The next few years are going to be dynamic, complex, and unpredictable

In 2024, the world continues to witness an unprecedented convergence of four seismic disruptions. Climate change is relentlessly reshaping processes and intensifying systemic risks. AI is creating fresh opportunities—and complications—as it remodels the work landscape. The far-reaching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to play out for at least a decade. And inequality, now surpassing levels reminiscent of significant historical revolutions, is contributing to political destabilization in a year when half the world will hold major elections. Critically, these disruptions are interacting with each other in sometimes unpredictable ways. Any impact we aspire to achieve is embedded in this dynamic and constantly evolving political, economic, and cultural environment. This requires a new form of courage from leaders. The courage to unwind a plan when the dominoes fail to line up as expected (and they will), to understand stakeholders deeply (and toss out what you thought you knew), to re-examine the true impact you are having (and communicate with truth), and lastly, to shape the use of AI (and not simply be shaped by it).

The interplay between these disruptions can be mutually reinforcing. For instance, AI has the potential to deepen inequality, which along with an ongoing and unequal pandemic recovery dramatically lowers resilience to climate shocks. Similarly, worsening climate change increases the likelihood of future global health crises and inequality by impacting the poorest the most. Through our work at Dalberg, we are seeing vulnerabilities form at the intersections of these disruptions that could undermine decades’ worth of development for already vulnerable populations.

Consider how all this affects already marginalized groups. Safeena Husain, the founder of Educate Girls, notes that climate change will take over from patriarchy as the main reason for girls being out of school. Those same girls have missed out on years of learning due to pandemic-induced lockdowns and poor digital access. Similarly, call center workers in the Philippines, facing job losses due to AI, also find themselves more exposed to escalating risks of typhoons and flooding.

So how can impact-driven organizations respond?

With these many disruptions interacting, reactive power trumps predictive power. Looking across our work, we identified four steps to help organizations prepare to react.

Plan to unplan

Rather than rigid planning, the coming years call for flexibility and experimentation. It’s a time for sensing, learning, and refining instead of committing to long-term approaches. Strategic decisions should reflect the ability to adopt a dynamic learn-by-doing mindset. Your empathy for disruption needs to extend to others in your value chain such as your suppliers or people you fund or invest in.

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“All organizations learn, whether they consciously choose to or not—it is a fundamental requirement for their sustained existence. Some firms deliberately advance organizational learning, developing capabilities that are consistent with their objectives; others make no focused effort and, therefore, acquire habits that are counterproductive. Nonetheless, all organizations learn.”  

DANIEL H. KIM, “The Link between Individual and Organizational Learning,” MIT Sloan Management Review – The Dynamic Learning Playbook: Intentional Learning Practices to Achieve Social Impact

Reacquaint yourself with your stakeholders

Whether as customers, employees, or suppliers, the lives of others are undergoing significant shifts. What you thought you knew about your stakeholders is no longer true. Organizations need to get back in the field and take a walk in the shoes of those they serve.

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Understand true value

The next decade will reward those who understand the full societal impacts of their actions. This goes far beyond the basic ESG standards. Talent, investments, and consumer preferences will flow to those that can truly demonstrate a positive outcome for people and planet alongside financial sustainability. With such a high degree of dynamism, frequent quality measurement will be a critical guide for institutions to manage change.  At the same time, the pull towards impact washing will be strong—but the market will reward the authentic in the long term.

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Become shapers, not simply users of technology

Digitization and AI have landgrab-style business models. AI’s ability to be a force for good will depend significantly on its ownership, governance, and the safeguards we put around it. Digital public infrastructure and goods will be essential to creating greater societal value out of AI technology, but much of the initial space could become privately controlled. Be early users and shape what is to come.

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Such massive disruptions present opportunity and risks for defining a better future equilibrium.  For those guided by a sense of impact, there is no better time to boldly shape the terrain.  We are collaborating with our clients to help them experiment and pivot, to gain deeper insights into their stakeholders, to put in place policies that push for greater equity across their stakeholders, and to become AI natives on their terms. From the momentum we can already see, we are deeply optimistic about 2024 and beyond.

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