Rohrbeck Heger GmbH

Sustainability is the new digitalization. Here’s how to use strategic foresight to pay attention, find the signals in the noise, and leverage this complex, systemic transformation to your advantage.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Sustainability, just as digitalization before it, will be transformative in every way. It is imperative that companies act early, quickly, and decisively to ride the wave of change to their advantage.
  2. Strategic Foresight is a practice that includes powerful tools to build a robust sustainability strategy, one that operates within global frameworks such as the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
  3. With foresight you can:
  • Capture and navigate complexity.
  • Understand what’s next.
  • Set the right priorities.
  • Identify opportunities – and seize them!
  • Train future-proof thinking and encourage collaboration.

By Dr. Sebastian Knab with Emily Phillips

If there’s one thing that’s certain about sustainability, it’s that the topic itself has morphed from a handful of ancillary talking points into the conversation of our day. 

Just a few years back, when it came to building a business strategy, “sustainability” was one topic of many. Case in point: my team and I would find ourselves building future scenarios with clients. Among 100 factors, just 5-6 would relate to sustainability. Those we did identify back then were broad factors, such as “sustainability is important to consumers” or “regulators push sustainability.” Now, in stark contrast, sustainability has gone from a sideshow to the main act, headlining conferences, reports, and boardroom discussions. Corporates increasingly hire for a role devoted to this very topic: a new function, Chief Sustainability Officer, reports directly to the CEO.

Clients often tell me that they’ve been tasked with “doing something about sustainability.” But what, exactly, does that entail? And what’s the best approach to tackling this essential and complicated topic? Sustainability is the defining challenge of our age and frankly both our professional and personal legacies. To put it bluntly: if we want a future, we have to act sustainably. A strong match for navigating this critical topic, strategic foresight addresses complexity head-on and embraces uncertainty, so we can seize this moment before it passes us by.

Sustainability is the new digitalization

That sustainability is important, imperative, and non-negotiable is, at this point in time, a no-brainer. But what may not be so clear to all is that sustainability’s obviousness belies a true complexity, one that is far richer than, say, offsetting CO2 emissions. A comparison I like to make is to digitalization. 

A decade ago, a lot of people had this idea that digitalization was a question of replacing paper with digital files. Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back we now know that actually, digitalization continues to fundamentally transform just about everything. Just a handful of years ago, it was difficult to imagine that this shift would disrupt not only the taxi industry but also television, finance, even election outcomes. 

Just as digitalization minted a new generation of norm-shattering businesses, leaving many incumbents in the dust, so too is sustainability a rich landscape of opportunity, excitement — and peril.

It’s the same with sustainability. I firmly believe that the sustainability transformation is just as incredibly complex, enormous in scope, and multi-faceted as its digital counterpart. And just as digitalization minted a new generation of norm-shattering businesses, leaving many incumbents in the dust, so too is sustainability a rich landscape of opportunity, excitement — and peril. Nobody wanted to be outdone by a digital upstart, and it’s the same for sustainably-conceived business models. They are there for the taking, but only for those who stay ahead of the curve, and act early, quickly, and decisively. 

So, how to stay ahead of the curve, act early, quickly, and decisively? That’s where my work, the practice of strategic foresight, comes into play. Here I’ve highlighted five ways that strategic foresight helps teams and organizations get a front-row seat to the sustainability transformation, benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the topics at hand, and develop actionable, impactful solutions. 

As an added bonus, consider what hangs in the balance: a healthy, vibrant world that provides for the needs of us humans. After all, we need the world more than it needs us. 

Manage your sustainability transformation in these 5 ways with strategic foresight:

1. Capture and navigate complexity.

Let’s begin with a fundamental question: what does sustainability actually mean? Despite being the buzzword du jour and sitting at the center of many debates around business strategy, a comprehensive definition of sustainability remains elusive. Doesn’t sustainability start and end with becoming a bit cleaner, generating less waste, introducing some more efficiencies? Spoiler alert: that doesn’t begin to cover it. 

Sustainability, like digitalization before it, will be transformative in every way. Yes, having a plan in place to reduce CO2 emissions and achieve net-zero by 2030 are steps in the right direction. But sustainability is a great deal more than this. Strategic foresight, which seeks to understand not the status quo and current landscape, but rather how topics may evolve in the future, embraces and synthesizes sustainability’s many facets and its inherent complexity. A sustainable business strategy must consider the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 9 Planetary Boundaries, the 9 Rs of the Circular Economy, and my personal favorite: Doughnut Economics

Unfamiliar with these frameworks? You’re not alone. German business press Handelsblatt reports that only 40% of managers are familiar with the UN’s SDGs (Link in German.) A company can only call itself future-proof and ready to not only survive but thrive in the sustainability transformation if it understands the sheer breadth and depth of what sustainability actually entails.  

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals is one of several frameworks to consider when building a sustainability strategy.

2. Understand what’s next.

Once you understand that sustainability is more than just carbon and climate, it’s time to anticipate what’s next on the horizon. Net zero may be on everyone’s lips today, but tomorrow’s sustainability topics will be something else — net positive, biodiversity, ocean acidification, or elimination of single use plastics — there are many possibilities. 

So how might things evolve? And what’s the next chapter in this story? How does it relate to you and your business? Foresight methodologies such as trend radars and scenario planning address these very questions and paint a fuller picture of the topics that are bound to arise and define the future. Whether it’s the SDGs or planetary boundaries, when you implement tools such as trend radars and future scenarios, you’ll be prepared for when these topics surface, rather than caught unaware. 

3. Set the right priorities.

Identifying and tracking trends, building sustainability scenarios — these steps will often raise questions for a company in not just one or two, but several areas of their business. So which should you focus on? What planetary boundaries are your main issues? Which SDGs are you best positioned to contribute to? 

One of the insights that reveals itself early on in the strategic foresight process is the sheer complexity of sustainability, and, frankly, a sense of overwhelm can set in. It’s a huge topic with many interrelations, but there’s only so much that any one company can address at once. Faced with a prioritization problem, strategic foresight can help make sense of the options and point you in the right direction. Not only this, but it helps you make your case and communicate your preferred path in a transparent, compelling, and well-grounded manner.

Foresight methodologies such as identifying innovation search fields help to prioritize what we call opportunity areas, essential to forming a future-forward strategy. What distinguishes foresight practice from say, materiality analysis or design thinking is that those two approaches address today’s world —today’s impacts, today’s consumer needs, today’s stakeholders. Foresight, on the other hand, turns its gaze towards the future, attempting to identify future impacts, future consumer needs, and future stakeholders. 

Foresight asks not “what innovations are needed to solve these current issues?” but rather, “how does my innovation portfolio hold up when we stress test it within these imagined (and plausible) future worlds?” With the help of strategic foresight, innovation and strategy teams can prioritize with confidence and make sure their decisions result in impactful work for the longer term.

Sustainability is a space where if you move early, quickly, and decisively, you can contribute to solutions for pressing global challenges while simultaneously benefitting from the transformation at hand. 

4. Identify opportunities – and seize them!

Once a strategy or innovation team has identified opportunity areas, it’s time to fill these opportunity spaces with life. This is the heart of foresight-driven innovation (FDI), whose aim it is to identify and seize future opportunities — that is, turn insights into actions. Sustainability is a space where if you move early, quickly, and decisively, you can contribute to solutions for pressing global challenges while simultaneously benefitting from the transformation at hand. 

And transformative it is: a deeper, more nuanced understanding of sustainability and the challenges that face us in the coming years (and even months or weeks — hello, heatwaves!) requires a differentiated approach — looking further afield than this and next quarters’ results. It calls for a massive reorientation of business models around longer-term thinking, ones that truly account for the complexity of the collective task at hand. 

Currently, many if not most businesses are preparing for a future based on the green economy, a model that relies upon and assumes sufficient technological advancements and turbo-charged implementation. The running assumption here is that a green economy’s continued growth is not at odds with the health of the planet. A careful and thorough analysis, however, takes the debate among experts (as to whether or not sustainability and growth can co-exist) into account. The future may very well require us to think about other business models, even about a post-growth system. Foresight identifies these questions and enables productive debate to challenge our status quo and assumptions about how the future may evolve. 

From Conventional to Regenerative Business Models
Many companies will self-identify as being somewhere in the red quadrant – employing conventional business methods with an eye towards growing greener or more sustainable. Foresight encourages an exploration of the green quadrant – emerging technologies, systems and models that unlock entirely new ways of doing business.

5. Train future-proof thinking and encourage collaboration.

Sustainability is inherently a systemic topic that requires understanding not only your own business but also that of your ecosystem — your stakeholders, as well as those who share your values. For this transformation to succeed, it’s going to take a great deal of collaboration. Partners must align on strong, common visions for the future and agree upon what, exactly, they’re working towards. The sustainability transformation will require system-level change and collaboration, the likes of which we’ve never seen. 

