Societal changes shaping our future

In a changing world, standards need to keep up if they are to continue to meet the needs of society and support a more sustainable future. 

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Por Clare Naden
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While the rate at which our world evolves is perhaps not as fast as we might think, we do live in a place that looks somewhat different to just a few years ago. We are more numerous, more global and have more complex purchasing decisions to make. We expect to have businesses that act responsibly, honest leaders and a greener planet. We want to have more control over our destinies, but not at the expense of giving our privacy away. 

Dendrobat with red back and blue legs sitting on a stone,

We are also not getting any younger. By 2050, it is expected that the number of people aged 65 years or over will double to 1.5 billion and rise to 16 % of the population.[1] This will dramatically alter the way societies and economies work and upset the balance of the workforce. How older adults find fulfilment, at what age they retire and their quality of life once they do are relatively new but important considerations. 

Ageing populations are a real and growing issue for many governments and community providers because they place increased demands on areas such as healthcare, social security, accessibility and safety. Meanwhile, the younger generation are aware that they will one day have to carry the weight of the world, and thus are pushing for a better one. One where governments put people ahead of profits and our lifestyles are sustainable.

Big city living 

At the same time, we are constantly moving, mostly into bigger urban areas. With the number of city dwellers soaring from 751 million people in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018, and expected to reach 6.7 billion in 2050[2], meeting the needs of cities now and anticipating those of the future is an ongoing challenge.

Cities need to plan well ahead in order to deliver the necessary resources and services for their populations to survive and thrive. Public transport, facilities, water supply, sanitation, energy, food and security are just some of the pressure points that will continue to be challenged by rising urbanization. 

  1. World Population Ageing 2019 – Highlights, United Nations: New York, 2019
  2. The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey [accessed online]

Consumer behaviour has evolved dramatically in recent years. 

Solar panels and wind turbine in a snowy landscape against a bright blue winter sky.

The changing consumer 

We are also buying more, and differently. Consumer behaviour has evolved dramatically in recent years, driven by the increased choice both of products to buy and ways to acquire them. Incredibly complex supply chains have given rise to consumer concerns about where their money is going and what they are getting in return. Transparency, traceability, personalized service and connected experiences are just some of what is expected[1] and purchasers are far more likely to switch brands, either to find a better deal or to be more aligned with their values. 

Consumers are critical partners helping to drive sustainable impact into our supply chains. Sadie Dainton, Chair of the ISO Committee on consumer policy (COPOLCO), says consumers are increasingly aware that their individual purchasing decisions and lifestyles have a collective global impact and have accelerated the need for tools to be able to make informed choices – as one action among many – to effect change. 

The role of standards in supporting this has never been more apparent. “The explosion of social media use, sharing platforms and online reviews has facilitated this trend and generated new ideas for standards proposals along with promoting the sustainable consumer,” she explains. The need to know your customers is still as true today as it ever was and, with their behaviour changing rapidly, standards need to get ahead of the curve. 

New expectations, new standards 

The creation of a new ISO technical committee to deal with standards for the sharing economy is one example of this. One of today’s fastest-growing economic sectors, the sharing economy is transforming the traditional consumer journey. With thousands of different platforms dedicated to the cause, this collaborative approach stems, at least in part, from a desire to create communities and reduce overconsumption. This is empowering consumers more than ever and putting them in charge of how they search, purchase, experience and evaluate products, and covers everything from cars and clothes to houses and hotels. But while it’s great news for consumers, it doesn’t come without certain challenges such as issues over privacy, reliability, trustworthiness, working conditions and more.

The new ISO/TC 324, Sharing economy, was formed to resolve these issues and allow the industry to realize its full value-adding potential. Committee Chair Dr Masaaki Mochimaru believes standards can both accentuate the positive aspects of the sharing economy while reducing the risks and issues. “One of the key benefits of this new business model for an organization is the effective utilization of unused resources,” he enthuses. “On the flip side, however, there are potential risks related to transparency and accountability, safety and security and other issues such as protecting workers and managing the platforms. These are all areas that standards can help with.” 

