism

As Silicon Valley mindfulness gurus teach, “living in the present” means centering one’s attention outside of the push-pull world of deadlines, appointments and nostalgia. By contrast, presentism is a state in which our attention is myopically focused on the near term future—the next fifteen minutes, next week or next quarter. As such, presentism explains how many businesses measure success and profitability and what drove the 2008 financial crisis. But future first leaders plot an alternate path by constantly examining the past to forecast long-term trends that will drive future value and solve global challenges in their industries.

For example, women’s fashion entrepreneur Eileen Fisher asked big questions about the problems of presentism in her industry. She specifically looked at the enormous quantities of water used to dye clothes and huge swathes of land that produce cotton. Then her team set out a 2020 Vision to transform the company for long-term sustainability, by creating textile manufacturing processes that use less water and fewer toxic materials in fabric dyes. The company further reduces the amount of pollutants in their products by using mostly organic cotton in their products.

You can overcome presentism by asking: What are the top three material resources that are most critical to your business’s per­formance now and over the next ten years? What data does your company obtain on the future trends related to these resources?  What other future trends does your company need to research and monitor?

2. Expand the value in your business decisions

Value in the corporate world tends to be measured in terms that sound rational: sales revenue, operating productivity, gross margin and so on. There is, however, some very rich data that goes into business decisions but gets left of out traditional executive meetings and financial spreadsheet. Future first leaders figure out new ways to explicitly tap into this missing data—emotions, personal preferences and other human input—to expand the values that shape their business decisions and therefore the value that is produced by these decisions.

Electronics manufacturers Apple and Sony are well-known for their extremely profitable products. But until recently, most tech and electronics companies didn’t factor the negative environmental impacts of their cool-looking devices into their decision-making processes. Consumers, however, often bring a more expansive range of values to their purchasing decisions—and they have become increasingly concerned about the expanding amounts of toxic e-waste in the world. Employees often care about the purpose and values of the companies where they work, which can attract and retain them or put them off.

After criticism started to arise in the media, tech and electronics companies realized they had to expand the values they considered in their decision-making, and they began demanding more sustain­able materials, recycling, and ethical sourcing of rare motherboard components. Other companies started innovating around how the consumer can easily take apart and remove the components of the board or device for better materials reuse and recycling. There is still an expanding opportunity to reimagine how we use, reuse and dispose of all kinds of electronics.

You can expand the value in your business decisions by asking: What are your company’s top five to eight most critical business decisions? What explicit language could you use to identify the values that go into and come out of these decisions? What analytic data is required to make and implement the decision? What human data is required?

3. Go beyond one-company, one-leader at a time

The cult of the heroic business leader—Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs—still lives on. But companies today, even small ones, are much more complex systems than they were seventy years ago. They operate in the midst of an increasingly globalized envi­ronment held together by a massive interconnected physical infrastructure with powerful­—and sometimes conflicting—political and economic interests.

Future first leaders realize that, in this environment, no single leader or company will succeed in innovating to address the world’s biggest challenges. For them, the way forward is breaking down some of their business’ traditional walls. They under­stand that they belong to larger economic and government systems that encompass global challenges like climate change and resource scarcity. They also know how to collaborate with “frenemies” to preemptively solve problems across their industry. In fact, a surprising result of all this complexity has been more business leaders discovering the value of partnership and collaboration across their ecosystems.

Though it is helmed by a heroic leader, Tesla is a pioneer in developing what is now one of the most sprawling, networked ecosystems today. Major players in what was once just the auto industry now include Uber, Apple, Google, Avis, Panasonic and Tata, all of which both compete and collaborate with traditional manufacturers like GM or Audi to create cleaner, smarter and radically different forms of personal mobility and transportation.

You can go beyond one-company, one-leader at a time by asking: What are the big external goals you want your company to achieve over the next five, ten, and even twenty years within its larger business ecosystem? Who are your potential partners within that ecosystem? What can you collaborate on with your competitors, and what do you need to continue to compete on?

Global challenges, like growing water scarcity, are not going away anytime soon. Future first leaders embrace the opportunity to solve these challenges by investing in game-changing innovation.  These future first leaders think outside the present tense, integrate broader values into profitability and scalability into their business models, and build partnerships with their frenemies to drive change across their eco-systems. They will remake all of our futures by enabling the planet and the people on it to obtain the resources to thrive.

This article was originally published in my @Forbes #leadership column. Alice Mann is the author of Future FirstYou can follower her at LinkedIn and Twitter.

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