Consider a company who wants to drive urban mobility systems as they transition to electric, autonomous vehicles. Automotive companies and their suppliers would need to coordinate with utility companies, city governments, and residents. All stakeholders must agree on a “normative North Star,” that is, a shared vision for a sustainable future. To this end, scenario development and opportunity spaces are two tools that are particularly powerful to align on a comprehensive picture of the future we wish to inhabit. Unlikely partnerships arise, collaboration ensues — and we find ourselves on track to work together towards a future we want. 

Future-proof your strategic advantage

The sustainability transition is the eye of the storm, the central vortex around which we find ourselves spinning. Hovering over warm waters, this storm is gaining strength and moving inland. Where will it land? And what world will it leave in its wake? Complex variables, uncertain outcomes — the choices we make today will have real-life implications in the years to come. 

Strategic foresight methodologies support organizations as they seek to build robust, resilient, and sustainable strategies towards a prosperous future for all stakeholders. Foresight captures the complexity of sustainability, painting a fuller picture for better understanding. It identifies what’s next on the sustainability horizon, and supports prioritizing opportunities, identifying the signals in the noise. Finally, it emphasizes taking action based on insights, and working collaboratively to address the defining challenges of our era. For just as digitalization fundamentally changed our world, so too does this nascent sustainability transformation herald huge shifts in the ways we work together, run our businesses, and live our lives.

Anticipate those changes with the help of strategic foresight and you’re set for smooth sailing in the years ahead.

Contact Sebastian Knab

Your contact at Rohrbeck Heger:
Dr. Sebastian Knab
Director of Foresight & Strategy at Creative Dock Group & Deputy Managing Director at Rohrbeck Heger

Rohrbeck Heger joined E.ON for an expert talk on strategic foresight at the trade fair E-world Energy & Water 2022.

Key Takeaways:

  • Many different and highly uncertain factors shape the present and future of the energy transition. Instead of ignoring this uncertainty, we must work proactively with it, accounting for multiple probable outcomes.
  • In an environment of many unknowns, foresight methodologies provide structure and help us to derive actionable insights. Based on this, we can move forward, make decisions, and get stuff done.
  • E.ON deploys various foresight methodologies to build a resilient strategy and remain a key player in the transition to renewable energy.
  • Rohrbeck Heger enables organizations to become future-prepared, grasp emerging opportunities, mitigate threats, and create a prosperous future with our strategic foresight expertise.

It’s human nature to avoid dealing with uncertainty. And the further one looks into the future to plan for eventualities, the less clear and more uncertain things get. Cue our tendency to act in avoidance, or revert to an over-reliance on precedent (by this we mean assuming that the future will look anything like what we’ve observed in the past). But when it comes to building a robust and resilient future-proof strategy, uncertainty is the name of the game: a critical aspect that is essential for success. Rather than running away from the unknown, building a strategy that can weather whatever comes requires us to embrace uncertainty instead.

Strategic Foresight is a methodology that identifies, analyzes, and proactively works with uncertainty, enabling organizations to become truly future-prepared. And if there is one industry at the moment that finds itself awash in a proverbial sea of uncertainty, it’s the energy sector. War in Ukraine, an accelerating climate crisis, and transformative technologies are just three factors that make the future of the energy industry especially difficult to predict, and thus a compelling case study for strategic foresight. Foresight methodologies, such as scenario building, trend radars, and innovation portfolio assessments, can be particularly powerful when it comes to navigating the energy landscape at this critical juncture. 

Which was why we were especially excited to host an expert talk at the E-world Energy & Water trade fair in June, the foremost gathering of European and international professionals in this crucial industry. Facing acute challenges in the coming weeks, months and years, innovation and strategy professionals from the energy industry were invited to join us for an instalment of the E-world Speakers Corner series, where Rohrbeck Heger joined E.ON to address these very topics. A fitting partner, E.ON is not only a pioneer in renewable energy and a key player in the European market, but also boasts a mature foresight practice. 

Entitled “What the #%*! should we do, now? Navigate the uncertainties of the energy transition and turn insight into action,” Dr. Alejandro Berbesi, Manager at Rohrbeck Heger was joined by Head of Foresight at E.ON Thomas Boermans to discuss the deep uncertainties facing the industry, how foresight helps teams navigate the unknown, and what the future of the energy industry may hold.

Geopolitical tensions and sustainable consumer behavior voted most uncertain factors facing the energy industry towards 2030

“Just looking at the news this morning, you realize, ‘oh, we don’t know what’s going to happen to the energy supply this winter.’ So if you’re working with so much uncertainty, how can you make sense of it all and make decisions? That’s exactly what we’ll be discussing today,” explained Alejandro Berbesi. To kick things off, he took the temperature of a hot topic: identifying the most uncertain factors facing the energy industry at this moment in time. Looking 10 years into the future, Berbesi collected the audience’s live input by rating the uncertainty level of select factors, with 0 as “very predictable” and 5 as “very unpredictable.” Here’s how the audience voted:

The results showed that each examined factor had a mid-to high degree of uncertainty, and not one was voted as “highly certain.” The topics of evolving geopolitical tensions as well as consumer behavior/societal attitudes towards sustainability were voted as being most uncertain, with participants unsure how these would play out in the future. Digital transformation and energy storage systems were voted as least uncertain. Signalling a divided opinion among those present, regulations –  especially in regards to CO2 – had assessments that spanned the full range from highly certain to highly uncertain. 

The take-away from this quick poll? Overall, experts within the energy industry are operating in an uncertain environment and system, juggling factors that are highly interrelated. The good news? Foresight methodologies can help organizations structure this information and come up with actionable insights, deal proactively with inherent uncertainty and develop a robust and resilient strategic approach.

How does E.ON use foresight? 

Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight at E.ON, walked the group through two ways that his team uses foresight to keep the energy company ahead of the curve and a leader in the European transition to renewables. One key tool is the team’s Trend Radar, where E.ON keeps tabs on a number of relevant trends, from the Future of Work to the Future of Society. The trend radar illustrates the time to impact: the farther out the trend is shown on the radar, the longer it will take to reach maturity. 

One example Boermans highlighted was the “Renaissance of Rural Areas,” a trend that describes a shift from urban to rural living, assuming that many consumers would prefer a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle, closer to nature in the coming years. For a utility company, this could require among many things building rural infrastructures to support renewable energy use in those areas. What caught Boermans and his team by surprise was the actual time to impact – the speed of this trend was accelerated greatly by the COVID-19 pandemic and has developed more quickly than originally assessed.

In addition, Boermans shed light onto E.ON’s strategic portfolio workshops, which map E.ON’s innovation portfolios to its trend radar, company strategy, and consumer profiles/drivers. This exercise over a series of virtual workshops is ultimately about company-wide transparency and bringing real value from foresight, driving impact throughout the company, especially at the highest levels of decision making. By engaging with future-focused insights, company strategy, and a consumer-centric approach, these workshops helped E.ON to make important calls such as: “do we have any legacy innovation projects that no longer align with our current understanding of where things are headed, and where we want to be in the future?” Resilient companies change over time, and this exercise ensures that its strategy and innovation portfolios change accordingly. 

Exploring plausible futures with scenarios

“In the energy transition,” explained Rohrbeck Heger Manager Dr. Alejandro Berbesi, “an efficient or a good strategy is not the one that tries to extrapolate from the past and hope for the best. Instead, it’s the one that’s prepared for a different future.” Whereas forecasting assesses past data and experience, formulates assumptions based on these, and then makes a plan based on such assumptions, strategic foresight takes a different approach. 

One foresight exercise that illustrates this is scenario-based strategizing, wherein participants are tasked with traveling to the future and then connecting the dots backwards. What should your company start preparing today to remain competitive in a possible, plausible future? “Let me tell you,” said Berbesi, “this is not an easy process. It’s not the way we were taught to think – from the future, backwards to the present.” 

The scenario-based strategizing approach is based on the common understanding that various factors can develop in different ways as time progresses. Take, for example, the aforementioned uncertainty factor for the energy sector: society’s attitude towards sustainability. In a plausible future, either everyone is very conscious of their ecological footprint and ready to make sacrifices, or it could develop the other way, with no one ready to change their attitude. From these two extremes we then project different scenarios. 

“These are extreme versions of the future,” said Berbesi, “and this is very difficult because we tend to stipulate based on what we have experienced, what we feel, what feels okay, what feels natural. But what we do through the (scenario-building) process is push really hard to think about the extremes.” An example he shared was of a workshop with an airline client back in 2019, when one of the scenarios projected that all short-haul flights within Europe were canceled. Participants grumbled that this was too unlikely to happen and too extreme to consider. Of course, little did anyone know that this very scenario would come to pass in the early months of 2020.

A new definition of pretty

To round up the discussion, Boermans took a moment to share one of the tenets that defines E.ON’s current vision for the future of the energy industry. To illustrate this vision he presented a speedometer (pictured below), depicting the industry’s speed of decarbonization. 

To the left, in the gray area, is the centralized, old energy world – depicting energy’s past. To the center is what we consider today to be a “pretty” energy picture: decentralized, renewable energy production on the part of green-oriented consumers, such as solar panels on private homes. And while this is good and important, it’s not enough. In order to meet the required speed of decarbonization to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, we require a full industrialization of renewable energy, as is depicted to the right of the image. 

