10 Trends Set To Reshape Business In The Coming Decades

For businesses, it’s easy to let what’s affecting their organizations right now obscure the long-term view. That’s particularly true during a crisis like the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, when simply trying to keep business running can occupy much of leaders’ attention.

But the current crisis has taught the business community a valuable lesson — that it needs to be more prepared for whatever the next long-tail crisis may be. And that means keeping informed on the factors that could influence long-term decisions about markets and product offerings. Tomorrow’s world won’t look like today’s, and the trends that will shape the future — and business — are already underway.

“The here-and-now opportunities are a common obstacle to recognizing the trends shaping the future,” says Bryon Ehrhart, global head of strategic growth and development at Aon. “Creating businesses of lasting value takes the discipline to shift thinking from three days into the future to three years.”

Understanding the trends that will reshape business is the key to preparing the business to not only remain viable in the future but to maximize opportunities that lie ahead.


It is the ability to sift through the vast amount of data and information out there, then analyze and interpret it to make an informed decision that is key to understanding future risks and opportunities. Speaking at the Aon Insights Series London, Ehrhart highlighted 10 factors that will have the greatest impact: demographics, urbanization, technology reliance, intellectual property (IP), digitization, climate change, energy restacking, infrastructure, retirement fund investors, and automated driving.

Analyzing the potential effects of these trends can help a business plan for the future.

Looking At The Macrotrends

1. Demographics — The key factor in demographics is not just how the world’s population will grow, but where most of that population will be.

“By 2100 Africa will have one of the largest populations in the world,” says Ehrhart. According to the United Nations, in 2020, Asia has a population of 3.7 billion, while Africa’s population is 814 million. But, because of differences in birth rates, by 2050 Africa’s population will grow to nearly 2.5 billion versus 5.3 billion in Asia, and by 2100 there will be 4.4 billion people in Africa versus 4.9 billion in Asia.

“It’s easy to say: `Well, we earn most our profits in North America today, some in Western Europe,’ ” says Ehrhart. “But that’s not the world you’re going to have to succeed in over the next 20 to 50 years. You’re going to have to make groundbreaking investments in markets that are going to grow while the other ones shrink.”

2. Urbanization — Increased urbanization is another global trend to note. While 55 percent of the world’s population lives in cities in 2020, that figure will reach 67 percent in 2100.

While the five largest cities in 2030 are projected to be Tokyo; Delhi, India; Shanghai; Mumbai, India; and Beijing, by 2050 the list will likely read Lagos, Nigeria; Kinshasa, Congo; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Mumbai;and Delhi.

With that increase in urbanization, there will be growing problems that will need to be addressed such as waste management and disease outbreaks.

3. Technology reliance — Technological developments and increases in data and analytical power create unlimited opportunities for business, but also bring risks around cyber security and data privacy.

Cyber crime currently costs companies an estimated $600 billion annually. Over the next five years, costs are  estimated to rise into the single-digit trillions.

Researchfrom Pentland Analytics shows that over the past five years, the market’s view of cyber incidents has shifted from “bad luck” to “bad management,” with real consequences for shareholder value.

“As the risk increases, consumers will begin to demand transparency around how organizations are managing data security and privacy, just like we’re seeing with diversity and environmental practices,” says Stephanie Snyder, commercial strategy leader for Aon’s Cyber Solutions. “Organizations with a healthy cyber resilience approach treat it as a continuous, circular process — not a linear one.”

4. Intellectual property — Since information technology took off in the 1980s, the value of intangible assets has skyrocketed, says Ehrhart. The current value of U.S. intangible assets is $20 trillion to 25 trillion, or roughly 85 percent of the total value of the S&P 500. This rapid increase in value comes with greater risk. And it also brings new opportunities to leverage this value, such as monetizing IP or accessing IP-based lending alternatives to assist in capital-raising efforts.

“Intellectual property risk is no longer just about being sued for infringement,” says Brian Hinman, chief commercial officer of Intellectual Property Solutions at Aon. “It’s about identifying what are a particular business’s value-producing assets and understanding the various threats to them.”

