In this new era, businesses will transform from being profit-driven to purpose-led

Our world today is entering a new era.

The United Nations (UN) have been advocating a paradigm shift from GDP to Gross National Happiness (GNH) since 2012, championing a new vision of well-being and happiness. The term GNH1 , as conceived by the King of Bhutan, calls upon us to recognise the non-monetary aspects of well-being, including social equity, quality of environment, and cultural flourishing – all integral to comprehensive human welfare.

Whilst our economic system remains somewhat lagging, around the world, multilateral organisations, businesses, and investors alike are waking up to the shifting times. Many businesses, investors, and individuals are evolving from greed and ignorance driven by narrow- self-interest, towards long-term, holistic well-being, powered by enlightened self-interest. This free-market economy is transitioning towards being purpose-driven and no longer focussing on short-term, narrowly defined profits. Indeed, CEOs and business leaders are awakening to their responsibilities to serve as stewards of our times.

Motivations of Humanity Have Evolved Over Time

The dawn of civilisation was marked by humans transitioning through a hunting-gathering phase, into what some may dub the agricultural “subsistence era”, where well-being is equivalent to producing enough to meet our needs for survival. This was reasonable, given that there was often not enough agricultural produce or livestock to feed everyone across local villages.

The rapid growth in agricultural production, taking place between the 14th to 17th centuries in ancient China (Ming Dynasty)2 , the 16th to 18th centuries in India (Mughal Era)3 , and the 17th to 19th centuries in the Anglo-European world4 , amongst others, brought societies to the stage where food and crop production was sufficient for humanity then. Human civilisation then began to grow rapidly, resulting in the development of large-scale production of goods to meet increasing consumption patterns.

A combination of imperialism, the advent of capitalism, and the Agricultural Revolution spurred the Industrial Revolution. As we entered the industrial era, demarcated by three waves of breakthroughs (respectively, mechanical production with steam and water, power, production capacity and technological transformations, and digitalisation), our priorities shifted to producing more and more goods and services at as low costs as possible.

With the progress of technology driving civilisation evolution, we have gradually but surely been increasingly turning humans into machines, whilst machines are becoming more human. In so doing, we have also come to lose sight of our original sense of power of creativity, and, in its stead, focus on production.

In This New Era, Businesses Will Transform from Being Profit-Driven to Purpose-Led.

Today, we have become addicted to short-term material stimuli, where a marketing economy preying on our vanity, indulgence, and greed, has driven us to become fixated on over- consumption. The free-market economy, failing to reflect our enlightened self-interest, has opted instead for a form of the invisible hand that focusses narrowly on short term gains and narrowly defined profit-maximising, thus driving up intense competition and obsessive profit- seeking.

Distributive Inequalities Divide Us, Sustainable Wealth Co-creation Unites Us

The world we live in does not struggle with the pie size. Instead, we are struggling with ensuring that everyone has access to a slice of the pie. In 2023, the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of all countries in the world amounts to a staggering 105 trillion USD, with 60.5 trillion concentrated in advanced economies, with a little under 14% of the world’s population. The remaining 86% of the world’s population possess 44.5 billion of our wealth.5 The global GDP per capita was 12,600USD in 2021, comparable to that of China’s. Indeed, on a per capita mean GDP level, there is enough to go around for everyone.6

What we have on hand here is a distribution issue, not a wealth issue. Today, the world economy is predominantly a marketing-driven economy with multinational corporations focussing on quarter-to-quarter performances with short-term financial dividends taken to be the key indicator of board and leadership successes. The fixation upon maximising gains, leveraging on human vanity, has denatured the role of businesses.

Today, businesses are no longer serving society. Indeed, the market is manipulated by businesses, instead of being driven by society. This has given rise to a growing gap between the rich and the poor across the world. Endless environmental resource extraction and exploitation, inefficient oligopolies and dominant firms crowding out smaller players, and corporate practices precipitating the disintegration of social and communal fabric are excused in name of competition.

We need a new paradigm of economics. The so-called social contract businesses are working with today, is not aligned with the interests of the market they purportedly serve. Global challenges from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance and ability for collaboration across national, economic, and social boundaries.

The rise and fall of human civilisation have been a reflection of the success and failure of human collaboration. In this new era, we must unite on a common journey, to flourish across eras and throughout time. Humanity must connect with our inner, true selves, and to make ease with the external environs – the times we live in, present a clarion call for new consciousness of life. Business is by far most efficient institution to serve human desires, and it is high time that businesses evolve their consciousness, and focus on adding value, to co-create wealth and foster the well-being needed for all life to flourish.

Enlightened Self-Interest, the Means of Reviving the Social Contract

As a Baby Boomer, I was born in the ‘Hippy Era’ and grew up in the ‘Yuppy Era’. With the advent of unbridled globalisation, came the ‘Greedy Era’. Today, we stand on the cusp of another radical transformation, from the ‘Greedy Era’ to the ‘Happy Era’. In this era of well- being and happiness, a journey towards love and joy is foundational. Around the world, people are waking up to a very simple truth: where there is love, there is joy. True joy can only come from the love of humanity – a willingness to give, to engage in selfless forms of philanthropy, and to celebrate life. The dividend of joy is much more than just money. It is rooted in an enlightened form of self-interest.