“The point is,” Boermans explained, “if we exclusively rely on this green world where all consumers are active, we’re just too slow. The question is: what happens then? The developments of these last months have shown that doing nothing is no longer an option – due to the climate and political situation…the whole energy transition needs to go big.”

The future looks bright

In an ever-changing and uncertain world, being future-prepared is a critical decision for businesses to make. With major global catastrophes and unpredictable events shaking businesses to the core more than ever before, the energy sector must be prepared to face the dynamic tides of change.

As per the poll conducted at the E-world Energy and Water 2022 event, geopolitical tensions and sustainable consumer behavior were voted as the most uncertain factors facing the energy industry towards 2030. Digital transformation and energy storage systems were voted as most “easy” to predict, but still with a level of uncertainty. Experts in the energy industry are operating in a highly uncertain system and environment and must act now. As Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight at E.ON stated: remaining within the 1.5 degrees Celsius limit requires not only a full industrialisation of renewable energy, but also proactively working with uncertainty.

With clients such as Vattenfall, Wien Energie, EWE, Veolia, Goldwind, Total and General Electric, our team of strategic foresight consultants at Rohrbeck Heger will help your company build sustainable strategies that reflect future-preparedness. We work with clients to support them as they seek to build resilience to oncoming uncertainty and prepare for plausible futures.

Reach out to us at Rohrbeck Heger to grasp emerging opportunities, mitigate threats, and create a prosperous future at

Your contact at Rohrbeck Heger:
Dr. Alejandro Barbesi

At its core, strategic foresight is about managing uncertainty. Our step-by-step Crisis Foresight Sprint helps you regain control and take definitive action in moments of acute uncertainty.

COVID-19. War in Ukraine. Climate crises. These are shocks to the system. Suddenly the question is no longer “what would we do, then?” but rather, “what should we do, now?!”

Foresight methodologies, while designed to address long-term future uncertainty, can also be deployed at moments of acute crisis. Decisive, high-impact events leave one feeling overwhelmed and uncertain what to do, despite the fact that these moments of acute uncertainty require taking definitive action.

Gain clarity amidst the mess with the support of our step-by-step guide. 

  • Step 1: Understand the external environment – Clarify uncertainties about what the (near) future might look like to support decision-making
  • Step 2: Plan internal moves – Identify and decide upon effective, strategic responses that your organization needs to deploy, immediately

Times of acute uncertainty require taking definitive action. Gain clarity amidst the mess with the support of our step-by-step guide.

Download our free Crisis Foresight Sprint, a step-by-step guide for when crisis strikes, inspired by strategic foresight:


Your contact at Rohrbeck Heger:
Chris de la Cerda
Foresight Consultant

In the next 10 years or so, emerging technologies such as quantum computing, AI, and ever-more sophisticated sensors are poised to transform the healthcare sector. From the promise of treating disease via virtual reality, to the perils of medical data gone astray, disruptive drivers of change are just around the corner, waiting to break through.

What will the future of digital healthcare look like in 2030? From our research in the field, our Rohrbeck Heger foresight analyst team has selected the top 7 disruptive trends that will define the healthcare sector in the next decade. These trends will fundamentally change many aspects of medical care, whether it’s how we diagnose and treat illness, research and develop drugs, or understand our own bodies and how best to live a long and healthy life.

The Future of Digital Healthcare - 7 Disruptive Trends to Watch Towards 2030 - Free Download


Your contact at Rohrbeck Heger:
Chris de la Cerda
Foresight Consultant

New Year, exiting news from the team at Rohrbeck Heger: as of late December 2021, we’ve joined the Creative Dock Group.

Becoming a part of Creative Dock unlocks thrilling prospects for our company and clients: first and foremost, we’ll now be able to not only identify new markets and innovation opportunities via strategic foresight methodology, but also build new products, seeing our future-proof strategies implemented and brought to life. As co-founder René Rohrbeck said recently, “Our job is only done once analytics are followed by action from the client – investing into new growth fields (and) building new businesses.” Merging forces with Creative Dock will enable us to empower our clients do exactly that.

Founded 9 years ago in Prague, Creative Dock is Europe’s largest independent corporate venture/company builder. With a mission to make Europe a global digital leader, the company has already built and scaled ventures for more than 50 multinational companies, including businesses and products for its European clients in Asia, the US, and Australia.

Rohrbeck Heger joining forces with Creative Dock Group means that the group will be able to expand and enrich its service offerings. Our expertise in Strategic Foresight will further strengthen Creative Dock’s established success in building new businesses. Together, we will engage with clients in long-term, strategic dialogues to build businesses that will last, taking the opportunities we uncover from foresight work all the way to market.

Rohrbeck Heger’s mission has always been to turn future uncertainties into opportunities for our clients. Up until now, our services stopped once we’d identified said opportunities with clients. Now we will take our work a step further, turning visions to reality.

As the post-acquisition integration process between Rohrbeck Heger and Creative Dock progresses, we’ll be sure to keep you up-to-date on its biggest developments. One thing’s for sure, now, though: the future’s looking very bright from where we’re standing! Thank you for being a part of our journey so far.

Tobias Heger

General consensus states that this decade is our last chance to turn the collective ship around and avert climate catastrophe. What’s top-of-mind for corporate sustainability leaders as they head into 2022?

by Tobias Heger

Rising ocean levels are driving a corporate sustainability sea-change: an emphasis on integrating sustainability measures into company strategy is stronger than ever before – in fact, it’s become more of an imperative. The pressure to implement change to mitigate the effects of a growing climate crisis is mounting and coming from multiple directions: from scientific reports and government regulations, of course, but also from investors’ assessments and employees’ and consumers’ concerns. How amenable are deeply ingrained business-as-usual practices, especially in large companies, when it comes to integrating sustainability initiatives? Will the private sector be able to implement meaningful, impactful change before time runs out?

These and other questions were the topics of discussion at our Foresight & Sustainability Summit earlier this year. With representatives from the energy, mobility, food, construction, tech, financial industries and academia, the three expert panels explored everything from post-growth sustainability scenarios to meeting green consumers’ demands. Despite the variety of companies on stage, there were clear undercurrents that connected everyone, from European cheese manufacturer Hochland to global semiconductor giant Intel. Here are seven key takeaways from this melding of minds:

1.    With sustainability front and center, there’s no longer a need to make a distinction between building a “sustainability strategy” and a general business strategy – they’re increasingly one and the same.

Once a concept relegated exclusively to subject experts, sustainability has gone from waiting in the wings to taking center stage as companies seek to future-proof their business models in an increasingly volatile world. Now, more than ever, the looming climate crisis is front-of-mind for many, from classrooms of schoolchildren to boardrooms full of company executives. Sustainability is “front and center, hitting the highest levels of the company as an important imperative that’s going to reshape our industry,” stated John Miranda, Director at the Data Center and AI Strategy Office at Intel Corporation. From tech and food to energy, mobility and finance: many voices at our summit echoed this, confirming an underlying cross-industry paradigm shift wherein sustainability plays an increasingly essential role.

Sustainability is “front and center, hitting the highest levels of the company as an important imperative that’s going to reshape our industry.”

– John Miranda, Director, AI Strategy Office, Intel

In a welcome contrast to recent decades, the topic of sustainability is being taken seriously, so much so that often there is no longer a distinction to be made between a “sustainability strategy” and a business strategy in and of itself. “I think most companies know that they have to change their business strategy so they don’t even start with separate strategies at this point…a few years ago, the answer would have been completely different,” observed Leonie Gros, Corporate Strategist at Berlin Hyp, the German real estate and mortgage bank. The 2020s are often described as the defining decade for mitigating climate catastrophe, but a pressing question remains: though sustainability’s importance has become a given, will organizations be able to move quickly enough to implement meaningful changes?

2.    For infrastructure-heavy industries, what’s built today will still be there in 30 years’ time. That requires systemic change, now.

The need for speed and a herculean to-do list before time runs out: committing to sustainability goals for 2050 implies that there are still 30 years to make needed changes, but it’s not that simple for infrastructure-heavy industries such as energy and construction. A decades-long timeline essentially disappears when it comes to building tomorrow’s sustainable energy infrastructure and spaces: “Practically everything that we build today will be around in 2050,” explained Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight at German energy company E.ON, highlighting infrastructure hardware’s average lifespan of 30 to 40 years. “So we’ll need to be more or less ready today – how can we achieve that?” he asked, underscoring the immediacy of the challenge at hand.

When framed in this way, E.ON’s timeline, as well those of other, similar companies, suddenly shrinks from “over the next 30 years” to, well, now. Add to this the need to incorporate as yet still-emerging sustainable technologies, and the immensity of the task comes into sharper focus: not only do companies such as E.ON need do things in new and innovative ways, but also within an increasingly tight time frame. “We need all hands on deck because we basically have this decade left to act,” stated Stephanie Hubold, head of ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) at Altor Equity Partners, the Swedish investment fund. Her statement was repeated again and again over the course of the day: time is running out to make the necessary changes that will keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“We need all hands on deck because we basically have this decade left to act.”

