4 Reasons Why the WBCSD’s Vision 2050 is Significant

At the World CEO Forum in New Delhi, India, in February 2010, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released its Vision 2050: The new agenda for business report. Pulling this together was not a trivial task. It was compiled over an 18-month period by 29 leading global companies who represent 14 industries. It reflects the combined efforts of CEOs and experts, and benefits from dialogues with over 200 companies and external stakeholders in some 20 countries. The effort was significant. So is its content, for four reasons.

1. It is written by business leaders, for business leaders

Not-for-profit organizations are usually the first to propose visions of sustainable communities, sustainable companies, and a sustainable world. Governments may echo these visions, especially municipal governments closest to the people. Often, these visions have to be then sold to the business community in the hopes that they will collaborate on efforts to improve everyone’s quality of life. As described on its website, the WBCSD is “a CEO-led, global association of some 200 companies dealing exclusively with business and sustainable development.” They are business leaders. They sold themselves on the vision of a sustainable world by 2050. CEOs are the most credible sustainability champions for other CEOs. That reality significantly improves the chances of this vision, giving it traction in the business community.

2. It backcasts from a vision of a sustainable world

Vision 2050 doesn’t constrain itself with only what is doable within today’s business models or technological capabilities. It avoids the usual trap of extrapolating from current trends and best practices to describe what is likely to happen in 40 years. Instead, it focuses its lens on what it wants to happen. It describes a desired world 40 years in the future. Then it backcasts from that ideal world to the present business-as-usual world. Knowing where you are going is helpful when starting any trip. Vision 2050 provides a clear destination for any firm’s sustainability journey.

Vision 2050 addresses nine dimensions of a sustainable society.

1)    Values and behaviors
2)    Human development
3)    Economy
4)    Agriculture
5)    Forests
6)    Energy and power
7)    Buildings
8)    Mobility
9)    Materials

The first two dimensions are social, the third is clearly economic, and the last six are primarily environmental. They match well with the three nested circles (Environment, Society, and Economy) in my 5 Criteria for a Sustainable Business Model blog of August 10, 2010, illustrated in this slide.

Click image to enlarge

3. It suggests nine pathways to the Vision 2050 state

Is Vision 2050 a “mission impossible?” Apparently not. This is the most exciting part of the document.

It lays out clear pathways from our business-as-usual world to each of the nine dimensions of a sustainable world listed above—a world in which nine billion people live well and within the resource limits of the planet. For each pathway, the report defines: “must-haves” by 2020; key themes for its “Turbulent Teens” in the intervening 2010-2020 decade; key themes for its subsequent 2020-2050 “Transformation Time;” and measures of success for each dimension of the vision.

Click image to enlarge

It doesn’t mince words about what needs to be done at each stage of the journey, nor does it hold back on how we’ll know when we get there. It provides a clever roadmap against which we can gauge our progress toward desired goals. The above slide is a birds-eye view of the nine pathways. Unfortunately, the type is too small in this slide, so I strongly encourage you to check out the more legible version on pages 12 and 13 of the full Vision 2050 report. While you are on the WBCSD web site, download and browse the pictorial summaries of the report in the Pathway Mural Poster and the wall-sized Pathway Mural. The mural is amazing, and it comes with guidance on how to use it as tool for learning, strategic planning, organizational alignment, and continuous communication. Good stuff!

4. It advocates new measures of success

One of the biggest problems with today’s business model is that it externalizes measurements of a company’s environmental and social impacts. The WBSCD report uses the model in the adjacent slide to show how GDP overlooks important measures of Economic Well-Being, Living Conditions, and Happiness. Vision 2050 encourages new measures of success that are more reflective of true progress on things that matter than the traditional GDP’s myopically-economic measures.

Click image to enlarge

It recommends true-value pricing that reflects external costs and intangible benefits as the basis for new, globally- accepted accounting standards. It advocates subsidy removals and tax shifts to encourage sustainable business and behavior. More good stuff!

For sustainability champions seeking a powerful visual blueprint for what a sustainable society and economy would look like, the Vision 2050 report, poster, and mural are excellent, credible resources.


The PowerPoint slides used above are from my Master Slide Set.
Please feel free to add your comments and questions using the Comment link below.

2 replies
  1. Steven Bleau
    Steven Bleau says:

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for bringing this vision to light. I am anxiously looking forward to reading the document. I also like the way you presented the contents: in four easy bites that allow me to decide whether I want to pursue the topic any further.
    I look forward to your next blog.

  2. Bob Willard
    Bob Willard says:

    I agree, Steven. It’s a very thorough document. It might sound strange, but I encourage you to download the .pdf image of the huge 4’ x 14’ Pathways Poster at http://www.wbcsd.org/web/projects/BZrole/uc-PathwaysMuralWBCSD.pdf. It looks like an eye test when you first open it up, but it you enlarge the view to 50% and scroll down the “2050 – Measures of Success” right-most column, it is a good summary of what we need to do by 2050 to have a sustainable society. It’s a good prompt to our thinking about elements that companies can mirror or contribute to.


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