The UN shift towards GNH highlights that lasting joy cannot be found through monetary or materialist enrichment. Only loving relationships can generate deep and enduring meaning, from which we derive well-being. After all, the market economy must serve the global human culture of flourishing. This expanded conception of self-interest in Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, takes our well-being as individuals, as inseparable and embedded within the collective. Our interests are best served when we are well – when our life systems, and hence the universe, are fundamentally coherent. Well-being is coherence between the individuals and society. It is coherence between our internal and external realities. It is the miraculous synchronicity between humanity and nature. Indeed, our awakening to this new economic paradigm is only natural – as the Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs7 reveals, upon the achievement of physiological and safety needs, more and more people will shift naturally towards the pursuit of love, esteem, and then self-actualisation.

To unlock this holistic vision of well-being, we need a consciousness shift, one that revives the sense of ethics and stewardship of life. Consciousness is the mother of all capital, which shall give rise to new solutions to our sustainability challenges. Indeed, we all share one common life purpose, to add value to the world. Philanthropy is the expression of love to make impact – it is a way of life, an ethos, a mindset focusing on adding value to the collective of which we are a part. Philanthropy is a practice in and of living, a prerequisite for a life of authenticity and being.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs8 , is a helpful framework developed by the UN. The SDGs are integrated: “one action in one area will affect outcomes in others”, and all goals are anchored in advancing social, economic, and environmental sustainability.9 At the core of SDGs lies the tenet that humanity is well when it finds coherence with the whole life system of nature. When humanity is well, that’s when joy, love, and passion come organically together, steering our politics, societies, and economy towards more enduring stability and harmony. The SDG No. 17, on partnership for the advancement of these goals, is core, as it drives collaboration – to set aside differences, to pool resources and efforts together as one.

How Businesses can Transform to Become Purpose-led

Businesses are drivers of the economy. Therefore, they must lead this transformation through a consciousness shift, to rejuvenate the free market – one rooted in an expanded and comprehensive understanding of well-being. Fear, as a driving force, would only cause businesses to come apart. Hope is the force that brings us to true happiness.

Purpose-led business management would take the lead in the resolution of today’s sustainability challenges, stark inequalities, and large-scale disenfranchisement and alienation. Some pioneering businesses are taking the lead in adding value, making impact, and serving their communities and societies. From the incorporation of ESG, to the rise of green bonds, select investors and stock exchanges are responding to the calling of the new era – that calling is love, the energy that guides consciousness evolution towards solution to all our challenges. Yet more must be done.

The change is already happening. Around us, many are quickly awakening to the reality that change is the only constant – this is the logic of constant evolution. We must co-create, harness the prowess of the market in converting greed and selfish wants into forces for good for humanity – hence enlightened self-interest. We must meet the challenges of the era by transforming the way we think, relate, and empathise with one another. We can be a part of the story of human success – one of organic collaboration, as opposed to vicious competition.

Businesses must first recognise that purpose-led action requires integrating their entireties – from executives and board members through to frontliner employees – with a common purpose, to advance the interests of all, as one connected whole and not as separate parts. The age of separation has given rise to a worldview that artificially drives a wedge between “I” and “You”, “I” and “We”, inducing individuals to see themselves as separable from and independent of the collective.

Through the “I to We” journey, we align our thinking and actions to value add towards collective, communal well-being of the wider community. There can be no “I” without “We”, and we shift consciously as we unite, as “I in We”. Eventually, this spiral of consciousness shift culminates in the epiphany that “I am We”. The individual is the collective. In this state, businesses give and receive joy – this is the new business model for the market economy.

Businesses must also embrace the ascent of impact investment and ESG as a means of transforming their investment and market decisions. When there is systemic coherency, there is clarity in purpose for the individual, who would be driven to add value to life – this is impact. Power is where there is coherence and alignment. In pursuing impacts, businesses should seek to gain greater insights into the outcomes of their own activities through internal assessment reports, open deliberation within companies, and constructive community engagement rooted in evaluating the many dimensions of their holistic impact.

Corporate and C-suite leaders have a responsibility for the well-being of their organisations, foster a culture that values connection, love, and philanthropy as core principles. Candid reflections over corporate culture, management and personnel practices, and the values and mission undergirding the corporation, are most needed in facilitating this shift towards a purpose-driven business model that eventually benefits everyone. When business is purpose- led and not driven by myopic short-termism, we will get real alignment between business with communal needs.

This new world has dawned upon us – regulation, financing, and social pressures are jointly enabling its arrival. ESG is facilitating this transition and impact investment is key in directing business value contribution. The question is, are we ready to embrace it?


This article was originally produced for Bloomberg’s CEO Forum at Asean.