While several events in 2015 will set the agenda for the next five, 10 or 15 years, more than anything, this year looks set to be characterized by contradictions. For instance, multi-player collaborations (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals), new technologies (e.g. wearable devices), business partnerships (e.g. mega-deals such as Hutchison Whampoa-O2), and trade agreements (e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership) will bring our planet closer together. Yet at the same time we are increasingly being defined by our differences—under the pretext of divisive religious, cultural, ethnic, class, and world views—which are pulling us apart, fueling social discontent and jeopardizing sustained economic development (“Je Suis Charlie” and the growing prospect of “Grexit” are just two recent examples). 

With such complexity at play, several colleagues in APCO’s Sustainable Growth practice group have identified “five watch outs” we believe will gain even greater attention in 2015 and likely mature into full-blown priorities for business and policy leaders over the coming years. Over the next ten days, colleagues will share their personal experiences and views, exploring each of the topics below:

  1. Failure Through Inequality – Attacking income inequality has become a popular refrain among political leaders. But in truth, the axis of “rich vs. poor” is only part of the picture. A failure to treat people of different races, religions, gender and sexual orientation equally is also stifling growth, innovation and aspiration.  Inequality of access and opportunity – particularly to health, education and technology – is preventing us from unlocking the full potential of much of the world’s population, stagnating social mobility and trapping swathes of humanity in modern day subsistence—and even slavery (this Economist article looks at educational inequality in the United States). Nations and companies that can tackle these failures and inequities will stand to gain in the long term in terms of talent development, business growth and innovation, and corporate reputation.
  2. Global Warming: Climate Change Gets Real – After the hottest year on record, 2015 should produce a symbolic breakthrough with December’s Paris COP21 meeting leading to a modest treaty between all major nations. However, more extreme weather is changing the context for all human ecosystems – communities, corporations, countries, continents – with droughts challenging food production and causing mass human migration and refugee situations; oceans becoming inhospitable for coral and other sea life; and human infrastructure crumbling under ever-stronger weather. The tendency is to focus on the risks; but as pointed out in a 2014 report by the New Climate Economy, there are ample cost-efficient and revenue-generating opportunities for nations and businesses in addressing the threats. 
  3. Double-Edged Technology – A slew of technological breakthroughs, including big data, the Internet of Things, augmented reality, digital currency, wearables, the shared economy, graphine and gene therapies, among others, are revolutionizing everything from health access to financial services to college education to the way that we interact and communicate with one another and experience the world around us. Yet, privacy and cyber attacks are now among the most potent threats to personal, corporate and national security. As digital technology and big data are increasingly embedded in every aspect of life, companies are becoming the arbiters of our individual and shared privacy and security. They must articulate the ethics that guide them, and redouble efforts to earn and retain stakeholder trust.
  4. Divided Convergence – At no time has our world been more mutually dependent and connected, yet paradoxically the volume and intensity of narrow, partisan interests seems to grow louder every day. Existing and potential trade pacts, like the NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), inter-governmental agreements on subjects like development and piracy, and Internet-enabled technologies, like WhatsApp, Mpesa and Skype, are binding us tighter together.  Divisive actors, ranging from terrorist groups like ISIS, to nationalist movements, gain greater share of voice and polarize us. Proponents in “interdependence” –including most multinational businesses and NGOs – are being drowned out by hyper local actors with often narrower agendas. They must clarify the benefits of globalization and international development and raise the volume, or face the potentially frightening consequences.
  5. Energy Dividends – The oil glut and low energy prices are providing helpful stimulus to struggling economies everywhere. But, it’s useful to look back a couple of years when the price per barrel increased from less than $50 to more than $120 between 2009 and 2011. Energy experts expect a similar recoil from today’s low prices. While enjoying the stimulus, now is the time for investment in energy diversification. While alternatives – ranging from gas, coal and nuclear, to solar and wind – might seem expensive in today’s market, their long-term pricing is more stable, offering more predictability. Companies and households should be careful not to “look a gift horse in the mouth,” and squander this opportunity to reinvest oil savings in a more sustainable energy future.

These are five of the most pressing issues helping clients and stakeholders navigate as they prepare for 2015 and beyond. While these are based insights from work with several of the world’s most well-respected nonprofits, foundations, think tanks and corporations, they are conversation starters.  Are we defining them correctly? What other “watch outs” should we include?  Who is doing a good job in managing these issues?  Let us know your thoughts as we unpack these five issues over the next ten days.

James Robinson

James Robinson, is managing director of APCO Worldwide's Shanghai office and global sustainable growth & corporate purpose practice lead. Read More