The 11 best business books about building a better future from the past year (or so)

Some book (and podcast) inspiration about all the shifts that could help your company build a better future and enter the next paradigm shift as an early adopter!

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October 28, 2021
SDG & Sustainability

About 10 years ago, social media empowered customers in ways many companies did not see coming. Technology had changed the customers, and companies were to use technology - the magic word was Big Data at the time – to understand and please them. Back then, a lot of companies underestimated this behavior change. We all know what happened to them.

Ten years later, I see many companies underestimate the current customer need for “good” products and services. By good, I do not mean that they would be qualitative. That’s just a given. I mean that their offering has to add value to their context (be it individuals, society or the environment) instead of extracting it.

From “do good to me” to “do good to us”.

The first market shift in this story was customers telling companies to “do good to me”. The second, current one, is that they demand of them to “do good to us”. And COVID-19 may have been the turning point: it showed us how challenges that are deeply connected, will eventually come back to us, as individuals with their small inner circle. When it came to deadly diseases - for Europeans before COVID-19 - Ebola was an African problem, SARS an Asian one or even AIDS a mostly homosexual one. People felt bad, but sadly also disconnected, not really compelled to help or act. But COVID-19 affected all of us and brutally confronted us with the fact that an Asian problem was an African, American, European and Australian problem. It showed us that “their” health problem was also “ours”. And so, locked down in our homes, with more time to read and hear about climate change induced wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, … we started to realize that “their” climate problem could also one day become “ours”, here, in our own countries and cities.

That’s a Big change in mindset. Just like we have come to expect businesses to treat us right as consumers for a long time now, we now expect them to treat us right as citizens, as living beings that are firmly embedded in a hyperconnected system (the market, society and the environment).

Because we realize that if that system loses, we lose. If it thrives, we thrive. Consumers of today want companies to invest in making that system thrive. It may seem like a small movement for now, but it’s growing fast. And your competitors are probably already investing in that trend.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “doing good” is about charity, and costs or even “not doing bad things”. No, this is truly a paradigm shift. It’s about creating business models that add real value to the system, not just to your individual customer and your organization. If you think that’s just a utopian dream from a hippy mind on pot, check Nestlé’s awesome case that Filip Caeldries told Steven Van Belleghem (full interview here):

I loved Filip’s example of the Nestle milk roads: “When Nestle develops a dairy business in a new country, they need a good road infrastructure as well as local milk which often is of a poorer quality. Now instead of importing high quality milk or relocating when their needs are not met, they change the entire system. They build new roads to bring the milk faster to the factory. They pay the farmers a higher price and offer them low interest loans so they can invest in better stables and so their children don’t need to work but can go to school (schools they have built themselves). They organize veterinary and hygiene programs so the farmers learn to treat their animals better, which results in better quality of milk. So basically what you see here is a private company, upgrading the entire community ecosystem: from farming, distributions, supply chain, schooling, water use and so on. They basically take the whole community to the next level while solving major social problems.”

But ok, this was supposed to be a simple book list, right? True. So, I compiled the books below because, before you start to investigate how your company could add value (instead of extracting it) to the system, it’s important that you broaden your lens on all the possible shifts that this could entail: from a long term (Krznaric) and regenerative (Hawken) mindset or a systems thinking view (Visser) to new types of leadership (Mackey) or even government (Mazzucato).

If you’re the lazy kind (like me) or just not that into business books, you’ll find a podcast compilation at the end to accompany you when you’re on the go. Enjoy!

Curious to join us on a Sustainability Tour?

The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age - Bina Venkataraman (2019)

In The Optimist’s Telescope, Bina Venkataraman - journalist and former adviser in the Obama White House - draws from stories she has reported around the world and new research in biology, psychology, and economics to explain how we can make decisions that benefit us over time. With examples from ancient Pompeii to modern-day Fukushima, she dispels the myth that human nature is impossibly reckless and highlights the surprising practices each of us can adopt in our own livesand the ones we must fight for as a society. The result is a book brimming with the ideas and insights all of us need in order to forge a better future.

Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take - Paul Polman and Andrew Winston (2021)

Runaway climate change and rampant inequality are ravaging the world and costing a fortune. Who will help lead us to a better future? Business. These massive dual challenges—and other profound shifts, such as pandemics, resource pressures, and shrinking biodiversity—threaten our very existence. Other megatrends, such as the push for a clean economy and the unprecedented focus on diversity and inclusion, offer exciting new opportunities to heal the world, and prosper by doing so. Government cannot do this alone. Business must step up.

