By Mark Esposito, Terence Tse, and Lisa Xiong

“We are running out of water.”(Famiglietti (NASA), 2015)1

The constantly evolving world we live in continues to pose challenges to resources. In the age that the expiration date tag is ubiquitous, a strong question to businesses looms: Do we continue to do business as usual despite the early signals of a serious transformation of our resource pool?


Humans are wired to be architects, bringing changes to the world we live in, and shaping the geographical landscape of their habitats. The picture captured by NASA at night sheds lights not on how the world really looks in the darkness, but also presents a world map of human ingenuity of innovation and evolution as well as a map of a world divided into shades of grey. The twinkling illumination tells us the story of communication, transportation, consumption and business operation, where resources and infrastructure are leitmotifs. While still gazing at the sensational glory of human deeds, we move to another part of the world map where water, electricity and access become luxury. We could not simply press the pause button on the spinning-fast change of the world. The constantly evolving world we live in continues to pose challenges to resources. Both natural and man-inflicted occurrences such as climate change, urbanisation and demographic changes are forcing us to rethink how we utilise resources in the form of energy, food, water and human manpower and the current trends do not indicate convergence. In the age that the expiration date tag is ubiquitous, a strong question to businesses looms: Do we continue to do business as usual despite the early signals of a serious transformation of our resource pool?

Before we answer that question, let’s take a look at the megatrends of change that the world is currently experiencing, in the wake of an early 21st century’s outlook.


Ageing Population

The world’s population is getting older, and the speed is accelerating. This is not a rare phenomenon happening in some random country, but it’s penetrating in all nations to different degrees and intensity, generating an epochal synchronisation of ageing as a common denominator of every country on earth. The ageing issue is slightly more visible in developed countries than the rest of the world. By 2030, half of the world’s population will be above 33 years old and most developed countries’ population will be above 40 years old (Megatrends, 2014).3 Ageing populations are the result of two influential factors, hence the increase in life expectancy and the inexorable plateau of fertility rates, which have been declining systematically in most OECD countries, since the 1980s. The percentage of older people (aged 65 plus) of the world population has hiked from 5.2% in 1950 to 7.6% in 2010, and is estimated to keep growing to 16.2% in 2050. Meanwhile, the situation for youth presents another story, with the percentage of youth in the total world population dropping from 34.1% in 1950 to 26.9% in 2010, to a forecasted 19.6% in the upcoming 2050. The only exception lies in Sub-Saharan Africa where its population will remain youthful for the next 3 decades at least. Even the Middle Kingdom, China, which used to be known to possess the competitive advantage of younger and cheap labour reservoir, will encounter an inconvenient truth of growing median population from the age of 35 in 2013 to 42 by 2030. This number is not far from the 44 years old median population the developed countries will have in 2030. The neighbouring country Japan with the oldest population in the world has been struggling in the presiding idea that older people are dependent and a burden on society, and the current innovation breakthroughs are indeed trying to feed to this specific demographic imbalance, with the rise of nursing robots and automated personal assistants. But the consequences of demographic changes are dire also for the economic angle. Indeed, this demographic change will require us to raise productivity to compensate for diminishing returns in the ratio between age, working years and productivity.

By 2030, half of the world’s population will be above 33 years old and most developed countries’ population will be above 40 years old.

Governments may need to launch more open competition policies that will attract continuous investments to spur productivity growth, to balance the current outlook of its population and the prospects for the future. In fact, Japan has started taking innovative steps such as Long Term Care Insurance (LCTI), which has gained international attention and recognition in helping low-income elders without family support. Japan is also taking a lead in robotics to help rehabilitation where the difficulties have been seen in cost, training and acceptance.4 Soon if not now, most countries including China, will have to follow suit in implementing strategies that promote health, social engagement and productivity for the elderly ones.

