Every year, leaders from across the globe gather in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss the most pressing issues facing the world and plan for the future.
But thinking about what's coming next is not just the preserve of multinational chief executives.
Every good business leader thinks about future-proofing their company. They spend hours thinking about how and when to expand or diversify and where the next opportunity lies.
Sounds easy, but this kind of horizon gazing is hard. Time is precious, information is plentiful but not always accessible or reliable, and big change is notoriously difficult to manage.
Listening to the debate in Davos got me thinking about the long-term trends that will have the greatest impact on the businesses I work with. Here are my top six:
1. Watch out for Gen Z
Now 70 million strong, Gen Z'ers were born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s and are the first generation of true digital natives. They're known for their strong sense of community and desire to positively influence the world through their work. The eldest of this cohort are starting to enter the workplace and are likely to be managed by millennials, another group with strong views on job satisfaction. Successful brands will respond by developing strategies to address these groups, as employees and as consumers. And those companies which live up to their values and understand how to do business in the digital age will be at a competitive advantage. For instance, it's been shown that ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to outperform their peers.
2. From 'Like' to 'Buy,' we are social shoppers
More people are buying via social media platforms. When these consumers see a product that they like, they want to be able to buy it there and then. While social shopping is still in its infancy, research suggests it could generate revenues of $165 billion globally by 2021. Brands seeking to attract these consumers will need to dial up their social media strategies and move from "Like" to "Buy" buttons, putting their products just a click away from savvy shoppers.
3. Green is the new black
Consuming ethically has become more important in recent years. Many people today say they are interested in ethical and environmentally friendly products. It follows that if brands want to be commercially successful, they will have to meet these new consumer expectations. Big companies are acting on this. Smaller firms, too, are looking at their ecosystem of buyers and suppliers to make sure everyone meets their standards. This is not surprising, because if just one company fails consumers, it puts the reputation of all parties at risk – just like a domino effect.
4. Trade skips borders
Services such as tourism, finance and education are expected to account for 25 percent of global trade by 2030. Digital technology makes new markets more accessible and more and more small firms are expanding overseas virtually, without ever setting foot abroad. This is a game-changer for trade, with expansion now being as much about a click of a button as bricks and mortar.
Today just 0.5 percent of the world's population use blockchain (or distributed ledger technology). But adoption is so rapid across so many industries that experts predict the market will be worth $20 billion by 2024. While some firms are already pioneering the technology, every leader should know how blockchain is being applied to their sector, what proof of concepts have been developed and if there are any collaborative ventures they can join.
6. The AI march continues
Another tech buzzword, artificial intelligence, continues its march into "business as usual." It's predicted that AI bots (applications performing automated tasks) will underpin 85 percent of customer service interactions by 2020, and that this technology could increase productivity by at least 40 percent by 2035. The most promising uses for business include customer segmentation, in which advanced analytics can be used to identify new customer trends, and segments or clusters of people who are more likely to be interested in a particular product.
Business leaders who not only understand these trends but act on them are more likely to find competitive advantage.
That's because by future-proofing your firm over the long-term you win new customers, attract the brightest talent and anticipate where the best opportunities lie. And that is something common to every successful business, from the smallest start up to the largest multinational.
Noel P. Quinn is chief executive of global commercial banking at HSBC Group. Based in London, he is responsible for HSBC's relationships with about 2 million small, medium and large business customers in Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, North America and Latin America.