In this seminal book, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman and sustainable business guru Andrew Winston explode fifty years of corporate dogma. They reveal, for the first time, key lessons from Unilever and other pioneering companies around the world about how you can profit by fixing the world's problems instead of creating them. To thrive today and tomorrow, they argue, companies must become "net positive"—giving more to the world than they take.

Mission Economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism - Mariana Mazzucato (2020)

Taking her inspiration from the ‘moonshot’ programmes which successfully coordinated public and private sectors on a massive scale, Mariana Mazzucato calls for the same level of boldness and experimentation to be applied to the biggest problems of our time.

Mission Economy looks at the grand challenges facing us in a radically new way, arguing that we must rethink the capacities and role of government within the economy and society, and above all recover a sense of public purpose.

Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation - Paul Hawken (2021)

Regeneration offers a visionary new approach to climate change, one that weaves justice, climate, biodiversity, equity, and human dignity into a seamless tapestry of action, policy, and transformation that can end the climate crisis in one generation. It is the first book to describe and define the burgeoning regeneration movement spreading rapidly throughout the world.

Regeneration describes how an inclusive movement can engage the majority of humanity to save the world from the threat of global warming, with climate solutions that directly serve our children, the poor, and the excluded. This means we must address current human needs, not future existential threats, real as they are, with initiatives that include but go well beyond solar, electric vehicles, and tree planting to include such solutions as the fifteen-minute city, bioregions, azolla fern, food localization, fire ecology, decommodification, forests as farms, and the number one solution for the world: electrifying everything.

The Rise of Technosocialism: How Inequality, AI and Climate will Usher in a New World - by Brett King & Richard Petty (2021)

The 21st century is going to be the most disruptive, contentious period humanity has ever lived through. It will challenge our most sacred ideologies around politics, economics, and social constructs. It will force humanity to adapt in ways we can't yet imagine. 

Brett King and Dr. Richard Petty explore the seismic social changes that will be thrust on the world over the coming decades. The Rise of Technosocialism seeks to answer both how our children will live with AI and climate disruption, along with which economies will likely emerge victorious in an always-on, smart world.

The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World - Roman Krznaric (2020)

From the pyramids to the NHS, humankind has always had the innate ability to plan for posterity and take action that will resonate for decades, centuries, even millennia to come. If we want to become good ancestors, now is the time to recover and enrich this imaginative skill.

The Good Ancestor reveals six profound ways in which we can all learn to think long-term, exploring how we can reawaken oft-neglected but uniquely human talents like ‘cathedral thinking’ that expand our time horizons and sharpen our foresight. Drawing on radical solutions from around the world, Krznaric celebrates the innovators who are reinventing democracy, culture and economics so that we all have the chance to become good ancestors and create a better tomorrow.

The Web of Meaning - Jeremy Lent (2021)

Perhaps somewhat more philosophical, but incredibly useful for firing up the change of mindset needed to create a better future, The Web of Meaning offers a coherent foundation for an alternative worldview based on deep interconnectedness. The power of Lent’s book lies in how he illustrates how modern scientific knowledge echoes the ancient wisdom of earlier cultures.

Weaving together findings from modern systems thinking, evolutionary biology, and cognitive neuroscience with insights from Buddhism, Taoism, and Indigenous wisdom, it offers a rigorous and integrated way of understanding our place in the cosmos that can serve as a philosophical foundation for a life-affirming future.

Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business - John Mackey, Steve Mcintosh, Carter Phipps (2020)

John Mackey started a movement when he founded Whole Foods, bringing natural, organic food to the masses and not only changing the market, but breaking the mold. Now, for the first time, Conscious Leadership closely explores the vision, virtues, and mindset that have informed Mackey’s own leadership journey, providing a roadmap for innovative, value-based leadership—in business and in society.

Conscious Leadership demystifies strategies that have helped Mackey shepherd Whole Foods through four decades of incredible growth and innovation, including its recent sale to Amazon. Each chapter will challenge you to rethink conventional business wisdom through anecdotes, case studies, profiles of conscious leaders, and innovative techniques for self-development, culminating in an empowering call to action for entrepreneurs and trailblazers—to step up as leaders who see beyond the bottom line.