– Stephanie Hubold, Head of ESG, Altor Equity Partners

But the pressure on companies to enact sustainability initiatives isn’t only coming from ever-more dire scientific reports. These very reports and the models themselves are making inroads in the financial and investment sectors and are increasingly playing a decisive role in risk assessment.

3.    A silent revolution is brewing in the banks – companies must increasingly answer to pressure from investors.

“Carbon pricing can affect (a company’s) solvency, (its) ability to pay its debts and shareholders,” explained Gianfranco Gianfrate, Professor of Finance at EDHEC Business School, located in Lille, France. If realistic carbon prices were implemented today, “many companies would go bankrupt,” he predicted, citing the woefully low carbon pricing estimates currently embraced by many companies. Adjusting for a more accurate carbon price at 400-800 US dollars per ton, Gianfrate described a dire situation of bankruptcies en masse, something that creditors would want to avoid at all costs – hence the increasing incorporation of climate risk into financial institutions’ assessments.

It’s a “silent revolution” Gianfrate went on, citing banks’ relative political independence: they don’t have to worry about securing electoral votes, so “central banks are seriously looking into the issue…pushing the financial system to integrate exposure to climate risk” in their lending policies. The Professor of Finance also highlighted the increasing precision and granularity with which rating agencies, banks, and other financial players can measure a company’s climate risk exposure – these metrics are now part and parcel to calculating risk assessments.

Any organization whose plans include undergoing a sustainability transformation is going to need money to finance it: “it’s the bank’s role to work with customers and reorientate money to…sustainable companies and business models” said Leonie Gros from Berlin Hyp. But a willing adoption on the clients’ side depends in part on the angle from which you pitch the process: “it’s a lot easier to address customers by making them sensible to risks concerning their business model, than talking about a transformation plan.” With more stringent regulatory initiatives on the horizon and models that are better at predicting climate change vulnerabilities, increasingly companies have no other choice but to secure better financing conditions by doing what it takes to improve their sustainability credentials.

Of course, risk has not only downsides but also upsides: sustainability strategy isn’t all gloom and doom – quite the contrary. With this shift in priorities and perspective come new and lucrative opportunities.

4.    Sustainability makes sound business sense and corporations are catching on.

The transition to sustainability, while certainly requiring significant changes and re-orientation for many established business models, can drive business growth: “When you look at…the investments that are needed to transform our society, we are speaking of tens of trillions of dollars in new equipment, new technologies that have to be deployed very quickly in order to avoid climate catastrophe. So there are opportunities for companies,” explained Gianfrate. “Undoing (damage) can be a big business. How cool is that?” asked Boermans from E.ON, citing new grids, appliances, and emerging capabilities for removing CO2 in the form of carbon capture and storage as promising business playgrounds. Reframing this crisis as an impetus for developing solutions that help to solve the problem – a compelling idea and an emerging driver of innovation.

“Undoing (damage) can be a big business. How cool is that?”

– Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight, E.ON

“I think it’s really about understanding ESG as a new innovation playbook and thinking about “what’s in it for us?” explained Altor Equity Partners’ Hubold. “The one red thread throughout my career is that you can actually reconcile economic and environmental objectives,” she explained. Companies can lower costs by increasing energy and resource efficiency, viewing ESG as an opportunity to tap into new markets or experiment with business model innovation. Take for example Intel, an industry leader that is itself engaging in these same conversations. From John Miranda: “When you design a server, are you thinking about circular economy principles? Can it be more modular? Can it be more upgradable? Can it be more repairable?…Introducing these concepts will be incredibly important. I do see the (tech) industry moving in the direction of an increasing focus on circularity.”

“I think it’s really about understanding ESG as a new innovation playbook and thinking about “what’s in it for us?…The one red thread throughout my career is that you can actually reconcile economic and environmental objectives.”

– Stephanie Hubold, Head of ESG, Altor Equity Partners

5.    The onus is on industry to make sustainability sexy for the consumer.

Many consumers want to do the right thing. They try to make sustainable choices that are good for their health and the health of the planet, but it’s not easy. Consider all the variables that make something sustainable: How far did it travel to get here? What does this stamp of eco-approval on the label even mean? Why does it feel like you have to have a PhD in Environmental Science to understand the impact of your daily choices? It’s all just too complicated. Josef Mair, Professor of Packaging Technology at the University of Applied Science in Stuttgart, put it this way: “I visited the “unpackaged store” (a supermarket where you bring your own reusable jars and bags rather than buy pre-packaged goods) and I bought a chocolate bar and some shampoo. I paid more than 10 Euros and I felt like a superhero – I’m saving the world! But then yesterday I traveled to Berlin by train, emitting 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide.” So how does this all add up? What’s a consumer to do?

One way forward to make it easier for consumers to navigate this complexity is that the industry can take the reins and make sustainable products the compelling choice for consumers. “We know that people want to be more environmentally friendly, but we (the industry) need to do the work,” explained Dorothy Shaver, Global Marketing Sustainability Lead at Unilever. It’s imperative that industry players make the necessary changes so that sustainable products are the best choice: in the case of a food manufacturer, affordable, healthy, and delicious. “It’s up to us to grow the demand,” continued Shaver, “and the way we grow the demand is by making it easy, accessible and desirable to use these products that are better for the planet.”  

“We know that people want to be more environmentally friendly, but we (the industry) need to do the work…it’s up to us to grow the demand by making it easy, accessible and desirable to use these products that are better for the planet.”

– Dorothy Shaver, Global Marketing Sustainability Lead, Unilever

Of course, making sustainable products the obvious choice for consumers requires a base level of trust in a company and its products, that the company does what it says and that it’s truly committed to making its fair share of changes. Consider the frustrated and confused shopper: as their questions narrated above show, the devil is in the details.  

6.    The transparency imperative: consumers are calling companies’ bluffs

It’s one thing for companies to committed to “becoming more sustainable,” but quite another for organizations to prove that they are walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Who is holding companies accountable for their claims? And what would incentivize organizations to invest in transformative changes? An increasingly popular route is committing to so-called science-based targets and attaching real numbers to measure milestones and assess progress on committed values. “We need to just look at facts, numbers (and) we need to act. (Bouygues Construction) announced that we will reduce our carbon footprint by 40 percent over the next ten years…by having targets and naming commitments (we show that) we are serious. At some point people are calling your bluff and rightly so. This is why we decided to name numbers and have full transparency,” explained François Pitti, VP Strategic Marketing & Foresight at the French construction company.

BMW Group also hopes that by committing to transparent climate change mitigation milestones, it too will earn and maintain that most precious of commodities: consumers’ trust. “We committed to the ambition to keep global temperature rise below one point five degrees, we are partnering with the United Nations Race to Zero, and we have submitted the targets across our lifecycle to the Science-Based Targets initiative,” shared Alexander Nick, Lead Climate Strategy and ESG Standards at the automotive and mobility giant. With an emphasis on setting goals anchored in sound scientific study and joining forces with other global industry players, in partnership with established institutions, companies are positioning themselves as trustworthy and truly committed to making changes for a better future. But will this market-led approach be enough? Gianfrate is skeptical: “Nowadays all companies are doing something that…looks sustainable. The problem is: how much of their value chain is (truly) clean production and consumption? My personal take is that unless there is strong, clear regulation, companies alone will not fully and quickly switch.”

7.    A new battleground in the war for talent

Informed, connected, and empowered, Gen Z (born between 1995 and 2012, approximately) is not only keenly aware of the climate crisis and the need for sustainable practices, but is proving to be passionate and uncompromising to such a degree that strikes potential employers as unprecedented and surprising. They are committed to holding their employers to account, factoring in the ways in which their job impacts the health of the planet. Pitti at Bouygues Construction told a story of interviewing a young graduate: “There is an awareness, you can feel it. I had an interview and (it felt like) I was being interviewed: What are your values? What do you stand for? What are your goals? Are you greenwashing?” Meanwhile at Intel, Miranda characterized new hires as more concerned about issues than pure profit motives, signaling a new front in the battle to attract talent: “they think more deeply about the issues…(one candidate) would only join Intel after she understood our environmental commitment. I’ve never experienced that in 20 plus years of hiring.”

Whether or not this growing pressure from a younger generation has enough power to push organizations to adopt sustainable initiatives and truly deliver remains to be seen – here we’ve named just two data points. But with the combined pressures from employees, consumers, governments, NGOs, plus the increasing volatility of essential operations such as supply chains, the collective surge in demands for accountability will hopefully result in real changes for the better.

Sustainability: from senseless buzzword to strategic bedrock

Common challenges call for collective solutions – this was a unifying sentiment shared again and again by summit participants. The stage is set for adopting new ways of thinking and favoring an approach that recognizes that siloed structures (within companies as well as between industries) no longer serves us as we endeavor to address challenges that are both global in breadth and complex in depth.

The types of connections made and conversations fostered at the summit were opportunities to connect the dots and share experiences, giving rise to hope for real change: “You run into people and need to think for three or four seconds; then you find things that you should do together in the future,” remarked E.ON’s Boermans, reflecting on the fact that no matter the industry, the coming years will require a united front and allied forces to pursue transformational change for good.

