Walk into the board room of a typical Fortune Global 500 company today and the talk will be about today’s challenges. In an environment that rewards short-term gains, immediate concerns understandably dominate management’s time and attention.  Many companies with relatively long business horizons are still effectively looking at their watches rather than their calendars.

So what would happen if the people in those board rooms asked themselves this simple question:  What will the world look like in 2050?

That’s exactly what 29 major global corporations did in a recent project by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.  This ambitious, leading-edge report maps out the transformative changes that will be necessary to allow the projected 9 billion inhabitants of our planet to be living well at mid-century.

The result of extensive dialogues involving 200 companies spanning 20 countries, Vision 2050 has at its core the attributes of successful business planning: understand your current situation, identify the obstacles to success, and create a pathway to overcome those obstacles.  The conclusion of this analysis is the need for a fundamental transformation of the way the world produces and consumes everything from energy to agricultural products.  And in that shift, Vision 2050 identifies unprecedented opportunities for business – at least those that understand they can no longer operate in business-as-usual, autopilot mode.

Opportunities range from developing and maintaining low-carbon, zero-waste cities, to improving and managing biocapacity, ecosystems, lifestyles and livelihoods.  In today’s dollars, the market opportunities created by adapting to the new global reality for sustainable living are somewhere between $3-$10 trillion USD per year in 2050.

Vision 2050 is not only about economics, development and sustainability challenges for business.  It suggests governments and civil society must create a different view of the future, one where, “economic growth has been decoupled from ecosystem destruction and material consumption and re-coupled with sustainable economic development and societal well-being.”

With 9 billion people on the planet competing for a limited supply of natural resources, the definition of “living well” will also have to shift.  Instead of a utopian dream, living well in 2050 means that all people have access to and the ability to afford education, healthcare, mobility, the basics of food, water, energy and shelter, and consumer goods. It also means living within the limits of the planet itself.

Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer. Vision 2050 asks those questions and offers a way to help businesses understand the pathways they will need to succeed. The question of where we will be in 2050 is well worth asking, for the rewards to those who get the answers right is unprecedented.

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