Natural Intelligence by Leen Gorissen (2020)

Mushrooms make rain, whales cool the bylimate, termites build islands, foxes green the tundra, and plankton create clouds. In Natural Intelligence, Leen Gorissen, PhD in biology, shares the latest breakthrough insights from biology and makes a solid case for why NI (Natural Intelligence), not AI (Artificial Intelligence), should be at the forefront of business innovation.

Thriving: The Breakthrough Movement to Regenerate Nature, Society, and the Economy - Wayne Visser (February 2022, but can be preordered)

Thriving shows how innovation can regenerate nature, society, and the economy by taking us from degradation to restoration of ecosystems, from depletion to renewal of resources, from disparity to responsibility in communities, from disease to revitalization of health, from disconnection to rewiring through technology, and from disruption to resilience of infrastructure and institutions.

Thriving is not an exercise in blind optimism about technology or other miracle-cure solutions; rather, it is an accessible approach to systems thinking and an offer of pragmatic hope based on purpose-driven creativity and innovation. Whether you’re a progressive leader, a professional in the sustainability field, or someone who simply wants to be better informed about ways to take positive action, this might be the guide for you.

Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire - Rebecca Henderson (2020)

Free market capitalism is one of humanity's greatest inventions and the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen. But this success has been costly. Capitalism is on the verge of destroying the planet and destabilizing society as wealth rushes to the top. The time for action is running short.

Renowned Harvard professor Rebecca Henderson's rigorous research in economics, psychology, and organizational behavior, as well as her many years of work with companies around the world, give us a path forward. She debunks prevailing orthodoxy with a new intellectual foundation and a practical pathway forward for a system that has lost its moral and ethical foundation.

Regenerative Business Models, Powered by Emerging Technologies - Jessica Groopman, Jaimy Szymanski, and Jeremiah Owyang

It’s not a book (yet?), but this piece from Kaleido Insights offers some deep insights into how “sustainability” efforts aren’t just the beginning of the end of “business as usual,” but the critical bridge to building resilience for the long-term. They show how the next generation of business and technologies are regenerative, designed to align markets in service of people and the planet.

Curious to join us on a Sustainability Tour?

Additional suggestions by our network:

Suggested by Futures Strategist Martine Delannoy: "Solving Public Problems", by Beth Simone Noveck (2021): We as a society are confronted with wicked issues. Many organizations are attempting to solve these but with little success. This book describes a step-by-step approach to make the most of the collective intelligence to effectively and creatively come up with solutions in a co-creative fashion. This type of feasible methods to solve the core issues is what we need to help us move towards a better future.

Suggested by Industry Analyst Jessica Groopman: Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, by Kate Raworth (2018): Raworth handpicks the best emergent ideas--from ecological, behavioral, feminist, and institutional economics to complexity thinking and Earth-systems science--to address this question: How can we turn economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, into economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow?

Suggested by Mark Aink, Brandactivist, Firestarter and Connector: THRIVE by Kees Klomp and Shinta Oosterwaal: 24 essays with contributions of worldclass new thinkers on economics Kate Raworth, Charles Eisenstein, Clair Brown, Helena Norberg-Hodge and Daniel C. Wahl and many more. They share the alternatives that are available to us, such as doughnut economics, wellbeing economics, common good economics, regenerative economics, buddhist economics, commons economics, local economics, bioregional economics, indigenous economics and degrowth economics. Each of these approaches provides a realistic and enticing vision of a thriving future.

Suggested by Leen Gorissen, Founder & CEO Centre4NI, Writer & Innovation Biologist: She’s a big fan of the work of Jan Jonker on new business models because we can only change the logic of our value creation models once we have the courage to break out of the one-dimensional tunnel vision where value creation is only about money. Jonker’s new book 'Organising for Sustainability’ (Palgrave/Springer) is available Open Access. He also made a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) based on the book consisting of seven chapters and 54 units, also Open Access.

For those of you who aren’t avid readers or just want a taste of the authors before they buy the book, here’s a podcast list featuring all of them. By the way, if you bumped into this piece via our social media channels, tell us in the comments if we need to add any other recent books!

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 28, 2021
SDG & Sustainability