Emily Phillips contributed research and writing.

Tobias Heger

Learn how leadings firms are leveraging foresight to create breakthrough innovations.
René Rohrbeck and Tobias Heger explain how to leverage foresight to foster innovation with three key recommendations to start today.

That companies like Apple, with 50% of the global market for smartwatches, or Vorwerk, with the Thermomix, have established their product categories is no coincidence. The ability to create new markets and systematically develop innovations in new product categories is rare, but it can be learned.

Put simply, it’s like surfing. Those who want to be successful have to be able to anticipate waves, need to develop the necessary skills to ride the wave, be ready to seize the right moment, and emphatically claim the window of opportunity as soon as it opens.

As with surfing, linking strategic foresight (anticipating waves) to innovation management (riding the wave at the right time) is not easy to learn. But the companies that do it can expect above-average returns. For example, in a longitudinal study stretched over seven years, we observed that future-prepared companies beat their less well-prepared competitors with around 200% higher growth and 33% higher profitability (Rohrbeck & Kum, 2018).

But how does one build such future preparedness?

Actively draw attention to what’s new

First, we have to realize that it is difficult for everyone to imagine something completely new. In addition, success does not only depend on recognition but ultimately on the necessary investment decisions being made and implementation being pursued with sufficient vigor. In practice, this ultimately means that profits have to be diverted from established business units to new ones – profits that the established business unit would also like to use itself to defend its traditional business.

From foresight to market success

To systematically translate foresight into innovations, we have developed a model that structures how to prepare for the future and can be integrated with existing innovation processes (see Fig. 2).

In the first phase, which is characterized by foresight methods, the first task is to identify the drivers of change, to recognize the waves of change, and to understand possible development paths. Our company has to deal with what may have an impact on its future ecosystem. This goes far beyond classic, often technology-driven factors in the automotive industry such as downsizing, hybrid technology, and the regulation of combustion engines. It includes, for example, artificial intelligence, 5G, alternative battery technologies, new players and competitors, as well as mobility behavior and preferences of potential users.

Through scenario analysis, the space of plausible developments can be mapped and made plannable through concrete images of the future. In this way, companies can proactively prepare for alternative market environments, identify preferred positions and plan target images.

After high-potential business fields and opportunities have been identified, the second phase focuses on the problem-solution fit. Many methods of innovation management, including newer ones such as user-driven innovation, design thinking, and design sprints, address this particular aspect. In contrast to the usual application of these methods, a company has to learn to plan without observable and measurable customer needs. In order to provide a planning basis nonetheless, our company works with the lead user approach. Through cooperation with particularly progressive customers, needs are specified, e.g. thermal management when charging the vehicle, when the vehicle is stationary, in various traffic situations, etc. With the classic customer dialogs, the needs analysis would not have been sufficiently specified and investment funds would not have been approved. In some promising opportunity areas, it is not even clear who will take on the customer role in the future. Future Experience Groups, which determine future needs based on scenarios, can provide a remedy here.

Three recommendations to take a start: radar sprint, scenario sprint, innovation sprint

Anyone who builds the ability to foresight in their organization needs quick success in order to establish the new methods and tools. However, success in innovation and the development of new markets rarely comes overnight. Here are our three recommendations to quickly learn and establish the effectiveness of Foresight.

  1. The radar sprint: In radar sprints, often only for a week, organizations can map the known drivers of change. This not only creates a trend radar but also shows the channels through which future-related information reaches the company and where ‘sensors’ may need to be added.
  2. The scenario sprint: Innovating in new markets requires a willingness to understand uncertainty as an opportunity and to use it systematically. These not only serve as a context for defining product and service ideas but also promote the company’s ability to proactively deal with uncertainty and potential.
  3. The innovation sprint: If scenarios or drivers of change have already been identified at the company level, innovation sprints or hackathons are ideal to derive innovation potentials or specific product approaches. In the end, not only do new product and service ideas emerge but also teams are often already formed for implementation.

Foresight is becoming increasingly important because innovation life cycles are getting shorter, because it is becoming easier and easier to copy successful products and even business models, and because digitization is eroding the traditional technological lead of many corporates. Therefore, today it is important not only to face competition at the technology and product level but also to systematically increase the level of organizational skills, innovative strength, and strategic agility.

Tobias Heger

The future may be uncertain, but your strategy needn’t be. Strategic Foresight teaches us that when you envision different future outcomes, your strategy is more robust.

by Sebastian Knab, Rohrbeck Heger with Emily Phillips

So, you’re working on your strategy and sustainability is supposed to play a major role. If you’re not sure where to start, you’re not alone. One way to begin is by envisioning possible futures by means of scenario-building. Here we’ll introduce our methodology for scenario-building and present four sustainability scenarios we’ve developed and used in several workshops. This will give you a jumping-off point and help to kick-start your process, so you can build a robust and resilient sustainability strategy that will support you in reaching your business objectives.

It seems as if “sustainability” is on everyone’s mind, especially when it comes to avoiding climate catastrophe. Scientific consensus from the past decades is coming home to roost, what with an unending litany of fires, drought, flooding, and storms filling the headlines. From boardrooms to breakrooms, the sense of urgency is growing: we have to do something. 

From boardrooms to breakrooms, the sense of urgency is growing: we have to do something. 

While topics such as achieving net-zero CO2 emissions and preserving biodiversity were once the purview of dedicated experts, these questions are now front of mind for those tasked with leading innovation initiatives and business strategy. And with good reason: we find ourselves at what feels like a tipping point. Pressure is mounting: new regulations such as the EU Green Deal are on the horizon while existing commitments such as the Paris Agreement will soon come into effect. 

In addition to pressure from governing bodies, many in the private sector are eager to convert their goodwill and desire for a sustainable, healthy future into actual practice, but are uncertain as to how best to approach the enormous task at hand. What could a sustainability strategy look like in practice? And how should it be developed? 

What could a sustainability strategy look like in practice? And how should it be developed? 

We’re in the business of managing uncertainty

One of the more challenging aspects of first forming and then applying a sustainability strategy is its inherent uncertainty: what will the future hold, and how can we do our best to ensure that we’ll not only survive but thrive in it? Well, we’ve got both good news and bad: the bad news is that no one really knows what the future will hold. But the good news is it is possible to implement a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous assessment of possible futures, assess their likelihood, and then identify the risks and opportunities inherent in each of the possible outcomes. 

It is possible to implement a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous assessment of possible futures, assess their likelihood, and then identify risks and opportunities inherent in each.

At Rohrbeck Heger, one of the many exercises we conduct with our clients in this process is scenario-building. The process starts by exploring key drivers of change, including technological and regulatory trends, customer preferences, and stakeholder/ecosystem behavior. The next step seeks to understand the different ways each change driver’s behavior could unfold, ultimately crafting (a) comprehensive, coherent picture(s) of the future. 

Whereas traditional strategy development treats uncertainty in a sensitivity analysis at best, we put it where it belongs: center stage. Working with scenarios requires that you acknowledge uncertainty and work constructively with it. By building different futures, you’re able to better prepare for what actually comes. You can identify safe bets and calculated risks, develop contingency plans, and become adaptive and agile if things unfold differently than expected – in short, build up strategic resilience.  

Whereas traditional strategy development treats uncertainty in a sensitivity analysis at best, we put it where it belongs: center stage. Working with scenarios requires that you acknowledge uncertainty and work constructively with it, building strategic resilience.

A sustainable future? Presenting our four scenarios

At our recent Future Atelier on Sustainability in the Supply Chain and Logistics industry, we plotted four possible scenarios for the world in 2030, represented in quadrants. When selecting the variables represented by the axes, we sought out two that we assume would have the biggest impact on the future of sustainability, but also – and this is an essential point – these variables are in themselves highly uncertain. Each quadrant in the image below represents a possible combination of the impactful and uncertain variables we selected:

  • The x-axis – Environmental regulations: Would governments come together to effectively enforce binding and comprehensive regulations to regulate carbon emissions?
  • The y-axis – Sustainable behavior: How sustainable would the collective behavior of individuals and organizations be?

Here’s what that looked like:

Plot Two Key Variables - Explore Four Possible Scenarios

In the following text, we dig deeper into these four quadrants, illustrating four visions of what the world might look like in 2030. While some of these scenarios might seem more likely than others, this exercise asks you to consider all four possibilities. We’ve put these scenarios to use clients and event participants from various companies; this exercise is ultimately industry agnostic and relevant to anyone building a strategy, no matter your business. While the specifics of how a scenario might play out in banking vs. healthcare will vary, the overarching “imagined world” acts as a constant.

Without any further ado, here are our four sustainability scenarios:

While some of these scenarios might seem more likely than others, this exercise asks you to consider all four possibilities. 

Scenario 1: “Self-healing” – Making the Green Economy Work

Scenario 1: "Self-Healing" - Making the Green Economy Work / Low Environmental Regulations and High Sustainable Behavior

Waking up and pulling back the blinds, the early morning sun heralds yet another scorching summer day. Above your head, the solar panels that cover the roof have been hard at work for a few hours already, generating the energy that powers your home. Checking your phone for the morning’s news, the headlines are abuzz with the latest long-awaited report from the IPCC: “2 DEGREES AVERTED” they read – a glimmer of hope after the dramatic coastal flooding, prolonged droughts, and month-long wildfires of these last 10 years. 

