Future of the Corporation

A major research and engagement programme examining the purpose of business and its role in society, led by Professor Colin Mayer FBA, Professor of Management at the Saїd Business School.
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The Future of the Corporation programme is the British Academy’s review of the role of business in society. It combines research from a range of academic disciplines with insight from senior business and policy leaders. In 2018, it highlighted trust in business and its impact on people and the environment along with globalisation and technological disruption as drivers of a shifting view of business. The research suggested a need to develop a new, more human framework for the corporation around well-defined and aligned purposes, complemented by ethical cultures and commitments to trustworthiness. Professor Colin Mayer, the Academic Lead for the programme, drew together the research and defined the purpose of business as:

Producing profitable solutions from the problems of people and planet, and not profiting from creating problems.

Since early 2020, we have been living through a crisis few could have anticipated. The COVID-19 pandemic has exaggerated the fault-lines across society. Business is no exception and the crisis is shining new light on the issues that have been driving the shift to purposeful business in recent years.

What does this type of business look like? How can we shift from an ecosystem of policies and practices driven almost entirely by financial goals to one focused on purposes that solve problems? In 2019, the Future of the Corporation programme explored the issues in more depth with a range of experts, business leaders and academics. The conclusion was a set of eight principles for purposeful business. Since publishing these principles, the programme has been examining on how they can be applied with a series of Purpose Labs - small workshops gathering and developing ideas for changes to policy and practice - and a complementary series of major Purpose Summits - large events with leading figures from business, policy and academia. The result is a comprehensive framework applying the principles to the UK as a starting point. The conclusions are published in our final report, Policy and Practice for Purposeful Business.

A diagram showing accountability and implementation mechanisms to put purpose at the heart of business.
A diagram showing accountability and implementation mechanisms to put purpose at the heart of business.

This final report argues for a coherent package of changes to policy and practice that together support the implementation of corporate purposes and hold decision-makers to account for them. It summarises the findings of over four years of research, engagement, polling and collaboration with other initiatives that there is a growing appetite for purposeful business, including from business itself, investors, policymakers, regulators, employees, consumers and other stakeholders.

We conclude that a permissive legal, regulatory, governance and reporting framework is required to enable and encourage purposeful business, and the UK has such a framework. But in the UK there is insufficient accountability for, and implementation of, purposeful business. Few companies take up the option that exists within the law to adopt purposes beyond promoting shareholder interests, and there is insufficient appreciation and enforcement of directors’ duties under the law. Internationally, initiatives are currently in progress to ensure that companies and investors report their environmental and social impacts, but there has been insufficient focus on measuring, valuing and incentivising corporate purpose.

With a supportive legal, regulatory, governance and reporting framework in place, there are two mechanisms that together are required to deliver coherent reform:

  1. Accountability: using the legal, regulatory, governance and reporting framework to hold companies to account for complying with corporate purposes of profitably solving problems of people and planet and not profiting from creating them; and,
  2. Implementation: ownership, measurement, finance, innovation and investment through which people harness the potential of markets to deliver profitable solutions which benefit customers, the workforce, investors, communities, society and the environment.

The report contains 18 proposals, using these mechanisms to put purpose at the heart of the policy and practice that determines how business operates. It also refers to a series of policy starting points that are already in motion and are current, realistic prospects for change that applies the principles set out by the Future of the Corporation programme.

What can you do? All parts of society have a role to play in achieving this as customers, communities, employees, academics, educators, teachers, journalists, public figures and individuals from every walk of life and every part of the world. It is in the power of all of us to effect the change that is needed and enhance still further the remarkable contribution that business has made to our lives to date. An agenda for change needs leadership, but in a world of great transparency and growing complexity, every voice matters. We are all part of the business ecosystem and we can all use the influence we have to put purpose at the heart of business in the 21st century.

We would love to hear reactions and responses and if you would like to to discuss these findings or know more about the programme, please email the team on [email protected].


Partner publications

Enacting Purpose Within the Modern Corporation: A Framework for Boards of Directors

A report providing guidance to boards of directors on how to enact purpose. It draws on research findings from different academic disciplines together with best practice insights from some of the UK and continental Europe’s leading businesses and institutions.

An interview with Professor Colin Mayer for Brunswick Social Value Review

An interview with Professor Colin Mayer FBA on the conclusion of the Future of the Corporation's final report with Advisory Group member, Lucy Parker. Professor Mayer talks about the aims of the programme and expands on its proposition that business is about solving problems, as well as highlighting its recommendations to embed purpose in business practice, policy and education.

Partners and Supporters

The British Academy would like to thank the following partners and supporters for their support of the Future of the Corporation programme.

If you would like more information about becoming a partner or supporter of the programme, please contact Michelle Waterman, Head of Development on 020 7969 5290.

Principal supporters

Associate supporter

Corporate partners

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