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Question: What are some possible threats to future business prosperity?

Joe Bower: Our research project involved talking with a number of business leaders and showing them some of the scenarios developed by the World Bank for the long-term future and asking them what they thought it meant for business leaders.  And I’m in the middle of finishing with some colleagues a book that we hope will be a fantastic answer to your question.  But basically, what we can see is that the way things are playing out is very uncomfortable.  The future could involve substantial breakdowns so that the people who were involved in our research were very concerned about capital markets long before the crisis.  They saw the volatility, they saw the extent to which the capital markets were drifting away from their function of serving industrial markets and were simply trading systems, and they were very concerned about it’s implication. When you look at any set of forecasts, what you see is growing in equality of income within countries and then across countries really bad.  So that even though China and India, by say 2050 or 2040 are expected to have together as much as say 40 percent of the world's GDP, the people in those countries will still have incomes that are, like, a third of those in developed nations, on average.

And the averages are a problem because even if you look at those nations, what you see are... the poor are coming up, but we’re getting staggering – somebody said China now has 62 billionaires, something like that.  Well, that kind of inequality is very rough in an age where television makes everything visible to everyone... on their cell phones.  So, inequality then leads to migration.  That can be highly destabilizing. And so we see, for example, in Europe, a population that’s shrinking because of age, Western Europe, and what do the voters want?  The voters want more benefits, they want lower taxes, they want shorter working weeks, and they want no immigration.  So, what we’re looking at is... we’re moving towards a something that’s going to break down.

And so what is the role of business leaders?  The role of business leaders is, as a community globally, to recognize these problems and to start making a difference and interestingly, there are companies that are doing just that.  A few are based in the United States, more outside.

Question: What are some examples of companies making a difference?

Joe Bower: If you look at... China Mobile is getting most of it’s growth these days by bringing cell phones to essentially a million villages, they’re getting down to the village level.  They’ve built a distribution system that’s amazing.  With those cell phones, they can now provide market information to what are essentially farmers.  They’re going to probably, if the government will let them, provide banking for that.  So, it’s a business that’s a solution.  If these people are poor, bring them into the market system.  And we’re seeing if people don’t have homes, find a way to help them build homes, that’s what Cemex is doing.  And figure out how to distribute to that level and finance it.

Then if you look at something like IBM, IBM has put the headquarters of it’s market facing activities for emerging markets in Shanghai—not in Armonk—and they’re working to provide the information systems so that those companies who are trying to do that can do it.  That’s where the future of the market is.  Essentially the business version of that nightmare that I was describing is: Do you want to spend your life fighting for the one-third of the market that’s well developed and in which every company in the world is present and fighting, or do you want to be a leader developing the two-thirds of the world’s market that has no competition?  So, that’s taking that big problem that I described and saying, “Well, wait a minute, that’s a huge opportunity.”  And that I think is what’s before us.  We either develop that opportunity or face some very, very uncomfortable problem. 

Recorded April 1, 2010

More from the Big Idea for Wednesday, April 21 2010


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