Sleepily you make your way through the house and check on the 3D printer’s latest work before the kids get to it first: a sheet of model airplane pieces for them to painstakingly assemble, printed with the same polymer that once built their stackable baby rings, then LEGOs, and now, magically transformed overnight into a new pastime. Your voice assistant chirps and reminds you that the electrically-powered autonomous delivery vehicle made its drop-off 15 minutes ago – there are groceries waiting by the door. Thanks to new local greenhouses, fresh produce is grown within a 25km radius, and available even in winter. You open the door, and the day begins.

In this scenario, which we’ve christened “Self-Healing,” technological progress will enable solutions that manage to successfully decouple continued economic growth from ecological harm. Consumers, fearful of ecological collapse and determined to contribute to a solution, undergo a strong shift in mindset and change their purchasing behavior in favor of sustainable consumption, forcing companies to adapt. Government regulation remains conservative, but thanks to breakthroughs in cleantech, companies embrace green technologies and can keep the growth paradigm in place while still achieving net-zero CO2 emissions. Not to be underestimated is the pressure from new green players, whose entrance into the market and leveraging of technological innovations puts the onus on incumbents to react or collaborate. 

This possible future, where individual choice and market solutions manage to halt the planet’s warming in its tracks, posits that powerful new efficiencies, unlocked by technological innovation, would transform today’s “business as usual” into a green economy, securing continued economic growth and avoiding ecological catastrophe, and this all within enough time. The “Self-Healing” scenario assumes that ethical business practices and individual consumer choices would ensure a verdant, affluent future, successfully “liberating the environment from the economy.” 

This vision of green growth is one we’re well familiar with and many of us hope for, a narrative and goal that has been adopted by corporate entities and government leaders alike. But what if it’s simply a pipe dream, so-called “greenwishing”? Let’s take a look at another possible future, “Deliberate Slow-Down.”

Scenario 2: “Deliberate Slow-Down” – Shifting to Post-Growth

Scenario 2: Deliberate Slow-Down - Shifting to Post-Growth / High Environmental Regulations & High Sustainable Behavior

It’s shortly before 8am: time to get to work and send the kids off to school. With backpacks, lunch sacks, and helmets you hustle out the door and squeeze the youngest into their now too-small bike seat, making a mental note to post an advert for it on the local kids’ equipment digital sharing marketplace. 

As you cycle to the school bus stop, you reflect on the changed world your children will inherit. After dire scientific predictions about rising temperatures and sea levels started coming true in the early 2020s, worldwide governments stepped up and set binding, comprehensive regulations in order to reduce CO2 emissions and avert climate catastrophe and ecological ruin. 

A decade later, a new way of life has firmly taken root and begun to blossom. What was known earlier as “the sharing economy” is simply the economy now, with renting and repairing taking the place of ownership and thoughtless disposal. And there are plenty of jobs, especially in care work: healthcare, minding children, and supporting the elderly, not to mention the boom in public infrastructure. The upkeep of public transportation systems, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, and maintaining renewable energy sources require many helping hands. 

You blow kisses to the kids as the electrically powered bus takes them to school and you head onwards to the park and ride station. Locking your bike next to the carsharing parking lot, the train shuttles you and other commuters into the city to start your workday. 

In this scenario, the gospel of efficiency has been replaced with that of sufficiency: creating more value with less in what can be called a post-growth society.  Dreams for achieving so-called “green growth” were simply that – dreams – and it was thanks to rigorous regulation, combined with consumers’ sustainable behavior, that managed to stabilize global temperatures and avoid the grim projections that shook the world awake just a decade ago. 

When tough regulations came into effect, they were based in part on a new consensus that given climate change’s imminent threat and wily, accelerating timeline, a decoupling of continued economic growth and maintenance of a habitable world were simply at odds with one another, largely due to insurmountable rebound effects. As a result, things are slower, now, but the air is cleaner and a precipitous drop in biodiversity, rising sea levels, and full thawing of the arctic tundra were averted.

By the early 2020s, the world was simply reaching the limits of growth, just as the famed 1972 paper posited, and in 2030 “a period of great transition: from growth to equilibrium” is well underway. For example, global shipping now relies on wind-powered sails in favor of air freight. Platforms that sell second-hand goods and companies specializing in repairing-as-a-service proliferate. In addition, “servitization” – replacing products such as cars with services such as mobility – is the name of the game in many industries. 

A global post-growth economic restructuring sounds too far-fetched? How about a scenario that many of us can imagine, and some would say we’re currently experiencing: good intentions that simply don’t do enough to mitigate destructive change.

Scenario 3: “Boiling the frog“ – just not getting there

Scenario 3: "Boiling the Frog" - just not getting there. High Environmental Regulations and Low Sustainable Behavior

Snagging a coveted seat for your train commute, your eye catches a clever new advert from a fast-fashion retailer as the train pulls away from the platform. The new limited edition eco collaboration is with one of your favorite designers; maybe you’ll find 20 minutes at lunch to pop by the shop around the corner from your office building and get a piece before it sells out. 

Leaving the center city station, you nearly trip over the latest installment from pro-eco activists, who, dressed in red from head-to-toe, lie motionless, covering the vast plaza beyond the revolving doors. Some passers-by hurl insults at those lying on the ground, accusing them of naïveté and rabble-rousing; after all, the government has recently issued yet another new measure to curb CO2 levels after the latest mass exodus of climate refugees from coastal cities. 

Later, taking the elevator up to your floor, you check the day’s calendar: as a Senior Analyst for Climate Change Adaptation, you’ve got a day full of meetings with your team as you prepare an upcoming workshop for the Global Supply Chain Director from a major international coffee brand. With severe droughts in 30% of their grower regions, plus the new pressure to comply with resolutions from the COP26 Glasgow Summit now coming into effect, they have their hands full as they struggle to secure the supply chain and keep the world caffeinated. Which reminds you as the elevator doors slide open: time for your second cup.

In this scenario, comprehensive, binding regulation on the part of international government agreements pushes companies to adapt their models to encourage Green Growth, but this is not matched by corresponding sustainable behavior on the part of people and other organizations. While steps to mitigate climate change have been taken (and good intentions reign among many), humans are the proverbial clueless amphibians, and the Earth is a great big pot, getting hotter and hotter as it starts to boil. 

As climate regulations become increasingly strict, any gains in efficiency are made redundant by ever-increasing consumption; strong rebound effects persist even among self-professed green advocates who, unwittingly or not, suffer from an attitude-behavior gap

In part due to cleantech breakthroughs’ failure to materialize, companies’ foci are split in two: on the one hand, trying to adjust to an ever-evolving regulatory environment, while on the other, building resilience practices so as to weather the increasingly disruptive effects of droughts, floods, fires, and storms. 

It couldn’t get much worse than a slow death by boiling, right? Not so fast – there’s one final scenario to explore.

Scenario 4: “Deliberate ignorance” – pushing nature around

Scenario 4: Deliberate Ignorance / Low Environmental Regulations and Low Sustainable Behavior

The lights in the office flicker once, and then with a great, heaving whine, the electricity shuts off. A collective sigh and exclamations reverberate among your colleagues. Another blackout, and the last one was only two months ago. At least it’s the end of the workday and you can hitch a ride home to the suburbs.

The thought of an unknown number of days ahead without air conditioning has you worried. Your aging parents have moved in with you and your family since they lost their home in the fires last April. The heat index has been so high that the greater metropolitan area doesn’t manage to cool down at night, and more and more elderly people have been succumbing to heat stroke and other complications. “I’ll set an alarm to check on them during the night,” you think, reassuring yourself. Gathering your equipment and hoisting your bag onto your shoulder, you change into your tennis shoes: no electricity means no elevator, and no elevator requires a climb down 43 flights of stairs. It’s a drill that’s become more and more familiar in recent years, ever since the local power grids started to collapse in the sustained heat of summer. 

Later, you and your colleague sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to get on the interstate in fits of stops and starts. You listen half-heartedly to their account of trying to get their hands on some real vanilla to make a favorite recipe for their partner’s birthday. “Hothouse strawberries could be delivered by drone, no problem,” they explain. But because of deforestation and continued droughts in Madagascar, 80% of the world’s vanilla supply has simply disappeared, making it nearly impossible to get your hands on the real deal. “It’s the least of our problems,” you think to yourself, as you lean back and close your eyes, trying to enjoy these last moments of air-conditioned cool.

This scenario assumes that all parties do nothing to mitigate global warming, and sustainability efforts on the part of governments, individuals, companies, and other actors fall entirely to the wayside. Scientists’ warnings are ignored and even lampooned as the post-factual era takes root. Growth has trumped all: unregulated economic growth and an inverse trend in game-changing green innovation breakthroughs herald a global thermometer that’s rising with no sign of stopping: the world is well on its way to warming more than 2.5 degrees Celsius. The ecological effects and their fallout are beginning to snowball: seawater rises higher, and the list of extinct species grows longer. In short: it’s an age of disruption that we can only begin to imagine but one that should not surprise us, as one catastrophe follows another. 

