For Britain to thrive post-Brexit, it needs programmes such as Water Explorer to train our young people to think globally and act locally, says Jeremy Oppenheim, McKinsey director and chair of Global Action Plan
Brexit doesn’t just mean Brexit. The referendum result hammered home a desire for an end to politics and business as usual. For the UK, it means reshaping our role on the world stage. For businesses, it should also mean an intense look at what kind of world we want to build.
We know that the biggest problems – climate change, the refugee crisis or mass youth unemployment – need cross-border solutions. For big business, now is the time to step up to these challenges, and look at how their global position can help solve them for the next generation.
The charity that I chair, Global Action Plan (GAP), is already working with HSBC on exactly this. Over the past two years, our Water Explorer programme has worked with over 90,000 school students in 11 countries, taking action on water scarcity and sanitation for all.
These young people have learnt to look at water in a totally different way from any previous generation: as their responsibility, as a resource that connects them with people across the world.
Business already understands this truth. Risks to water supply mean more business interruption and more conflict over scarce water resources. It means opportunities missed in new markets for ‘smart water’ products and services, in investment in better water infrastructure – a global market for water and sanitation estimated to be worth in the region of £150bn per year.
So imagine if business could also help equip children – society’s future leaders and consumers – to start solving these challenges instead of just feeling helpless in the face of their immensity?
Water Explorer and SDGs
A good starting point is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Their purpose is to put an end to extreme poverty, protect our natural resources, and ensure a socially just and equal society for everyone. Without progress on these goals, businesses cannot thrive. Our children will not grow up to see a better world. In a world of inequality, we all suffer.
We need to create a global movement of children who get the SDGs. Young people who understand the connections between global markets and society and that we must work together to solve global challenges – and not leave anyone behind.
Since 2000, the world has seen extreme poverty more than halved and business has been central to this success story. To meet the SDGs, business can and must play a greater role, to spark an era of shared prosperity and increased sustainability. Getting our citizens to be global in their thinking is crucial to this.
Students in Water Explorer have already had a huge impact in their own communities and are collaborating across continents to solve local and global water challenges.
However, it is the long-term change in attitudes and values that we are taking a particular interest in. For example, the programme’s focus on water scarcity has enabled students and teachers in Germany to understand why there are so many refugees coming to their communities, and to advocate on their behalf.
In Italy, cultural relationships with water have been used to explore the similarities between classmates, helping to integrate new students from war-torn countries into the school community.
In the post-Brexit world, the UK – and the world – needs citizens who have the skills and outlook that programmes such as Water Explorer deliver.
Whether that is consumers who demand the highest standards of ethical and sustainable production, staff who can spot sustainable business opportunities offered by new markets, or students who champion diversity and recognise their role as global citizens.
Businesses must invest in the next generation through education, through programmes such as Water Explorer, to help our young people to both think globally and act locally.