5. Digitization — Increasing digitalization involves the curation of data, faster processing speeds, the rise of artificial intelligence and a host of new opportunities that could bring billions of dollars in revenue and represent trillions of dollars in value.

“We’ve gotten accustomed to broad access to ‘cold data’ that represents a point in time, like our bank account data,” says Ehrhart. “Now, availability is growing for ‘hot data’ — real time, high-frequency specialized information. That shift is going to require hardware that can deliver that type of experience — like really fast chips.”

6. Climate change — Climate change is causing more frequent and more severe storms, increased threats of flooding in coastal areas and worsening wildfires, among other impacts.

With carbon, plastics and other contaminants playing a role in the changing climate, there will be even more questions of who pays for damage and why, says Ehrhart. There also will be opportunities for businesses that help find solutions to the impacts of climate change and to reduce the trend.

7. Energy restacking — U.S. energy independence — combined with a growing reliance on sources of renewable energy — has moved this trend up the list, Ehrhart says.

The impact of overhauling an energy supply infrastructure is significant for some of the world’s economies. Carbon-based energy sources are slowly and expensively being retired, he says, while renewable energy sources are being engineered and expensively acquired. The transition’s timeline is a long one. And the reliability of the new energy sources must be certain.

“Investment in the energy transition is significant and accelerating; however, there are many fronts developing, also many political and ideological differences in approach,” says Euan Nicolson, chief commercial officer of Aon’s Global Energy business. “The development of offshore wind and hydrogen are two of the leading candidates and are a key component within the plans of many energy companies. There are new and emerging risks, providing a significant opportunity for innovation in the insurance market.”

8. Infrastructure investment— The world’s infrastructure needs an investment of $40 trillion to $60 trillion. It’s a big sum for governments to tackle alone, especially as they’re grappling with the growing scale and demands of today’s emerging crises.

“When infrastructure investment needs exceed the public sector’s ability to finance them, public-private partnerships are increasingly filling the gap,” says Joe Monaghan, head of Public Sector Partnership at Aon. “These partnerships help governments de-risk. The benefits are real: transferring credit risk away from taxpayers, improving government agencies’ risk management and increasing sustainability of government policy objectives.”

One example: in 2019, the U.S. government formed the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to mobilize private sector capital and skills to less developed countries and address needs like infrastructure. In October 2020, the group outlined its road map to 2025: directly investing $25 billion and generating another $50 billion in private capital to serve 30 million people in developing countries.

Another example is the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, the largest infrastructure fund at over $1 trillion.

9. Retirement fund investors — Pension fund investments are reshaping the allocation of capital in every industry around the world.

“Over the last decade, retirement fund investors have greatly reduced the cost of capital for risk taking,” says Ehrhart. “Pension math has upended banking math for the economic cost of capital — a refreshing boost to business.”

While corporate America is highly leveraged, there are a host of sources of alternative capital in such areas as insurance, corporate debt, mortgages, infrastructure, government debt and trade credit.

10. Automated driving — Automated driving is likely to be highly popular – if it’s safe. The arrival of automated driving is emblematic of the broader trend toward automation as technology, communications and the Internet of Things continue to advance.

Today’s auto insurance will have to be adjusted to address the changing risk and questions of where liability should reside for accidents related to failures of automated driving systems.

“The growth of automated driving will change every industry reliant upon cars and trucks for supply chain, delivery and personal transportation,” says Jillian Slyfield, managing director of the Digital Economy Practice at Aon. “Autonomous vehicles are already at work in industries such as mining, military and agriculture, and several companies have recently announced expansion plans to use autonomous trucks to transport freight. ‘Last mile’ delivery of parcels and closed routes for self-driven shuttles will likely be our immediate foray into an autonomous future. The path to widespread adoption is going to require sufficient infrastructure, thoughtful legislation and consumer confidence.”

Understanding The Trends To Make The Right Decisions

The trends that will reshape the world — and business — should inform the decisions businesses are making today about their future.

“In thinking about the business, there’s short-term shareholder value and long-term shareholder value,” says Ehrhart. “Where will your business be in 2100? How will you get there? That’s what businesses need to be thinking about. It’s thinking for the long term.”