A note on scenarios

Scenarios are meant to provoke; after all, they’re what you get when you cross two variables at their respective extremes. There may be aspects of all four scenarios that sound familiar, or even very plausible. On the flip side, some of what we’ve described may seem highly unlikely, or even preposterous. So why bother with scenarios at all? For one very simple reason: so that you and your team can align on your vision of possible futures, a prerequisite for positioning and preparing your company for success in those imagined spaces. 

Why bother with scenarios at all? For one simple reason: so that you and your team can align on your vision of possible futures, a prerequisite for positioning and preparing your company for success in those imagined spaces. 

Assessing the four scenarios: how likely are they? 

More often than not, when we do this exercise and facilitate scenario-building, teams will be split in their assessment of the likelihood of one scenario over another, and even disagree on their company’s or industry’s preparedness should any of them occur. Oftentimes, teams will even realize that they are more prepared for a scenario which they deem less likely to happen! Scenario building and assessment, then, helps a team to explore different possibilities, support strategic discussion, and ultimately work together to align on a shared vision of the future. This shared vision supports their common goal to prepare their business strategy and stress test their innovation roadmaps in order to find out if they’re robust enough to weather different outcomes. 

During our Future Atelier workshop that examined these scenarios within the context of the logistics and supply chain sectors, we asked participating industry experts this very question: which is the most likely scenario? 

Here’s the results: 

Assessing scenarios: how likely are they?

Rated as most likely to occur we find scenario three, “Boiling the Frog,” which, in some respects, best represents “real life” in 2021. We can observe this scenario at play, today. Thus, we can rate it as fairly probable and claim that we’re somewhat prepared for it. Might this, however, lead to a bias in its likelihood rating? It may feel “comforting” (if being boiled slowly could ever be described as such), but we must remember that the future won’t necessarily look anything like the present. It can do us good to “think outside the box” and prepare for other future scenarios that look very little like what we know.  

We must remember that the future won’t necessarily look anything like the present. It can do us good to “think outside the box” and prepare for other future scenarios.

In second place comes Scenario 1: “Self-healing.” This scenario describes what many of us not only hope for, but expect to and believe will happen: “We’ll develop powerful, green tech and everything will be fine!” This scenario sells us the story that we can solve all of our problems while still remaining in our current thinking, never challenging the predominant paradigms. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s been rated as highly probable. But might there be dangers in betting on this and only this at our moment in time? 

Interestingly, Scenario 2: “Deliberate slow-down” has a relatively high rating – certainly curious when you consider that overall, very few people in the private sector actually expect this to happen, don’t want this at all, nor can they really imagine how this could possibly work in practice. Could it be that the probability score is too high, reflecting a lack of understanding on the part of those who rated it? Some experts make the case that de-growth and post-growth may be the only way to actually meet the ambitious climate targets that will prevent ecological collapse. It might be worth it for businesses to consider this possibility.  

The scenario with the lowest environmental regulation and lowest sustainable behavior, “Deliberate Ignorance,” was a clear “loser” according to the ratings. Comforting perhaps, yet consider this: airlines already have contingency plans for more extreme weather conditions. Agriculture must brace for less predictable rainfall. Coffee and chocolate producers are being forced to consider a world where deforestation and extreme weather threaten their supply chain.  

While many would rate this scenario as least likely to occur (especially considering its extremity), we are living in a VUCA world, and uncertainty is high. It’s perhaps prudent to consider different rolls of the dice when preparing a strategic sustainability transformation. And while most businesses would dismiss this scenario as “backwards thinking” – no one is seriously debating whether change must happen – there are other voices who say that we’re not doing enough and that we must prepare for dire global warming consequences. At any rate, we will find ourselves unable to avoid these challenges in their entirety.  

While many would rate this scenario as least likely to occur, we are living in a VUCA world, and uncertainty is high. It’s perhaps prudent to consider different rolls of the dice when preparing a strategic sustainability transformation.

A call to prepare for (a) brave new world(s)

As we’ve written before, “crisis is not a cause for despair but a trigger point to make way for thoroughly new ways of operating and envisioning success.” The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted humanity’s adaptability to difficult circumstances as well as its ability to work together, facing down a global challenge. The 2020s will be the defining decade for addressing climate change, with surging storms and raging fires only making us sense the high stakes more acutely. What we’ve done until now hasn’t been enough. Consider the fact that the private sector’s increased measuring and reporting has not translated into lower CO2 emissions, but instead coincides with the exact opposite: “It turns out that reporting is not a proxy for progress,” reported Harvard Business Review. 

Given the increasing pressure from nature and resulting pressure from societies and regulators, sustainability has arrived center stage in every strategic discussion. However, the only certain thing about the future of sustainability seems to be its uncertainty. How are regulators going to take on the challenge of pushing for sustainable development? How are consumers going to adapt their consumption patterns towards sustainable lifestyles? Is technological progress enough to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation? Strategic foresight teaches us not to hone in on easy answers to these questions, but instead to explore possible future scenarios, prepare for alternative paths, and build a resilient strategy to win the future.   

Emily Phillips contributed research and writing. 

Headquartered in the USA, the global snacking powerhouse Mondelez is the parent company of beloved worldwide brands such as Oreo, Milka, and Cadbury, plus local favorites including Russia’s Alpen Gold chocolate and Kinh Do biscuits in Vietnam. With a strong presence on all 6 continents, this manufacturer of biscuits, chocolate, candy, and more is valued at 90 billion dollars.

Rohrbeck Heger was pleased to welcome Serhiy Kalinovsky, Senior Manager at Mondelez, who leads the strategic foresight function at the multinational snacking company. Based in Singapore, he joined our third Future Atelier, a series of digital events exploring future trends, this time in the food industry, and an opportunity for our clients to share their experience in working with Rohrbeck Heger in building their corporate foresight capabilities. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

How did foresight at Mondelez get its start?

Mondelez’s CEO, Dirk Van de Put, is very vocal about promoting the idea of leading from the future. This idea is supported by strategic foresight: in order to be successful in the future, you need to first envision and understand what the future might be. Then, you need to pass the vision of the future to your team so that together you can create a strategy for the company that will lead to future success. And that’s exactly what we would like to support. Our strategic foresight ambitions, the department that I’m leading, is there to promote long-term thinking and spearhead a forward-looking culture in our company. 

In 2018, Dirk Van de Put unveiled a new Mondelez global strategy and a new company mission. The short version is “snacking made right.” The longer version is that we would like to “lead the future of snacking” around the world by offering “the right snack for the right moment and made the right way.” As you might have noticed, the very word “future” is already in the company mission! 

To act on that promise, we need to understand what the future of snacking is likely to be. And we’re not just interested in what it would look like in a couple of years from now. We want to understand the future of snacking in the longer term so we can be a successful company in that version of the future. 

We’re not just interested in what it would look like in a couple of years from now. We want to understand the future of snacking in the longer term

How did you build your foresight unit at Mondelez?

When we were planning to launch strategic foresight, we had a question: what kind of foresight unit are we trying build? We identified two models of deploying strategic foresight in an organization. We call the first model Oracle, a reference towards the Oracle in ancient Greek mythology. An Oracle is a person who predicts the future. Kings and heroes would come to the Oracle and the Oracle would enlighten them, tell them what kinds of events would be in the future. The Oracle model is especially popular with governments because they have vast resources and it’s beneficial for them to create a specific department staffed with experts and analysts that work on strategic planning. 

What are the advantages of this model? You can get a ready answer to your questions or interests pretty quickly, and with a great deal of expertise. But there are downsides. The rest of the company is detached from strategic foresight practices. And you need to deploy significant resources to build such a large strategic foresight unit. 

The second engagement model is what we call Prometheus. And Prometheus, also a figure from ancient Greek mythology, was a people’s champion. He stole the fire from Mount Olympus and brought it back to humanity, empowering them, right? Because fire is a powerful tool, it’s the enabler. So, in this model our foresight unit is small and leverages the knowledge, expertise, passion, and curiosity of the entire company to champion the strategic foresight approach.  And that’s exactly the model that we’ve deployed at Mondelez International.

Read further below

What does leveraging the entire company’s power look like in practice?

We have a small unit, basically just two people, me and my teammate. But we are currently building a strategic foresight community that is already thirty people and counting. We will be bigger in the future, a team that is trained, empowered, and has strategic foresight tools. They act as local strategic foresight champions in their business units and in their functions. 

We operate with a so-called impact-oriented trend management process. Strategic foresight has three phases: perceiving, prospecting and probing. Perceiving is about detecting change: horizon scanning and trend management. The second stage is understanding what this change means, which changes matter for our use case and for our company. Then we work with those trends that might significantly impact the future of our business. And finally, probing is acting upon the changes that we’ve prioritized from the trends at the previous stage. Essentially embedding trend management into the company’s strategic activities.

Do you use specific tools or practices within the company to execute on foresight?