Figure 1: Population aging from “pyramid” shaped to “beehive” shaped3

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Urbanisation undoubtedly has helped countries unshackle people from the poverty and fast-pace the process of growth toward Millennium Development Goals. Countries around the world recognise the power of urbanisation exerted to boost the economic growth learnt through the experience of developed countries in the past. The real situation at present is that city concentration is more visible in developing countries. China, as a leading economy in developing countries, could not possibly miss this express train to mass wealth. As a matter of fact, China’s government has targeted urbanisation ratio to be 70% by 2025.5 To zoom in on the picture of urbanisation rate and GDP growth, let’s move on step by step. Figure 2 shows a positive correlation between urbanisation rate and GDP per head in every continent. Interestingly, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) has mapped cities based on populations and contribution to GDP growth. To our surprise, megacities, defined as metropolitan areas with ten million or more inhabitants, have actually not been driving growth for the past 15 years, at least not in any fundamental way to infer a global phenomenon out of it. In fact, it is expected that the 23 megacities of the world will only account for 10% global growth in 10 years time, down from today’s 16%. On the contrary, hopes are more laid on middle cities that are with populations of between 150,000 and ten million inhabitants. It is expected that top middleweights will outperform most megacities in terms of household growth as well as in attractive income segments. To be exact, top 23 middleweights are expected to outperform 7 or more megacities in those indices.6 In the latter category of contribution to GDP growth, the top 100 cities are called City 100 and the top 600 cities are called City 600 where they will each contribute around 35 percent and 60 percent respectively in 2025. What’s striking is that City 600 are projected to increase their combined GDP by $34 trillion in 2025 largely propelled by an economical importance shift from developed to emerging economies. Urbanisation in emerging economies is a fact, a trend and a future.


Figure 2: Positive Correlation between Wealth and Urbanisation Ratio: Global Urbanisation and Wealth


What does urbanisation exactly do to the economy? First, let’s dig into its definition. As confusing as it might sound, urbanisation has multiple definitions. However, the terminology is built around a population shift from rural to urban areas, often times encouraged or forced by a government to develop a new area, or by the private sector to attract labour from unurbanised to urbanised areas, in light of a factory, a new plant or a new special economic zone. From the individual level, urbanisation can also be driven by one’s interest to progress whereas moving away from a village to seek better opportunities has been seen as a step-up in many communities, with equal universal valence, as a step towards a degree of socio-economic emancipation. Urbanisation helps individuals with more opportunities and access to better resources; it also becomes a beacon to assist countries to achieve new growth. Driven by this dual interests, cities keep expanding and upgrading. Small towns and villages aim to grow into cities; middle cities to megacities. With 7 middleweight cities in China poised to become megacities by 2025, and 216 Chinese cities entering the middleweight cities foray, there is little surprise why China’s government intends to raise urbanisation ratio. Getting back to the question raised earlier, we detect major implications in the increase in urbanisation: we record a boost in consumption and creation of city clusters. The unprecedented city expansion in both speed and scale of cities has triggered domestic consumption, internal demand and expansion of internal markets as large investment on physical capital moves closer to the regions where the development occurs. Thus conversely activating positive dynamics of economic mobility. Such is the case of China where over 20% of China’s GDP was crafted during the rampant new city building phase.

It is expected that top middleweights will outperform most megacities in terms of household growth as well as in attractive income segments.

India, the world’s second most populous country, is projected to have 38% of its population in 2025 urbanised compared to China’s target rate of 70%. Although India has paid less attention and underinvested in its cities, its “slower rate” of urbanisation growth in India still stuns the world with a potential 8.5% compounded annual growth from 17 trillion rupees in 2005.7 In the African continent, things are no different. The strong interconnectivity and high speed of change stimulate Africa to process the resources and put urbanisation at the top of their agenda, as we experience new silk roads, infrastructural works and water pipes emerging as priority around the early signs of urbanisation of the region. In Africa people living in urban areas are estimated to grow from 36% of the overall population in 2010 to 50% in 2050. Africa and Asia are indeed jumping on the bandwagon of consumption growth where they are urbanising at a faster rate than anyone else.8


Resources Scarcity

Could an increased GDP per capita bring better life for citizens in this massive advancement of urbanisation? Positive changes are based on the premise that decisions are made with wisdom and a vision of sustainable development. Citizens from the national level could enjoy the fruits of civilisation with more convenient lifestyles, safer environments and healthier lives. However, if cities are run by short-sighted governments with egoistic hedonism, inhabitants from the global level would definitely suffer with insurmountable cost. Sadly, this is the current truth. High rates of urbanisation have put many resources at risk with improper urban planning. Resources in the form of water availability and quality, energy supply, security, waste management, traffic and mobility are the few challenges developing cities are currently facing. The existing model of using resources has set greater tension on these issues due to the speed and scale of urbanisation. Resource scarcity in general, natural or human-caused, has led to civil wars in the African region and most recently triggered the spreading of Arab spring due to the increment in food prices due to the worst drought in the century in 2010 affecting food producers such as China, Russia, Australia and Canada. What’s more, larger population and higher urbanisation rate will drive water demand higher, targeted to be a 37% increase between 2013 and 2050. The increase is largely due to a proportionate shift from water usage increment for manufacturing and electricity in the world which will increase from a quarter of the usage to almost half of the 5.467km3 water demand in 2050.9 Megacities in turn, seen in Figure 3 could find themselves in a challenge to ensure necessary water supply and sanitation requirements. Cities like Nairobi in Nigeria and Karachi in India have already seen higher industrial pollution and are struggling to manage infrastructure for access to quality water supply.

