We've all heard that in every problem there is an opportunity. If only we were able to spot the opportunity every time, we might be out of problems. And become wealthy entrepreneurs in the process.

Last year the United Nations produced a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that give an excellent photograph of the global  systemic problems we face today. The list begins with poverty, hunger, and disease, mentions a lack of clean water and the importance of the rule of law, and doesn't forget inequality and a lack of decent work for many.

Thinking about how to approach such systemic problems and risks, the UN got creative. Its business arm, the UN Global Compact, worked in partnership with thinktanks DNV GL and Monday Morning Global Institute to set up the Global Opportunity Network, which produces the Global Opportunity Report. The Network has named the approach it takes the Global Opportunity Mindset.

This "Mindset" is a global outreach process that zooms in on certain risks and the opportunities that lurk within them. Each year, starting in 2014, the process has begun with focus groups holding lengthy discussions over which 5 global risks to prioritize. Once the risks have been identified, a months-long phase of surveys, consultations and open sourcing of ideas takes place in order to come up with descriptions of the broad opportunities that can be found in those risk areas, along with numbers quantifying the scope of opportunity and some examples of already existing solutions.

In June, a Global Opportunity Lab was held in New York, where a group of innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders pitched ideas for the next Global Opportunity Report. By the time it is released in January 2017, around 10,000 business leaders from all parts of the world will have taken part in co-creating it.

The 2016 report highlighted these 5 risks: "loss of ocean biodiversity, resistance to life-saving medicine, accelerating transport emissions, a generation wasted, and a global food crisis." It then identified 3 opportunities linked to each risk, and a number of existing solutions to illustrate how the opportunities look in practice.

The risk entitled "a generation wasted," which those surveyed ranked as a very high priority, gave rise to opportunities in these areas: "Futurepreneurs," "the digital labor market," and "closing the skills gap." The report says: "42 percent of the leaders we asked across the world singled out youth unemployment as the most pressing issue to solve.... The leaders we surveyed understand this growing risk and the immense potential for prosperity that can be unleashed if it is addressed correctly. Our data shows a consistent belief that decent work is the SDG holding the greatest potential for business opportunities."

The opportunity represented by catalyzing a generation of future entrepreneurs is enormous. The report points out that entrepreneurs create the most jobs and that, as the digitalization of work processes threatens to make half our jobs obsolete, we need to remove barriers to entrepreneurship through digital innovation. The report estimates that for every dollar spent on youth entrepreneurship programs, 10 dollars of revenue is later created, generating about 3 dollars in tax revenue. It urges large companies to set up internal innovation incubators and put young entrepreneurial minds to work. 

One example of an existing solution, among the eight provided in the report under the "Futurepreneurs" opportunity category, is the COMB+ International Innovation Zone in Beijing, where young future entrepreneurs work on mobile Internet, mass data, cloud computation and software and hardware projects. 

Turning to the global food crisis, smart farming was identified as the top opportunity. "Vast dissemination of advanced technological tools at an affordable price has meant that both large and small-scale farmers have new and more precise tools to produce more with less," says the report. Some key figures: a farmer can benefit from precision farming with an 18 percent annual increase in profit; and by 2020, the market for digital-based farming services is expected to be valued at 4.55 billion dollars.

The report mentions urban farming as an area of great potential, including vertical and indoor gardening, and highlights the US company AeroFarms as an example of an existing solution, where crops are grown without either sun or soil. 

Other areas of opportunity within the food scarcity arena are: shifting to new diets that include more local produce and diversification of protein sources, and reducing food waste.

The UN Global Compact launched this massive Global Opportunity Report project in order to rally businesses, as well as governments, to find practical ways to reach the 15-year SDGs. "Businesses are the new activists," says the 2016 report. "A new alliance is emerging between progressive businesses and civil society actors, who strive to achieve the same sustainable goals. This promises to strengthen the social bottom line on the sustainability agenda, together with the environmental and economic bottom lines, ushering in a new kind of social capitalism. It is large scale societal change from the bottom up."

Just what we badly need.

Published on: Jul 28, 2016
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