  1. What Are Customer Expectations, and How Have They Changed? [accessed online]
Close-up shot of a rhinoceros head.

Calling consumers 

Transparency and accountability are also key elements of informed consumer choice, for which there is an increasing demand. Again, standards can provide some order and methodology, instilling confidence that products and services are what they say they are. This includes standards for online reviews, labelling and claims, which, if followed correctly, reduce the risk of misleading information and help to make the information provided to consumers credible, accurate, ethical and verifiable.

The ongoing climate emergency and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown many of these issues into sharp relief, and will continue to do so into the next decade, adds COPOLCO Secretary Dr Cristina Draghici. “The beauty of the ISO system is its ability to bring together all stakeholders, including consumers, who have a variety of experiences, knowledge sets and views into commonly agreed best practices and solutions,” she says. 

Dr Draghici also believes that more developing country participation is needed over the next ten years, particularly from younger consumers who will have a major impact in reaching net zero. This will create new demands that result in changes that really make a difference. 

Learning from disruptors  

So what does this mean for ISO? With the world’s shifting demographics, increasing urbanization and the impacts of global warming, our future certainly looks bleak. This inherently complex picture means a shift in focus for humanity while learning how to be more nimble, agile and adaptable to the constantly changing environment. This is no mean feat and a tall enough order when it comes to setting the organization’s strategic plan for the coming year, let alone the next decade. 

Changing societal expectations are inevitably affecting how ISO works today, and how it will work in 2030, to ensure standardization can best meet society’s needs. This includes the desire for greater transparency and greater involvement of all those for whom standards have an impact, which has never been so strong. In response, ISO has increased its collaboration – and will continue to do so – with other organizations such as industry associations and standards bodies.

Take COPOLCO as an example. “Our scope has widened, our collaboration with other organizations has never been more active,” notes Dr Draghici. “We have strengthened ties with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, for instance, to raise awareness of standards for consumer protection and ensure they align with, and contribute to, many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” 

Changing societal expectations are inevitably affecting how ISO works today. 

All voices heard

There is also a growing push for the inclusion of meaningful voices in the standardization process. Standards users, for example, are having more say than ever before. This manifests itself in different forms, but one key illustration is the work currently underway on ISO 9001, ISO’s much acclaimed standard for quality management systems and one of the most established and widely used International Standards in the world.

In the lead-up to its five-yearly review, the technical committee responsible for ISO 9001 decided to look beyond its usual group of experts to see what was most important to its current and potential users. To do this, they launched an international online survey in 14 different languages that ran for several months in 2020. The result was that no revision was needed and the latest version of ISO 9001 still provides value to those implementing the standard.

Promoting a greater diversity of thinking implies the need to hear the voices of people of all genders, races and religious beliefs. Gender equality, for instance, is a transformative force in society and has been defined as an objective across many bodies and initiatives, not least the United Nations’ SDG 5, working towards the empowerment of all women and girls. Recognizing the powerful contribution of International Standards to gender matters, ISO has embarked on an ambitious project to assess and deepen its understanding of gender representation in ISO, the gender implications of standards and to ensure that ISO’s activities include a strong gender perspective.

Meeting market needs 

While content and participation are key, so is the rate at which standards are needed. As the world evolves, standards development needs to keep up the momentum. Work, therefore, is underway to improve and accelerate all processes, which includes leveraging the possibility of developing a standard entirely online. This means a new virtual standards development process with no physical meetings or traditional ISO committee structure, and the potential to be much quicker and more cost-effective without compromising on quality. 

This pace of reactivity was nicely demonstrated in March 2020 when COVID-19 brought travel to a standstill. No longer able to hold in-person committee meetings, ISO put the standards world completely online, literally overnight. More than two thousand physical meetings planned from mid-March to end of August were rapidly moved to virtual. Acknowledging that this new way of working might be necessary for some time to come, ISO set up an online tool allowing technical committees to easily plan their own virtual meetings, taking into account time zones and geographical locations. Committee member feedback has never been more positive, citing more effective and productive meetings with greater participation. The standards community also congratulated ISO on its agility in responding to its most immediate needs.

But this is just a starting point and there is still much to be done. Which is why the new ISO Strategy 2030 is a moving, living and breathing document that thrives on input from the people it serves: members, standards users and the world at large. ISO’s old black-and-white photos of serious men in suits have been stored firmly in the attic, making space for youth, energy, dynamism and hope. History has been replaced by a new story – one that the whole world will write together.

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