Business isn’t charity. But it can build a better world.

Today, for only the fourth time in human history, the world stands on the brink of industrial revolution. Unprecedented leaps in manufacturing and technology are poised to unlock enormous value – not just for the world economy, but for all of humanity.

Unlike the three before it, this Fourth Industrial Revolution must be defined by more than technological advances. It must also drive a revolution in our values – a revolution in which businesses use their science, scale, and smarts to address the world’s greatest challenges.

Food, water, safety

What are those challenges? As the psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote in 1943, society is defined, at its foundation, by the hunt for food, water, and safety. These are our most basic needs – the essential precursors to what Maslow called the deeper search for “self-actualization… to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Before humanity can reach its true potential, in other words, the world must focus its attention on meeting humankind’s most fundamental needs.

These needs, already pressing, will become all the more profound in the coming decades. In 10 years, 1.8 billion people will live in regions where clean water is hard to come by. In 15 years, 40 percent of the people on Earth will lack adequate housing. And by 2050, the global population will top nine billion – causing demand for food to increase by 60 percent.

These are momentous challenges. But they also present us with an incredible, once-in-a-generation chance to redefine the role of business in society. Rather than pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake, it is time to focus our innovation engines on meeting humanity’s needs. Every business has a role to play here.

Already, companies like ours are working to make water easier to purify, to help farmers grow more drought-tolerant crops, to enable more energy-efficient and affordable housing, and more. With unprecedented speed – and on a sweeping, global scale – private industry is delivering transformational technologies, and unlocking life-changing advances that help people live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

The purest purpose of business

This innovation is not charity. It is founded on the recognition that business has a unique and indispensable role to play in driving progress. The purest purpose of business, after all, is to solve problems and meet demand. And indeed, companies around the world are increasingly finding that we can do well not just while doing good, but by doing good.

Dow, for our part, has made this notion the central element of our business model. Last year, we launched our 2025 sustainability goals. Over the next decade, we will invest $1 billion to incorporate the value of nature and society into all that we do while further engaging the power of our science and the passion of our people to develop solutions to the world’s most significant challenges. By collaborating in new and deeper ways to strengthen the health of people, planet, and business, we anticipate our investment will return every dollar we spend, and a billion more.

If we all continue to reach higher in this way, to find new ways to answer age-old questions of how to meet humanity’s most basic needs, billions more women and men will be empowered – indeed, freed – to reach beyond simply feeding their families and keeping a roof overhead. They will have the power to try to realize their highest aspirations – to make life better for themselves, their loved ones, and the communities around them.

This is the true potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this year’s theme at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. And the measure of its success will come down to whether we do more than simply redefine the role of technology in business. We must redefine the role of business in society. If we do, the most important development of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will not be the 3D printer or the Internet of Things. It will be the progress that advances like these enable for all of humankind.

Andrew Liveris
About the author: 

Andrew N. Liveris is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Dow Chemical Company, a materials, polymers, chemicals and biological sciences enterprise, with 2015 annual sales of nearly $49 billion.  He is the author of Make It in America, and served as Co-Chair of U.S. President Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership steering committee. He sits on the Board of Directors of IBM and is Vice Chair of the Business Roundtable, an Executive Committee Member and past Chairman of the U.S. Business Council, and a member of the U.S. President’s Export Council, the Concordia Leadership Council and the Australian government’s Industry Growth Centres Advisory Committee. He serves as a trustee for the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, the California Institute of Technology and the United States Council for International Business.