Urbanisation helps individuals with more opportunities and access to better resources; it also becomes a beacon to assist countries to achieve new growth.

Natural resources are the fundamental fuel for this world-churning engine to move forward. However, most of them are not renewable. With the pace of the development now, resources scarcity has become a problem not in one area but could be spotted in a wide-range of aspects. Here we delve into resources scarcity from 2 sub-trends: food and non-food sectors, mainly mineral and energy resources. Energy scarcity seems to catch people’s attention the most, but the truth is that it’s not the most imminent issue compared with others. There are still huge reserves and resources of fossil fuels, and renewable energy technologies have gained momentum. Minerals resources scarcity is the direct result of modern economy. The mass flourishing in mobile technology is just one simple example of the soaring consumption of minerals, as the tiny little cellphone contains forty distinct minerals.10 Knowing the estimation calculated by the World Trade Organization that every person would have access to 2,750 calories per day in an ideal situation, a number way higher than the recommended daily minimal calories of 2,100, we may find it hard to believe that the world is suffering food scarcity. However, the uneven distribution, climate change on food production, (Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change: a modelling study), and human activities have made food scarcity a stunning fact. The shrinkage of farmland, rising energy cost, and environmental damage have been exacerbating the food shortage. What’s worse, the escalating demand on food due to the expanding of emerging markets drags this mismatch even worse. The world is mourning for breathing in this resources tension. However, the rising of emerging markets is yelling for fast and more feed.

Among all resources scarcity, water shortage stands out as the most imminent issue to be dealt with, more than energy, from what the current research manages to point out. Stories of people suffering from deprivation of clean drinking water are unfortunately not rare. More than 1.2 billion people are waiting to be helped with clean water and the recent deepening crisis and depletion of freshwater, with consequent droughts (caused by climate change, and water contamination brought by human activities) are just a few reasons of a crisis that does not yet see signals of structural change. Here we would like to clarify that water shortage could mean more than just not having enough to drink. Value chains are going to be deeply affected by “hidden” or “virtual” water. Every aspect of our society is imprinted with water footprints. To put things in perspective, a single smart phone takes 13,000 litres of water to make which is equivalent to an astonishing 8,700 bottles of the typical 1.5 litre bottled water we buy.11 Every day products such as a pair of jeans take 11,000 litres of water to make, a new cotton shirt takes 2,650 gallons and a ton of steel takes 280,000 litres of water to produce.12 It’s not difficult to see that water shortage will directly impact manufacturing, which is related to people’s life quality. What should be more worrying is how shortage of water will affect food supply, which determines people’s life and death. With population growth targeted to reach 9.6 billion in 2050, the global meat and milk consumption will also grow by 30%13 in 2050. Meat and milk products are high water intensity products, which contributed to 29% of the global water footprint compared to domestic water usage that contributed almost 10 times less.14 If the world keeps operating in its existing orbit, the resource scarcity will ultimately lead to increasing food prices in the future, which in turn would account for a higher percentage of personal income. The impact will be felt more so for poorer countries that are net importers of food, leading to social unrest. What we see currently in Venezuela is an alive case.15 The long-closed border with Colombia was reopened to satisfy Venezuelans’ desperate cry for food stockpile. Local citizens were forced to liquidate savings for human basic need, food. On the other hand, some countries have increased the awareness of its resource scarcity and other problems associated to urbanisation, and started taking actions to face the issue with a sustainable plan. Such is the case of China, which has already taken steps to regulate the consequences of city growth by releasing an urbanisation guideline in Feb. 21st this year. With this guideline, China hopes to improve its public transportation system and utilise construction techniques that utilise less resource and generate less waste.16


Figure 3: Positive Correlation between Wealth and Urbanisation and Ratio: Challenges of Megacities in Water Supply


Resource scarcity not only puts individuals’ lives on edge, but also poses a challenge to existing businesses and governments. A change is being brewed to break the status quo and bring new hopes. The traditional pathway of growth have been termed “Cradle-to-Grave” or “Take-Make-Dispose” in which the raw material is turned into a finished product and is disposed as waste after its use or when determined it end of its usable life. This linear approach has been experiencing ever-increasing challenges to continue, because it’s based on the assumption that resources are inexhaustible. The reality hit us with a totally different story. Therefore, massive waste generated through this model has backfired the existing operation with hiking costs. However, a recent model seen on Figure 4 on the right, called the circular pathway or “Cradle-to-Cradle”, has been utilised by more and more companies. It’s an initiative aiming to reshape the current business models and consumption methods, leading to a more resource-efficient strategy. The circular pathway essentially tries to reduce dependencies on scarce natural resources and allows companies to generate revenue from waste through creation of more innovative and customer-centric products and services. The importance of the circular economy is threefold: too many resources are being wasted; technology in itself is insufficient to resolve reliance on resources and the need to produce more and better economic outcomes.

