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Twenty for ‘20: the questions that will shape the next decade

Exploring ways to build a better working world in the transformative twenties.

As the physicist Nils Bohr once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Many of the revolutionary changes of this past decade were relatively easy to predict. We expected the proliferation of digital technology and new media in every part of our lives, from smart TVs to wearables. And the climate crisis was looming well before the dawn of 2010 with many already highlighting its increasing urgency. Other changes were less obvious, like the emergence of the gig and sharing economies, and the return of geopolitical and economic uncertainty.

As we move into a new decade, some of these transformations will continue. Populations will keep growing, particularly in developing economies. Climate-related risks will intensify. Politics will likely continue to be unpredictable. And whole new technologies, from 5G to biotech to quantum computing as well as others not yet invented, will transform the world.

In this new decade, we’ll discover ways to promote human health, communicate and share with each other, and protect the planet. There will be new art forms, and new ways of living. Business models, companies, and jobs will emerge, and quickly feel as though they’ve been with us forever. Some of these changes we can anticipate; others will take us by surprise.

Here, we take a look at 20 topics, trends and insights we’ve examined over the past 12 months to frame the critical questions the working world will need to address in the next 120.


Chapter 1

Growth: how can we create long-term value?

The world keeps growing, and businesses need to prepare for whatever form that takes.

1. Will the CEO become society’s chief problem-solver?

The world is changing. What’s not is CEOs’ obligation to make decisions that deliver long-term value. EY’s CEO Imperative Study (pdf) examines what concerns top leaders and decision makers, and how they are preparing for the next decade. The importance of risk-taking remains a key theme – 57% of CEOs believe there are more opportunities than risks in actively confronting major global challenges like gender inequality and climate change. 

Read more: For CEOs, are the days of sidelining global challenges numbered

2. What’s the right way to use data to turbocharge growth?

Growth comes from making better decisions. And from strategy to planning to execution, data is crucial. In fact, 41% of CFOs believe insufficient data is a primary barrier to the optimal allocation of capital. What matters is making sure that the talent, technologies and processes are in place to allow for effective interpretation.

3. How can business innovate as the pace of change accelerates?

It’s important to realize, when thinking about growth, that change isn’t just getting faster – it’s getting stranger. With modern technology, the rate of change becomes exponential. That is, the speed at which change is happening is itself accelerating. Technology isn’t progressing – it’s exploding. We can no longer afford linear strategies, such as adopting new products and models and reacting to the market as change happens. Exponential change demands whole new models of innovation, to ensure bottom lines keep pace with the rate of transformation.

4. How can we feed an extra two billion people?

Population growth will be a hugely consequential trend in coming years – the UN predicts the planet will have nearly 10 billion people by 2050, up from 8 billion today. Just how will we feed an extra two billion people in the face of increasing climate precarity and diminishing arable land? The $5 trillion global food industry will change radically over the next decade to accommodate growing and shifting demand. Understanding the nature of this change means being ready to capture this market as it transforms.

Read more: Why your next big bet should be in food innovation

5. Can we grow wealth without growing inequality?

Growth is good. Growth is what allows us to build our houses, feed our families, heal our sick, and fund innovation. But when inequality between the richest and the poorest grows, it can breed resentment, animosity, and political instability. Moving to more inclusive and equitable growth may help address these anxieties. Future models of growth, business, and taxation must take into account climate sustainability, as well as equitable, inclusive distribution of the wealth and benefits generated by businesses. 

Read more: How to take an equitable approach to growth


Chapter 2

Transformation: is change the only constant?

We are in the middle of a transformative age, and the disruptions to business-as-usual will continue into the next decade.

6. How do you prepare for technologies that don’t exist?

Transformation goes hand in hand with growth. But while growth is usually good for everyone – companies and consumers alike – the impact of transformative technologies can be more unpredictable. Understanding the potential effect of emerging technologies – and predicting what might come after them – is critical for organizations of all stripes, and will only become more vital as the rate of change speeds up. 

7. Will geopolitical power plays create a new world order?

One of the biggest transformative trends currently facing business – and society at large – is political transformation. For 70 years, global businesses have operated in a largely US-led, rules-based global economic order. That’s changing. Old certainties no longer hold amid the rise of populism and economic protectionism, shifts in the influence of international bodies, the resurgence of China, and a regulatory landscape running to catch up to technological transformation. Understanding the geopolitics of this unfamiliar new world is critical.

8. Will quantum computing move from theory to practice?

From the very big to the very small: quantum computing. Alongside the macro changes in politics and population growth, technological change always presents massive challenges and opportunities for traditional ways of doing business. Perhaps nothing has more radical potential than quantum computing. This technology – which exploits the still little-understood behaviour of subatomic particles to drive an exponential increase in processing power – could change everything from medicine to logistics to high finance. 

Read more: Could quantum computing be the technology that drives your quantum leap forward?

9. Will 5G be to the twenties what broadband was to the noughties?

Less exotic but perhaps no less radical than quantum computing will be the mass rollout of 5th generation (or 5G) data networks – expected to reach half the world’s population by 2024.Being able to carry much larger packets of data at much faster speeds than ever before, 5G may be the master key that unlocks the mass potential of, among other things, Internet of Things solutions, driverless cars, and connected cities.

10. Does cash still have a role to play in the global economy?

We’ve been exchanging coins for thousands of years, but the rise of cashless transactions, online commerce, and digital payment platforms may be doing away with this. As with any radical transformation, caution is the word. Managing a cashless transition is fraught with potential problems. Despite growth in adoption rates, the technology suffers from trust deficits. Top-down strategies can also be difficult to design and implement – removing cash from economies too quickly could lead to a host of unintended consequences.


