The Future of the Corporation programme was launched in 2017 and concluded its main phase of activity in 2021. Its extensive research and engagement helped to reframe the role of business in society, with new thinking and evidence to elaborate on why purpose is crucial to business success and how policy and practice should support business to be more purposeful. It continues to support focused initiatives applying these findings.
Business is a global force contributing to the development and prosperity of our society. But is the corporation adequately equipped and structured to deal with the challenges of our future? How can it make our society better, and more prosperous for everyone? The Future of the Corporation programme engaged a range of business, government, policy, civil society and academic stakeholders to examine some of the most challenging questions facing business.
The programme found that purpose is crucial to business success and business exists for more than just increasing returns to shareholders, as Milton Friedman would have it. In fact, work on the history of business highlights that it has always had broader purposes, but that recent law, regulation and practice trends have narrowed its aims. The programme set out a new framing for the reason business exists: to profitably solve the problems of people and planet, while not profiting from creating problems. The programme's extensive research and engagement, presented in three landmark reports, elaborate on this proposition, exploring the rationale, the wider trends, the multi-disciplinary evidence and the policy implications. All of the research and reports are fully and freely available on these web pages.
While the programme has been completed, some targeted follow-up initiatives continue, in particular those focusing on law and regulation, and the application of these findings to business teaching. We continue to welcome responses and suggestions from the ever-growing community of people who are interested in the ideas and practices associated with purposeful business.
What is the Future of the Corporation?
Corporations were originally established with clear public purposes. It is only over the last half century that corporate purpose has come to be equated solely with profit. This has been damaging for corporations’ role in society, trust in business and the impact that business has had on the environment, inequality and social cohesion. In addition, globalisation and technological advances are exacerbating problems of regulatory lag.
Together these issues are intensifying the need for a reconceptualization of the corporation around its purposes. The Future of the Corporation programme, one of the British Academy’s longest running and most significant policy programmes, explored the role of business in society. The programme built on a long tradition of championing the remarkable growth, prosperity and poverty alleviation that business has generated on the back of its creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation. Its 2018, 2019 and 2021 landmark reports set out a framework of principles, practices and policies that support a new way of defining the purpose of business: “to profitably solve the problems of people and planet, and not to profit from creating problems”.
Profitably solving the problems of people and planet, and not profiting from creating problems
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the programme published its third and final report, Policy and Practice for Purposeful Business. If our first report focused on the case for business based on clear purposes, trustworthiness and ethical cultures and the second report set out the principles behind this, the third report takes on the ‘how’: How can government, regulators, investors and business itself change the way business works to put purpose at its heart?
The programme aimed to reframe the role of business in society. Its objectives evolved as the research findings helped to bring clarity to this question and it focused on how to place purpose, trustworthiness and ethical cultures at the heart of business practice, policy and education.
The programme had three elements:
- Research and evidence: we have worked with 40 academics to produce 17 research papers that examined the issues facing business in the 21st century.
- Engagement: since the beginning of 2017, the programme engaged around more than 2,000 academics, business leaders and policy makers in key questions facing business. The engagement feeds into the research and shapes the findings and outputs.
- Partnership: the programme worked with a wide range of academic institutions, businesses, civil society organisations and think tanks to ensure that this programme is a collaborative effort.
The programme produced a series of major publications:
- Policy and Practice for Purposeful Business This report elaborates substantially on each of the principles for purposeful business, describing policy and practice mechanisms to support the shift which is already under way in business and investment communities. It also expands on the case for these changes by exploring the potential benefits of a supportive environment for purposeful business, in terms of the big policy challenges we face – net zero and biodiversity loss, economic and social recovery from COVID, inequality, social exclusion and regional disparities, and technological innovations that enhance the future of work.
- Principles for purposeful business: How to deliver the framework for the Future of the Corporation This report picks apart the notion of corporation purpose, focusing on the definition of purpose as ‘profitably solving the problems of people and planet and not profiting from creating problems’. It suggests a set of eight interconnected principles focused on purpose, to replace the current model of business policy and practice which are primarily or entirely focused on financial goals. These principles cover law, regulation, ownership, governance, measurement, performance, finance and investment. The report explains how each principle would work and is supported by further evidence in the form of four new research papers and a series of 15 roundtables that convened leaders and experts from business, finance, and civil society.
- Reforming business for the 21st century: a framework for the future of the corporation This report draws together the substantial body of knowledge and insights that our research projects provide on the current challenges that confront businesses, governments and societies around the world. The report identifies the nature and source of the problems facing business and highlights the notion of purpose, complemented by trustworthiness and cultures of values as the focus for a framework for the corporation that can meet these challenges
- Future of the Corporation Research Papers : 13 groups of academics were commissioned by the British Academy Future of the Corporation programme to conduct research into the ten themes identified by the programme as critical to the future relationship between business and society. The resulting research papers are published in the Journal of the British Academy alongside an editorial paper from Professor Colin Mayer CBE FBA, the programme's Academic Lead.
- The Voice of Business The ‘Voice of Business’ is a collection of views from senior business leaders on the purpose of business, its role in society, and the challenges they face from disruptive change. It captures the views of sixteen leaders of companies of different types and sizes in a range of sectors, including artificial intelligence, banking, construction, energy, media and retail. It was written by Lucy Parker, partner at Brunswick Group.
The programme has worked with 40 academics from around the world, producing 17 research papers that examined the themes of the programme: history, trust, corporate purpose, corporate culture, technology, corporate governance, long-term investment, ownership, law, taxation and regulation, and social benefit. The resulting research papers, published in full are available through two special editions of the Reforming Business for the 21st Century (2018) and Foundations of the Future of the Corporation programme report ‘Policy & Practice for Purposeful Business’ .
A wider group of 70 academics and practitioners have been engaged throughout in the review and discussion of the research as it developed. The research has underpinned three major reports (Reforming Business for the 21st Century, Principles for Purposeful Business and Policy & Practice for Purposeful Business), and three additional reports (The Voice of Business, For-Benefit Business and the Future of the Corporation, and Teaching Purposeful Business in UK Business Schools). Over 23,000 downloads of our research and reports have taken place since the first round was published in 2018.
The Corporate Advisory Group, consisting of 30 business leaders, met quarterly between 2017 and 2021 and contributed its expertise and advice to ensure a live connection with business that grounds the research in real-world challenges.
A series of briefings, lectures, roundtables and major events – 58 since the start of 2017 – has attracted significant interest from the business community, academics and policy-makers. Major annual events have attracted senior politicians, media and business leaders – in 2018, then Secretary of State, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP gave the keynote; in 2019, Lionel Barber, then editor of the FT gave the keynote. In 2020, top chief executives, senior MPs and civil society leaders joined Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, in our opening Purpose Summit. In 2021, former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore was joined by ministers, CEOs and experts in our second and third Purpose Summits. Recording, reports and briefings arising from these events are available on this site.
For more information on the programme, contact Henry Richards on [email protected].