This article was first published in The Business Times, Singapore on Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 5:50 AM.

Family-owned businesses in Asia, now increasingly led by a new generation of leaders, can show the way in which globalisation can work as a force for good.

With the global success of Crazy Rich Asians, it is no longer a secret that there are some very powerful and rich families in Asia that can, and have, the responsibility to address the long-term sustainability of people living on this planet. 

GLOBALISATION - the broad catch-all term we use to describe global labour flows, global trading of ideas and products and global supply chains - is under the spotlight as never before. At a macro level, critics are feeling vindicated watching the cracks in the current version of globalisation begin to deepen, as citizens who feel left behind and unheard are driving political and economic shocks, and fuelling a growing tide of nationalism and populism.

Assessing globalisation through the lens of sustainable development paints an equally challenging picture. Globalisation is driving a significant uptick in the demand for resources, which many see as an inevitable partner to economic prosperity, but this demand, and the subsequent challenges of ballooning waste streams, is placing unprecedented strain on our fragile planet.

Yet conversely, there are ways in which globalisation is enabling more sustainable development. For example, new technologies (such as the ubiquitous blockchain) are allowing access to finance for rural smallholders, for whom availability of capital has been a serious impediment to their ability to achieve sustainable livelihoods.

As it evolves, we need to understand the answer to one critical question: How can globalisation 2.0 deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? And within this question, prompted by a session at the annual Singapore Institute of Directors Conference held on Sept 7, at Forum for the Future, we are also asking: What is the specific role of Asian businesses?

To begin to answer this question, we first need to understand the context in which we ask it. That means being clear that the sustainability challenges we need to grapple with to deliver the SDGs are hugely systemic in their nature - complex, multi-faceted and multi-causal. The solution to systemic challenges requires system-wide change - harnessing the constant flows and developments in the system around us to create new, sustainable ways of bringing goods and services to market.

Against this backdrop of the urgent need for globalisation to become an enabler of sustainable development, and the need to take a systems approach to address systemic sustainability challenges, there are at least three manifest opportunities for Asian businesses:

  • Problem solving is shifting east: As traditional boundaries within global supply chains blur, the perception of supply-chain risk is evolving into an opportunity for leadership and creation of business value, particularly upstream.

Digitally-enabled transparency and traceability across global supply chains has made what was previously invisible visible. Consumer-facing brands can no longer "outsource the problem", and are being asked to take responsibility not just for their own operations and the final product, but everything that happens beforehand in the supply chain. As ever, visibility has both pros and cons.

Companies which operate "upstream" at the start of the supply chain - the raw material producers, the farmers, plantation owners, manufacturers, processors - many of whom are in Asia, face growing pressure from customers and consumers to live up to global expectations of social and environmental responsibility. This can put real cost and reputational pressure on already-tight margins.

But it also means that for the first time, upstream players have access to a wider audience beyond their direct customers. And as traditional boundaries between upstream and downstream blur, we are seeing a growing appetite from these companies to turn what was traditionally viewed as "supply-chain risk" into an opportunity for leadership in sustainability and the creation of future business value. The opportunities span from circular-economy solutions in apparel that can only be driven by a manufacturer, to new and innovative approaches that ensure worker wellbeing on plantations, which can only be driven by the plantation owners themselves.

  • Small, yes. Without influence, no: The rise of value networks, a decentralised model driving new connections and inclusivity, gives smaller actors a voice and influence.

At Forum for the Future, we understand that working with the "big" players in any region is a powerful way to drive systems change. This is particularly true for South-east Asia, be these big-players MNCs, big conglomerates or government-linked companies.

But what is also clear, particularly when taking a systems lens, is that power and influence also sits with the small and medium-sized players in the region. Whether it's the SMEs that account for more than half of Singapore's GDP, or the smallholder farmers in agricultural production in South-east Asia, these individuals and organisations also have a role to play in delivering the SDGs.

However, smaller organisations and individual smallholders can feel powerless. Yet these vital players are possibly the most powerful bloc in South-east Asia. This is why the concept of value networks can be opportunity to harness this influence and underpin more sustainable business models.

A value network describes social and technical resources within and between businesses. The nodes in a value network represent people, or roles, connected by interactions that represent tangible and intangible deliverables. It is a way of conceptualising the flow of goods and services to market that is not purely predicated on financial transaction, but recognises the value of social and environmental assets.

In this model, community land rights become just as important as price per dollar for a given commodity, and decentralised ownership structures are workable. Without smallholders, agricultural productivity would plummet. Understanding the role and importance of small holders and their land within any given value network allows us to understand how to evolve our current, linear business models, into ones capable of allowing all actors, big and small, to flourish.

  • The next generation coming of age: A new generation of leadership has emerged, often within family-owned structures.

Asian businesses are shaping global markets, making investments outside of the region, and with that, comes a whole new set of expectations and responsibilities. And with the global success of the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, it is no longer a secret that there are some very powerful and rich families in Asia that can, and have, the responsibility to address the long-term sustainability of people living on this planet.

We are simultaneously seeing a new generation of leaders step up. Many of this generation, including young leaders in Singapore, have a global outlook, and do not shy away from the idea of an Asian company leading on the global stage. In the case of family-owned or family-controlled businesses, there is the added responsibility of charting a sustainable future for a business legacy built up by previous generations, many of whom were the pioneers of the booming Asian economies we see today.

This next generation has an unparalleled opportunity to harness its wealth to drive sustainable development through investing in new business models and innovations; in other words, using their risk-tolerant capital to lead the market to deliver sustainable products and services.

How? By setting a long-term vision for sustainability that ensures all decisions lead in the direction of a greater goal, but also identifying the high-impact quick wins to focus on in the short term. This is the practical way in which we can address the fact that many Asian conglomerates have complex business structures that straddle multiple sectors, geographies and governance systems, which can make it hard to know how to start thinking about sustainability beyond strategic projects.

There is no doubt that as globalisation evolves, traditional power structures are shifting, decentralising and diffusing. Within this shift, there is an amazing opportunity for Asian businesses to harness this energy and help create the emergence of a new pattern for business. Leaders from business, government and society alike need to recognise this opportunity, and collaborate in constructive dialogue and partnership with one another to evolve globalisation as we know it, in which it truly becomes a force for good.