The world is heavily influenced by the deeply engrained addiction to resources and companies have to unshackle themselves, and stop operating with a “business as usual” mentality. Many industries have surprisingly high wastage despite being in existence for many years and being “optimised”. Obviously, the optimisation works only within the “usual mentality”. In Europe, a developed area where people in other parts of the world all look up to, waste has become equally visible as well. In this particularly wasteful region, materials are only used once on average, 60% of discarded material is either landfilled or incinerated out of the 40% material that is recycled or reused, only 5% of the original raw material value is recovered.17 What’s more, throughout the supply chain, waste is created from overusing resources at the upstream of the product cycle, underutilising products at the consumer level and when the material is disposed. In addition, there are structural wastes in the mobility system, the food system and in the built environment. One drastic example is in the utilisation of fertiliser. Presumably, the fertiliser should be absorbed by crops or plants; but in reality, 70% of the fertiliser is actually lost as greenhouse gasses or emissions. 30% in real use is not a smart way to continue doing the business “as usual”. The underutilisation in the mobility and built system has been detected by revolutionary companies like Airbnb and Bla Bla Car. These two companies are platforms to bridge the assets owner with assets seekers. A new schedule of using assets through sharing and coordinating actually maximises the utility of resources. The ownership of assets provides convenience, but comes with a price of waste. The new ways of communication could help us achieve a new way of consumption based on lower waste. Airbnb is taking advantage of underutilised spaces in residents while the other capitalising underutilised cars where an average European car has 5 seats but only carries 1.5 people per trip.

Even the way that we adopt technologies is considerably impacted by the “usual syndrome”. Reliance on technologies is still very much relying on the resources-based growth model. The full power of technologies is waiting to be activated. Though recycling, as environmental and beautiful as it may sound, could only capture 5% of the original raw material value. The real problem is that part of the value is retained, and recycling can be at times, resource intensive and not circularised. It has also been long said that “recycling is an environmental excuse for instant obsolescence” where it can encourage companies to practice more “planned obsolescence”. Planned obsolescence, coined back in 1932 by the government in an attempt to help the world emerge from the Great Depression is now practiced across most consumer products – including the everyday smart phones that start to run out of steam in about 2 years.18 They are designed not to last long. A small part in the phones is wired to break down in a set time could jeopardise the longevity of all other parts. Take batteries in cellphones as an example. Not a single phone company has actual services to replace batteries for customers. So by the time when consumers find the batteries could not work, the first on their minds is to buy a new cellphone, rather than replace the batteries. A new cellphone here refers to a newly released model, as it’s already designed to be compatible of the business cycle. Also, technological advancement could often cause the so-called rebound effect where increased productivity drives prices lower but due to elastic demand, consumers tend to use more individualised transport, floor space and food, resulting in relative volume increases. This is true of the automobile industry in China. As the average price of a car is getting cheaper, Chinese are buying more cars for the family, which would lead to more idleness of the existing automobiles.

The world is heavily influenced by the deeply engrained addiction to resources and companies have to unshackle themselves, and stop operating with a “business as usual” mentality.

Resource scarcity becomes an imminent pounding alarm when highlighted due to urbanisation. It asks for us not only to produce more but also better economic outcomes. Circular economy seems to have all the answers to this if executed correctly. It has the potential to bring new growth through innovative utilisation and management of resources. Waste reduction is the forever theme of circular economy. It has shown many positive promises where societal costs, CO2 emissions, primary material consumption will all reduce at a faster pace compared to the linear economy model. In the UK, remanufacturing, as one of circular economy practice, is estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by 800,000 tonnes. In iPhone market, consumers are encouraged to return the old phone to the company for certain compensation in the purchase of a new model iPhone. This could save a great deal of value, as a reused iPhone keeps 48% of its original value while recycling the material could only extract 0.24% of the same original value. What’s more, with the adoption of circular economy, there will also be the creation of job opportunities requiring all level of skills from the low skilled to the professional in industries engaging in recycling, remanufacturing, reuse and biorefining. However, transitions and investments into new ideas and infrastructures would always involve considerable costs. For example, it costs Germany €123 billion to transition from feed-in tariffs to renewable plant operator between 2000 and 2013.19 The World Bank has also recently approved $150 million in financing for a $317.5 million project supporting urban development in China’s Ningbo Municipality. The project focuses on improving water management and promoting non-motorised transportation to reduce carbon emissions.20 Circular economy is still at its early stage, growing to be full-fledged to shoulder more responsibilities. The efforts in Germany are seen to be paid off, as annual electricity bill per household is lowered due to low consumption and energy efficiency efforts.21 However, recent investments in circular economy elsewhere are still a work in progress.

