Opportunity surrounds us—especially when it comes to global challenges such as climate change, population growth, and social disruption. Our greatest obstacles set the stage for new business opportunities in 2012 and beyond.

Desalination and water purification
A simple, yet complex, case of supply and demand. Water is already worth more than petroleum in many parts of the world. Yesterday, I paid $2.99 for an 18-ounce bottle of water at the airport, making a gallon of bottled water worth $24.41—782 percent more than the cost of a $3.25 gallon of gasoline. At the same time, there are an estimated 1.4 billion people who live in regions where existing water cannot meet agricultural, industrial, municipal, and environmental needs (Stockholm International Water Institute, 2008). As global climate change and poor agricultural practices combine with a growing population and increasing affluence, water will increasingly be in short supply.

Opportunities: Health in India is compromised by dirty water. Sameer Kalwani of Sarvajal enables access to clean water by enlisting local entrepreneurs to sell it using electronic point-of-sale technology and monitoring water quality remotely. The project started with one village three years ago, and now provides safe water to 70,000 people daily.

Alternative energy, energy efficiency, and weatherization
A case of unsustainability, both economically and environmentally. We must reduce our use of fossil fuels dramatically if civilization as we know it is to continue. The age of oil, gas, and coal will come to a much more abrupt end than most of us can imagine, and it will have health, business, and environmental implications.

Opportunities: Solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, cogeneration, and even mechanically generated energy will experience an explosion of growth as, inevitably, carbon is taxed and fossil fuels run out.

Local, organic, and fair-trade food, and the technology to support small-scale agriculture
It’s time to teach the world to eat differently. The world is already unable to feed itself, and there will be about 25,000 more people arriving for dinner tonight. Positive signs dot the landscape: organic farming practices are increasing as Fair Trade imports rise. In 2009, organic farming was practiced on 37.2 million hectares worldwide, a 5.7 percent increase from 2008 and a 150 percent increase from 2000. Today, there are more than 10,000 Fair Trade Certified products on US stores shelves, made by more than 800 partners.

Opportunities: Growing more food locally—on rooftops (already projected to be a $100 billion industry in the next decade), on the sides of buildings, in community gardens, and in greenhouses in inner cities. Lettuce simply can’t fly business class from Beijing to New York for much longer.

Engineering and consulting firms specializing in supply chain management and infrastructure, and equipment providers for farming and infrastructure development
One big problem: The whole world wants to live like we do. Eat beef. Drive cars. Live in oversized houses. Much of that development we simply won’t be able to stop. As the next billion citizens emerge out of poverty, they’ll want roads, electricity, running water, bridges, and dams.

Opportunities: Find out what’s on the leading edge of sustainable supply chain management at Businesses for Social Responsibility.

Disaster relief
Three words of explanation are all that’s needed: global climate change. Tropical Storm Irene caused more than $1 billion in damage—the most for any year on record dating back 30 years—and will add $3 to $5 billion to the $18 billion in damage to insured properties caused by natural disasters in 2011 (Insurance Information Institute). In a typical year, industry losses total $15 billion to $20 billion. That means that 2011 will go down as a record for disaster relief and expense.

Opportunities: Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and Josh Nesbit, executive director of Medic Mobile (formerly FrontlineSMS: Medic) represent the frontier of strategies and technology in disaster relief.

Mobile technology and applications
Making change is literally in the palms of our hands. Mobile technology and social media present us with truly connective communications mediums for dialing up solutions to major societal issues—there are apps and tools for public health, energy, and aid. Connecting to the world brings us one step closer to changing the world.

Opportunities: The new Square Card Reader makes mobile credit card payment possible and portable—great for small businesses. Mobile money is making it possible for people in developing countries to access financial services. A whole new practice of mHealth is making strides in community and public health.

Knowing where there is opportunity for change is step one. Never has it been more urgent that we start this work—before we careen into the wall we are currently headed for. These are the business opportunities I see. What about you?