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Sustainable development in an age of disruption

  • Communications
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  • Apr 16, 2019
Sustainable development in an age of disruption

Disruptions to technology and social institutions will impose such profound changes to the natural environment and intergenerational equity that they can’t be overlooked.

In her Guidepost for the Academy of Management, Professor Tima Bansal, Director of Ivey’s Centre for Building Sustainable Value, discusses why sustainable development researchers should consider the impact of disruptions on society and the prosperity of future generations.

The article, “Sustainable Development in an Age of Disruption,” explores how sustainable development researchers can broaden their domains to include such topics as artificial intelligence, blockchain, FinTech, autonomous vehicles, and more.

“At no other time in history has research in sustainable development been more important,” said Bansal. “Sustainable development offers the tools and perspective to help ensure that the environmental, technological, and social disruptions contribute to intra and intergenerational equity. The time has come for sustainability researchers to flex their theoretical and empirical muscles.”

Read an excerpt from the paper below.

Read the full article (subscription required)


An excerpt from “Sustainable Development in an Age of Disruption” by Tima Bansal (Academy of Management Discoveries, Vol. 5, No. 1 | Guidepost)

Sustainability researchers are not surprised to hear that society has reached its planetary limits for growth. Society’s fingerprints and footprints have become the major geologic force that has even garnered a new label for this epoch – the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Eugene, 2000). But, what has escaped the attention of most sustainability researchers is that the speed at which society is reaching its limit to growth may, in fact, be accelerated by the other macro disruptions afoot, such as the disruptions to technology and social institutions.

Digital technologies can now connect people and things in a complex array of relationships that is powered by unimaginable, accelerating, computing power. Nowadays, many people cannot perform even basic day-to-day tasks without the use of technology. So, those who control the technology can control our lives. And, to control technology, businesses require better, faster, cheaper technologies not only to keep up with competitors, but ideally, gain a dominant share of the market. Not only will fewer executives control what society does and how they do it, fewer employees will be needed to do the work itself. Alongside the exciting technological revolutions will be higher concentrations of wealth distributed among a fewer number of wealth owners and employees.

Further, there are increasingly fewer social institutions, such as government, media, and science, that people trust. There is no clear arbiter of truth and protector of societal well-being. Without truthsayers, little anchors reality. Who is to say that society is reaching its limits to growth, and if it is, who has the ability or power to act on it?

These technological and institutional disruptions will inevitably affect the pursuit of sustainable development. These macro disruptions could potentially accelerate intragenerational equity, as more wealth can be created within planetary boundaries (Whiteman, Walker, & Perego, 2013). Alternatively, it will make sustainable development even more elusive as the people who own or control wealth seek to improve the quality of life of the few, rather than the many.

Society and the planet are at an inflection point; the past cannot predict the future. Whereas intergenerational equity may be under threat, we are now in the perfect storm where intragenerational equity may once again be in peril. What does it mean to ‘sustain’ when so little will remain the same?