There is no going back – forward to a new form of growth

This is the first in a series of articles called Leaders Speak, which are authored by the CEOs of the companies that make up Europe Delivers, a business partnership working to build future-fit growth in Europe.

Henrik Henriksson

CEO, Scania

Osvald Bjelland

CEO, Xynteo

Among the many hard lessons of the pandemic is this: growth matters. When growth stalls – as it has in the eurozone, where the economy will shrink by over 8% in 2020 – bad things happen. Families lose their livelihoods; essential public investments dry up; and the disadvantaged lose what little margin they may have previously had.

But let’s be clear: there is no going back. The growth we have relied on in the past is not the growth we need in the future. We cannot go back to a system that squeezes the middle class and the vulnerable; sabotages our climate; and runs up unpayable debts for our children and grandchildren.

The flaws of our economic model were clear even before this virus upended our daily lives and sent our economies into freefall. The pandemic has simply illuminated the truth in neon lights. It’s time to reinvent growth – and we need to do it fast.

The pandemic has made this imperative both easier and harder. Harder because it looks set to deepen lines between the have and the have nots here and abroad: lockdown added another percentage point to Europe’s pre-COVID unemployment levels, putting us in a 15 million-sized hole.

At the same time, the pandemic has proved our capacity to pivot at pace. In the first few months of 2020, European industry kept the lights on while sending something like 80 million home to work. This upheaval was enabled by an unprecedented acceleration in digitalisation – achieving in a handful of weeks what had been projected to occur over two to five years.

Now we need to apply this pace not to ‘keeping the lights on’ but to reinvention – creating a practice of growth that works with nature, not against it; that benefits the many, not the few; and that creates value across generations, not quarters.

In Europe this paradigm shift – towards a zero-carbon, job-rich, just and competitive economy – is well-supported. So, let’s not spend more time talking about the why; we need now to zoom in on the how.

How will we get to zero-emission power generation? How will we reorient our transportation systems around clean and affordable energy? How will we reengineer our food system to provide the right nutrients in the right amounts without depleting our soil and destabilising our climate? How can we prepare our workforces to run the industries of a much more digital future? How can we repair our social contract, putting an end to the polarisation and mistrust that make the governance we need so hard?

Sometimes, as we size up jobs as big as these, we tend to look for ‘moonshot’ solutions. And while looking beyond the technological horizon is a critical leadership task, the danger is that we miss what is right in front of us. We have an enormous arsenal of know-how and proven, commercially-feasible technology at our disposal; let´s deploy it.

This is why Europe Delivers is focused resolutely on driving impact – now. Our partners – companies with a combined revenue of around USD 600 billion and over 500,000 employees – are leading projects that apply their commercial competence to human problems.

Mastercard is spearheading a project to incubate digital solutions to provide financial security for our burgeoning gig workforce. Verizon is working to map the unchartered territory of the future of work we want. And Scania is building a value chain of companies working with policymakers to unleash the bioeconomy, with the power to move us closer to our 1.5 degree target while providing 1 million new green jobs by 2030.

We are not alone. There are countless examples of European companies – from Ørsted to IKEA and Neste – not just talking about a new approach to competition but actually implementing new, competitive business models that empower society. 

We are investing in this way because it makes commercial sense. Across all of the industries we represent, none of our markets tolerates businesses that profit at the expense of society.

But we are also doing this because we believe that by transforming our businesses, we are strengthening Europe. And at this time of global precariousness, we believe Europe has a critical role to play. It has problems, to be sure, but we also see its capacity for innovation (12 of the world’s 20 most innovative economies call Europe home) as well as its track record of collaboration, hard-won after centuries of strife.

For all the anguish crises like this cause, they can also focus the mind. The desolation wrought by World War 2 rallied the energies of a wide set of parties around a set of core values that became part of Europe’s bedrock: a preference for collaboration over every-man-for-himself strategies; an institutional intolerance for inequality and injustice; and the responsibility of governments to serve electorates (and not the other way around). And in recent decades we have seen Europe take an ever stronger stand on climate leadership, which is on vibrant display in the European Green Deal.

Those who look only to the past, JFK said, are certain to miss the future. We do not want to return to the past. But let us use Europe’s historical advantages in service of our shared future. We hope that all European business leaders will lean in and join us in the effort. Our times demand nothing less.

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Henrik Henriksson (left) is CEO of Scania and chair of Europe Delivers. Osvald Bjelland (right) is founder and CEO of Xynteo, which runs Europe Delivers on behalf of partners DB Schenker, ManpowerGroup, Mastercard, Scania, Shell, Verizon and Yara.