Figure 4: Companies model from “Cradle-to-Grave” to “Cradle-to-Cradle”

McKinsey’s ReSOLVE framework of six business actions: Regenerate, Share, Optimise, Loop, Virtualise and Exchange explain the circular economy model. The framework, shown in Figure 5 can be applied to key elements in waste reduction, “Servitisation”, “Lengthening the consumption” and remanufacturing. Europe has the highest amount of e-waste in the world on the per capita basis mainly due to consumer behaviour of disposing a still-functioning appliance for an upgrade. Many companies are beginning to turn selling a product into a performance model through providing a service or through providing easier access or rebates for returned goods. A recent example is Mud Jeans in the retail industry prolonging the value of its jeans by using the performance model to lease the cotton to its customers rather than selling the jeans itself. With the retained value of a reused iPhone as high as 48% of its original value compared to its value as recycled material at just 0.24% of its original value, there will be likely growth of the used smartphone industry valued at $17billion.22 This is an area where the ReSOLVE framework will see steep benefits if smart phones can be sold in a similar fashion as the car market if it does not cannibalise the main market value. Similarly, remanufacturing in the case of refurbishing an appliance retains high amount of its original value. Renault, pioneer in circular economy within the car industry has started recovering major parts of car parts and refurbishes them, which results in lowered car costs and at the same time, saving 80% of resources in energy, water and chemical products.

“Business can do what it does best – innovate and create – to help save our planet.”23 We are the architects of our own habitat. While resource scarcity is posing unprecedented challenge to us with the churning urbanisation and ageing population, companies have a choice to make: to keep the business as usual, or to start thinking about more than just recycling and components optimising to remain competitive. Businesses can no longer follow the wasteful linear path model in advanced economies or new cities. The circular economy has already begun with digitalisation of many material products. With time and the right execution strategies, hopefully waste can be reduced, value can be further created throughout the supply chain cycle, profitable shared economies can be realised and hopefully, we will not run out of water.

Featured Image: https://suztoure.blogspot.


About the Authors

Dr. Mark Esposito is a Member of the Teaching Faculty at the Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, a Professor of Business and Economics at Grenoble School of Management in France, and a Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge-CISL and a Research Fellow at the Judge Business School in the United Kingdom. At Harvard, Mark teaches courses on Business, Government & Society and serves as Institutes Council Co-Leader, at the Microeconomics of Competitiveness program (MOC) developed at the Institute of Strategy and Competitiveness, at Harvard Business School. He is Founder and Director of the Lab-Center for Competitiveness, a think tank affiliated with the MOC network of Prof. Michael Porter at Harvard Business School. He serves on the board of directors of ABIS for the 2014–17 mandate. He has advised the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, on the systemic nature of the EU crisis and serves as a cross-theme contributor to the World Economic Forum’s reports on Innovation Driven Entrepreneurship in Europe. Follow Mark on Twitter on @Exp_Mark.

Dr. Terence Tse is Associate Professor at ESCP Europe London campus and a Research Fellow at the Judge Business School in the UK. He is also Head of Competitiveness Studies at i7 Institute for Innovation and Competitiveness. He obtained his doctoral degree from the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. He has worked with mergers and acquisitions at Schroders and at Lazard Brothers in Montreal and New York. Terence has also worked as a consultant for Ernst & Young, and he has served as an independent consultant to a number of companies. In addition to frequent appearance in academic publications, he has published extensively on various topics of interests in newspapers around the world. He has been interviewed by television channels including CCTV, Channel 2 of Greece, France 24, and NHK. Follow Terence on @terencecmtse.

Lisa Xiong is a Candidate to the Executive Doctorate of Business Administration at Ecole des Ponts Business School. She works as Teaching Associate for business schools in Europe, UAE and China. As a Researcher, her research interests cover inequalities, Chinese economic development, entrepreneurship and open innovation. Lisa is a Linguist and Social Science Investigator. Her ability to navigate both the east and west cultures allowed her to serve different communities, enterprises and clients in different parts of the world. Lisa earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Jiangxi Normal University, and Master of International Business at Grenoble Graduate School of Business in Paris.


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