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Hope, horror and the future of business

Business · 7 min read

Hope, horror and the future of business

“The future ain’t what it used to be”

So said 1950s' baseball star Yogi Berra. Berra’s infamous verbal goofs are still remembered today for good reason: they contain a leftfield logic and a kernel of truth. And this quote is no exception: in today’s geopolitical and social climate, there’s no longer a sense that the future will bring better times. The future is looking a little bleaker with every day that passes. Has horror overcome hope? But why is this? Call me an unrelenting optimist, but I believe there are reasons to be cheerful about the state of the world and the global trade economy. So here they are.

The power and potential of e-commerce

When we were building DHL, we quickly realized that it’s not countries that trade, it’s companies that trade. In the early days, before globalized free trade, we were trying to break down trade barriers and fight our way through thick layers of protectionist trade policies. Today, there is a fundamentally new and different dimension to trade: people trade and consume globally.

So what’s there to be happy about? E-commerce is still in its infancy: even in the most developed markets it still only accounts for 18% of retail transactions. It’s hard to conceive of any regulatory barriers which could prevent people from buying online and internationally.

Consumers are increasingly well informed in all facets of life, including their own healthcare. They’re increasingly rational, astute purchasers. Asymmetries of knowledge are diminishing everywhere. This can only be good news: businesses which can continue to intermediate between consumer desire and fulfillment will undoubtedly find success in the global commercial ecosystem.

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Technology can still be a force for good

If you can, for a moment, ignore the threat of robots stealing our jobs, then technological innovation is perhaps humanity’s greatest source of hope for the future. Innovation means we can seed the planet, destroy excess CO2, grow healthy food, and extend productive life to over 80 years. The most disruptive technology may well be 3D printing. 3D printing is still a long way from reaching its potential, but it will be instrumental in creating new products, innovations and new ways of solving problems, perhaps most importantly in developing economies. The point is, we will continue to innovate, and technological advances will empower us to maintain our place on Earth, if not also discover how to continue beyond Earth.

Yes, corporations can lead the way

Henry Kissinger has written about the four major systems of history: the Westphalian (European) order of peace emerging from 17th century Europe; the centrist imperial order of China; the religious supremacism of political Islam, and the democratic idealism of the United States (i.e. Anglophone).

But this political segmentation ignores the fundamental power and potential of the corporate way of doing things. In its best manifestation, it transcends cultural and political boundaries and creates communities of global minds with acute social competencies and concerns, beyond just commercial objectives.

Deutsche Post DHL is a classic example of a corporate organization which makes social responsibility an equal to shareholder returns. It values and measures its soft powers (in other words, its approach to people) equally, if not more, than its hard assets.

Companies who demonstrate global leadership, such as Deutsche Post DHL’s public goal of zero emissions by 2050, will help ensure the continued growth of security and prosperity. DHL Express’ support of their employees part-time charitable efforts is another small but significant example.

Of course, there are other companies doing good. Apple, Kaiser Permanente, Lego and Microsoft are good examples of companies successfully balancing social good with shareholder interests.

That’s enough with the sunny optimism. What are the threats?

You can only have the glass half full for so long. There must be another side to the coin. And indeed there is. Here are the factors that I believe may overshadow well-meaning optimism:

1. Geopolitical factors: As Asia ascends and the US and Europe decline, do we have the political leadership and statesmanship to avoid large scale conflict?

2. Democracy in doubt: Are we seeing a renewal or a crisis? Will we see a retreat from globalization and free trade? And will public perception still shift part of the blame for angst and disparity to big business?

3. Who will save the planet? Global warming is the defining existential issue of our time. But global warming could also trigger conflict; war comes from scarcity and unequal distribution of wealth. Climate change will exacerbate this threat. The real answer must be that we, humankind, will save the planet, using technology and inspired leadership, because the alternatives are unthinkable.

Soft powers and social competencies

No one can predict the future. But in these turbulent times, businesses which successfully combine operational excellence and customer intimacy – alongside leadership in both business and community contexts – will continue to thrive.

You can purchase Roger Bowie and Po Chung's book 'Startup to Global Upstart' for more information: 

Physical books available here.

Also available on Amazon as an e-book

Roger Bowie
Roger Bowie former Global Services Director, DHL Express

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