Benefiting from a #BetterFuture: Why delivering the Sustainable Development Goals is a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity

The mobile industry is playing a pioneering role in delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and unlocking new revenue opportunities along the way

Last month, in an open letter to corporate bosses the world over, Larry Fink, the CEO and chairman of BlackRock, made a bold statement: the world’s largest asset management firm will no longer engage with companies focused on short-term shareholder returns. Instead, the firm demanded that the companies it works with must be able to deliver not just financial performance, but also demonstrate how they will make a positive contribution to society. “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Fink wrote. “Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Fink’s comments reflect a wider shift in corporate thinking; no longer should social responsibility be the sole concern of CSR departments – as we enter a fourth industrial revolution it must be central to how we do business. Evidence suggests consumers are increasingly showing greater brand loyalty to visionary businesses that bring value to society and respond to the challenges facing the world. And those companies that neglect their social purpose risk alienating the communities in which they operate.

The mobile industry has been ahead of the curve on this shift in attitudes. At Mobile World Congress 2016, our industry became the first to fully commit to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of 17 goals covering a broad range of social and economic development issues. Leveraging the networks that we build and the services we deliver, the mobile industry is focused on connecting everyone and everything to a better future.

Two years on, we are increasing our impact across all 17 SDGs as a result of wider mobile reach and better networks. There is also growing adoption of mobile-based tools and solutions that will drive the digitisation of systems, processes and interactions across a number of industries, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Sectors such as agriculture and healthcare are notable examples.

But what is the revenue opportunity? According to a report last year from the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, achieving the goals opens up US$12 trillion of market opportunities in four key economic areas: food and agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. But it notes that the economic prize could be two or three times larger if benefits are captured across the whole economy and accompanied by much higher productivity. “To capture these opportunities in full, businesses need to pursue social and environmental sustainability as avidly as they pursue market share and shareholder value,” the Commission stated.

The ability to provide mobile money and financial services, which contribute to several of the goals, is a good example of how operator support for the SDGs can result in an economic upside. According to a 2015 report from Accenture, a $380 billion revenue opportunity exists from closing the small business credit gap and including unbanked adults in the formal financial system. Given the majority of the unbanked population are in developing markets, mobile operators are well positioned to capture this value through services such as mobile money, mobile credit, insurance and savings.

By contrast, not meeting the SDGs represents a significant business risk for the mobile industry and the private sector more generally. The economic cost of existing global burdens such as conflict, climate change and biodiversity and ecosystem damage already represent more than 20 per cent of global GDP and will only increase if no action is taken.

To help the world achieve the SDGs, mobile operators must continue to think above and beyond ‘business as usual’ improvements and accelerate every activity that contributes to the SDGs. Many of the world’s largest operator groups are already doing just that. Vodafone Group’s sustainable business strategy, for example, is focused on achieving three key global transformation goals in the areas of women’s empowerment, energy innovation, and youth skills and jobs, in an effort to drive their impact on five of the SDGs, goals #1, #4, #5, #9 and #13.

Telenor is another operator group that has implemented a sustainability strategy anchored within the framework of the SDGs – with a specific commitment to SDG #10 (Reduced Inequalities). The group has committed to mitigating corruption risk, human rights risks and poor working conditions amongst suppliers, and on delivering solutions that can address social, economic and environmental problems, close the inequality gap and empower societies.

New technologies will also help us on our mission. The Internet of Things will, for example, allow us to create more efficient energy grids and allow smart cities to manage traffic pollution, bringing benefits to the developed world as well as emerging markets.

Our industry’s commitment to sustainability and social responsibility is being showcased throughout Mobile World Congress this week, reflected in our theme for this year’s event: Creating a Better Future.

Join me and several special guests this lunchtime for Keynote 6, Creating a Better Future for Everyone (12:15 – 13.15, Hall 4, Auditorium 1) to discover more about how the mobile industry is working with businesses, NGOs and governments to improve the lives of everyone on the planet.