Chapter 3

Trust: can it be built on the foundations of ever-shifting tech?

Navigating the complexities of the transformative age requires one critical asset – trust.

11. In a data-driven decade, will trust be the most valuable asset?

If organizations are to transform and grow in the world of the future, they need trust. Whether it’s the trust of customers, the trust of employees, or the trust of regulators, ensuring confidence remains critical in building a business that can last. This is particularly true when it comes to handling customer data – increasingly essential for doing business in today’s marketplace. Figuring out how to guarantee this trust will be a priority for companies in the coming decade.

12. How can we better measure the value of trust?

Despite its importance, trust in the companies at the heart of our economies is not high. Only 58% of finance leaders feel the public has sufficient trust in business, and rebuilding trust means creating models of transparency and effective reporting. This includes improving self-measurement – and not just corporate balance sheets, but nonfinancial data as well. Improving the breadth of reporting won’t just rebuild trust with the public; it will also give businesses the self-knowledge to make tough strategic decisions.

13. Can corporations translate urgency into action on climate change?

There’s no getting away from it – one of the major drivers of climate change has historically been commercial activity. Keeping projected temperature rises within the 1.5 ̊C range recommended by the Paris Agreement means acknowledging this. Again, reporting and measurement is key. Unsurprisingly, different regions and sectors outperform others in the quality of their climate reporting and disclosures. But building trust and taking direct action is essential if we are to effectively manage climate change.

Read more: Can your board drive transformative action on climate change?

14. Can technology and trust evolve together?

The good news for organizations looking to enhance oversight into their own operations, and improve the way they communicate that trust to the public, is technological advancement. For instance, AI can provide organizations with much deeper, more insightful views of their data, allowing them to see and understand their own operations and identify and rectify critical regulatory, compliance, or other issues ahead of time.

15. How can AI remove human bias rather than embed it?

Despite its benefits, AI comes with its own trust-based risks. While much of the paranoia around AI is overblown (no, robots aren’t coming to kill you – not yet, anyway), it is still a powerful and new technology and, if used improperly, could undermine trust in the system. For example, an AI fed on flawed data sets may replicate and exacerbate data flaws, worsening entrenched problems around things like gender or racial biases. Making the most of AI will mean being actively aware of these complications – and actively working to anticipate and mitigate them.

Read more: Why we need to solve the issue of gender bias before AI makes it worse


Chapter 4

Talent: what’s the make-up of the future workforce?

As the world changes, the kinds of talent, and the roles that talent will need to perform, are changing as well.

16. What’s the new mix of skills for a C-suite exec?

With a transformative world comes the need for a transformed suite of talent. Rapidly shifting markets mean you need an agile and flexible management structure. A greater influx of technology means you likely need technologists at the top. These are not necessarily capabilities that organizations have traditionally developed within their C-suite and management levels. But the need for change is becoming unavoidable, and companies that fail to address this may find themselves swiftly outmaneuvered.

Read more: Has your C-suite changed to reflect the changing times?

17. How can AI help us do less to achieve more?

Robots and human beings are often framed in opposition to each other – not just in science fiction dystopias, but in the real world of jobs and the economy. However, what robots can do is boost productivity, and free humans from repetitive and monotonous tasks. Theoretically, this allows human talent to do what robots can’t – focusing on creativity and the kind of innovation and complex decision-making that algorithms will continue to struggle with. This has been the line of technology optimists for some time. The 2020s may just put this theory to the test.

Read more: Is AI the start of the truly creative human?

18. What should educators be teaching the future workforce?

It’s all well and good to say artificial intelligence and other technologies will create new, more engaging jobs. But determining exactly what form those roles might take is another question entirely. Identifying these roles, deciding on the skill sets needed to fill them, and developing teaching strategies to help the next generation of workers acquire those skills, will be a pressing task for politicians, educators and employers alike in the next decade. 

Read more: How do you prepare for careers that don’t exist yet?

19. Can corporate cultures survive the gig expansion?

The major story of labor in the past decade has been the emergence of the gig economy. More than a third of the US workforce is officially involved in gig employment – and this is expected to rise to more than half within the next five years. Gig economy workforces are more flexible than traditional workforces, but learning how to manage these workers, and engage with them effectively, will be a key challenge for those using their abilities as gig economy models proliferate.

20. How can you break new ground on inclusion without breaking local laws?

A critical component of managing talent is promoting inclusion, from women, to people of color, to LGBT+ people – particularly as progressive social values become more and more mainstream in western societies. However, pursuing these values as a multinational can be complex – homosexuality, for example, is still illegal in 73 countries as of late 2019. Protecting the rights of staff and advocating for change while adhering to local legislation is a challenge that needs to be confronted.

Read more: Can you apply a globally consistent policy across an inconsistent world?

Looking ahead

The coming decade will undoubtedly have more surprises and questions for us than these here. Few at the beginning of the last decade foresaw things like the financial crash or the sheer ubiquity of the smartphone. People in 2030 will likely experience similarly radical changes that few will have yet spoken about today.

However, by beginning to think about how we think about the future now, and design plans and processes that cater for speed, flexibility, and agility to deal with what’s next, then decision-makers today can confront the unknowns of tomorrow and beyond with confidence.


Will the coming decade be as transformative as the last? Here we run through 20 future-facing insights from the past year that might prepare for what the transformative twenties have in store

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