In order to build a strategic foresight community, we have a tool that we call FTR. This is our own interactive trend management platform where we host the Mondelez trend framework. It is a holistic description of all the change that happens around us. And the platform has trend evaluation and trend prioritization modules, as well as the module that helps us to derive opportunities and threats directly from said trends. 

We can deploy scenario planning to understand the future state of the questions that are very, very important for our company. These trends, opportunities, and threats get either put directly into strategic activities, into different levels of company strategy, or they become part of the situational assessment of strategy formulation and the strategy revision process. In both cases, they have a direct impact on how we formulate strategies. And remember, all this strategic foresight machinery is managed by the foresight unit, but truly powered by the strategic foresight community. It is really instrumental in driving this process. 

And remember, all this strategic foresight machinery is managed by the foresight unit, but truly powered by the strategic foresight community. It is really instrumental in driving this process. 

What would you say are the greatest challenges to actually make strategic foresight create an impact within the organization?

I wouldn’t say that we have challenges yet, because at the moment our company is just starting to build foresight capacity. We started by talking to various stakeholders around the entire company and overall the company is very receptive towards the idea. Leading from the future is endorsed by company leadership, as I mentioned, and there is a lot of enthusiasm and support in the entire company, and an understanding that we need to become more future-oriented. 

Something I can advise to take into consideration as you build your foresight unit in your organization is to remember the importance of communication with various stakeholder groups. Frequent, consistent communication, plus alignment is important. It’s a big, big thing at Mondelez because we have about 80,000 employees, and numerous stakeholders. And while we are technically a part of insights and analytics, we have stakeholders in basically all the departments throughout the company. We’re talking about hundreds of different stakeholders. It’s absolutely critical to maintain good, clear, and transparent 2-way communication with all of them for the success of the project. 

What does Mondelez think about agility, using trial-and-error-based exploration of future markets?

This is something that Mondelez has thought about for a while already, and that’s why we have a “startup” within our company, called Snack Futures. It’s a small team that essentially has a blank cheque to explore the future of snacking. They experiment a lot with formats, with brands, with approaches, and put a lot of ideas to the test. Snack Futures is one of our biggest stakeholders within Mondelez for the foresight, because they are so future-oriented. 

Mondelez is truly global. Let’s say you want to gather foresight for a specific region, how do you do that?

This is the exact question that we are being asked inside Mondelez by our business units and local teams. We have multiple ways of incorporating the geographical dimension when it comes to trends in our platform. First of all, when we do trend evaluation, we can see evaluation coming from our colleagues in different geographies, sharing the perspective of their geography. This is the first way of understanding regional differences when it comes to the same trend. The same trends may manifest themselves differently and may have different dynamics in various parts of the world. 

The second dimension is that the tool we have allows us to create regional or even local country-specific trends. So, if this is warranted – because today I would say a vast majority of trends are either global or have a propensity to become global – but if it is warranted to create a specific local trend that is unique for a certain country, we can certainly do it. 

The third dimension is that for each trend we have a so-called “signals module” inside the platform that delivers fresh news and a fresh perspective about a trend. This tool is driven by artificial intelligence and has a geographical stamp. So, you can easily filter out what’s relevant for trends that are coming from China or Russia, for example.

Today I would say a vast majority of trends are either global or have a propensity to become global

What specific current trends stand out to you? What is super important for Mondelez, but also in general, when working towards the future?

I would say the usual suspects, so trends that are very big and impactful and that would define the trajectory of the future of food. First of all: sustainability. This is a huge trend. Of course, it’s not only relevant to the food industry. Second are a number of trends around the changing nature of well-being. What does well-being mean for people? What does it mean for our consumers? And another usual suspect is digitization and everything associated with it, like advanced technology, precision agriculture, autonomous logistics, etc. And what we call “retail 4.0” – the changing landscape of retail, including but not limited to the rise of e-commerce. 

Thank you, Serhiy!

Chris de la Cerda

Our Rohrbeck Heger Future Atelier event series gathers innovation and strategy professionals to discuss future-forward foresight practice. This installment: the future of food.

Our third Rohrbeck Heger Future Atelier focussed on a tantalizing topic: the future of food. Industry experts, representing global companies such as Danone and ABInBev, as well as regional players including REWE Group and Picard, gathered from around the world for a digital discussion on major trends that will define the food industry as it heads towards 2030. Participants also learned more about what it means to implement corporate foresight practice from the perspective of global snacking powerhouse Mondelez.

Future focus from the top: Mondelez’s leadership keen on foresight

We were delighted to welcome Serhiy Kalinovsky, Senior Manager, Strategic Foresight at Mondelez, who shared how the parent company of beloved brands such as Oreo and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk has adopted a future-forward mindset. How does his lean unit leverage the power of Mondelez’s 80,000 global employees to stay relevant in a shifting world and prepare for the future?

Mondelez is committed to “looking ahead in the longer term to stay successful in the future,“ explained Kalinovsky, who credits the Fortune 500 company’s CEO Dirk Van de Put as a driving force behind this initiative. As someone who is convinced of the importance of “leading from the future,” Van de Put has pushed for an internal company culture that is focused on answering the question, “what is the future of snacking going to be?”

In order to implement this top-down vision, Mondelez focuses on nurturing a bottom-up movement. Kalinovsky explains: you’ve got to “leverage the knowledge, the passion, of the whole team… by empowering, and educating, and giving employees tools so they can act as local foresight champions.“ By keeping its foresight team lean and building a larger foresight community within the organization, Mondelez seeks to unlock the power of its global workforce and channel this knowledge to maintain its competitive edge.

➔ Stay tuned for our full interview with Mondelez Senior Manager, Strategic Foresight, Serhiy Kalinovsky.

Rating trends: which are most impactful and predictable?

After Serhiy presented and answered direct questions, this diverse group of experts dove deeper into nine trends that will define the food industry towards 2030. To kick off this participatory round, our foresight consultants Bram Roosens and Frank van Doesum presented Rohrbeck Heger’s The Future of Food: 9 Trends to Watch Towards 2030. Moderated by founding partners Rene Rohrbeck and Tobias Heger, participants were guided in an interactive exercise to rate the nine trends based on two factors:

  • Impact: What impact do you expect this trend to have on the food industry? Select from no impact (“very low”) to disruptive (“very high”).
  • Predictability: How confident are you that the impact and timing of this trend can be predicted? (If the trend is difficult to predict, select “very low;” if you sense strong evidence for its trajectory, select “very high.”)

Once rated, the results were mapped onto a chart (Figure 1). For a crowdsourced activity such as this to be successful, there can never be too many cooks in the kitchen: by bringing different vantage points from a diverse group of experts you gain a better overall view of trends’ relevance from differing perspectives. So how did participants rate our 9 trends in terms of impact and predictability?

  • The most impactful trend was Carbon Pricing: although its predictability was rated as neither particularly high nor low, the consensus among those present was that the trend to make emitters pay for greenhouse gas emissions would have a very high impact on the food industry in the next decade.
  • With a similarly high impact but coming in with the highest predictability rating was the trend Animal Product Alternatives—this shift to plant-based and cultivated meat products will not only be impactful, but experts are also confident that this trend’s trajectory is easier to predict.
  • Not far behind in both impact and predictability was Precision Farming, a trend that refers to the collective consequences of the agricultural sector’s implementation of the 4th industrial revolution. With automation, AI, and other tech advancements, this new approach to farming will mean ever-more optimized operations. Experts agreed that this trend’s strong effects and predictable evolution will undoubtedly influence the food supply chain towards 2030.

Figure 1: Rating Food Trends on Impact and Predictability

Figure 1: The results of rating trends in the food industry

Some food industry trends require closer examination

While those gathered were generally unanimous in their assessments of The Obesity Pandemic (medium-high impact, medium-high predictability), Flash-in-the-pan Fandom, and 3D Printing (each squarely in the middle for both predictability and impact), three trends stood out for their variability, with a noticeable range in assessment among participants. Experts disagreed on the impact and predictability of the trends Food and your mood (the emerging practice of nutritional psychiatry) and Blockchain (its effects on transparency and provenance), perhaps signaling a lack of familiarity and/or understanding about these two topics. Might this be an impetus for further examination of the potential impact of these two trends on the food industry?

The third of these trends was, perhaps unsurprisingly, our “black horse”: AI for food. Despite its clear ranking as having both the lowest impact and predictability, there was a wide range of assessments on the part of participants. From our research on the topic, we at Rohrbeck Heger would caution against writing off this powerful player and its exponential development: with increased data gathering (whether from rows of crops or supermarket aisles), the power of AI to parse and assess troves of information about products and consumers could really shift the landscape by 2030. AI is something to keep on your radar and monitor in the coming years.

From increasing demand to meat alternatives to the as-yet untapped power of AI: the food industry will be faced with increasing complexity and will need to navigate a shape-shifting landscape as we head towards the 2030s. Trend analysis and its integration into corporate strategy is one essential way that we at Rohrbeck Heger support our clients such as Mondelez in their quest to stay competitive. To learn more about our work in the food industry and how we can help support your team become more future-oriented, get in touch!

Chris de la Cerda