Nearly 200 of Northern Ireland's key businesses joined last week in an all-day session organised by Business in the Community to consider 'The Future For Good Business'.
To the credit of Business in the Community the conference had two major strengths.
First, an active debate was launched into the challenges that business should anticipate in a future looking well beyond the current recession.
Second, the agenda helped to identify what should be the characteristics of 'good' business and how this links with acceptable levels of corporate social responsibility.
The tone of the dialogue was set by early statements from Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher (and owner of B&Q), and Ian Coulter, local chairman of the CBI, which was co-sponsoring the day.
This event integrated competitiveness and profitability along with corporate social responsibility.
There was no plea that for either moral or social reasons, business should, or needs to, lose sight of normal commercial objectives.
What was in evidence was a search for options incorporating the notions of 'good business' as opposed to business that was unnecessarily passive to questions of sustainability and other forms of environmental damage.
Two groups had little or no profile. First, the unreconstructed 'green wash' brigade was muted or absent. Second, the fatalists who reject the need to accommodate any 'green agenda' and deny the merits of tackling climate change were inconspicuous.
The core feature was a search for a successful economy based on competitive strengths and constrained by choices which acknowledged the central role of sustainability. For a Northern Ireland business audience, this was an unusual combination of realism and commercial ambition.
In the search for 'good business' there was an acknowledgement that good business will evolve in a changing environment. Local case studies reporting on longer-term business plans affecting people, place and the planet were presented.
The mind bending contribution came from Baroness Susan Greenfield. For those who had not heard her speak before, this was a show stopping moment. Indeed for some who had heard her before or had read some of her writings, there was the challenge of gaining an even better appreciation of her contribution to our understanding of the evolution of human capability and its implications for life styles, working demands and changing environments.
A combination of the intellectual challenge from Baroness Greenfield and the pragmatic anticipation of social, economic and environmental change as summarised by Prof David Grayson from Cranfield University was enough to shatter any complacency that a 'do nothing' approach would or could be sensible.
Critical parts of the scale and impact of commercial and environmental change in the next 50 years can be identified. For those who need to be persuaded, a backward look is instructive. Fifty years ago, the PC was still only an engineering and electronic dream and the mobile phone was yet to emerge.
When account is taken of future trends and the implications for business, business executives were asked to consider the likely impact of:
- the emergence of the economies of China and India,
- the effects of changed demand and supplies of raw materials and oil,
- a 50% increase in the world demand for energy,
- a 50% increase in the demand for food and water,
- a doubling in the numbers of elderly people in the population.
Even these simple statements point to consequences for local business and living standards. Unless there is a large impact of innovation on our productivity, there is a prospect of poor income growth, higher prices for goods and services, greater expectations on health and social care and, not least, a need to extend the working lives of people (well above 65) who will be living longer healthier lives.
Good business needs well informed planning and intelligent anticipation.