Charities and tech: adapt or die?

Climate change tops the list of the four risks to the future of the human race as defined by The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. But technological advances bringing about seismic changes in the way NGOs and charities operate may hold a silver lining for us and the planet.


Local solutions to global problems


Current policy focusses on reducing use of fossil fuels. But such policies are time consuming and costly. In the meantime, there are cheap, practical ways to mitigate this grave risk. With proper management, tropical forests could remove significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, giving us a ‘bridge’ of 10-15 extra years to eliminate fossil fuel use. Without tackling deforestation there is no way of limiting global warming to the necessary 2ºC.


While big government has done a fairly good job at tackling large scale clear cutting and industrial deforestation, 60-80% of deforestation is now on a small scale. Often linked to illegal gangs, and impossible to police, protecting tropical forests is becoming a tricky business. Local in its drivers and local in its scale, this type of destruction needs a local, and novel, solution. Charities and NGOs working on a village scale, with the people who are have most at stake, have the most success in keeping trees standing and carbon locked in.


Technological advances rip the rule book up about the way the world operates. In a few short years Netflix has disrupted an entire industry and forced traditional media outlets to adapt or die. Banks, once trusted intermediaries, are facing their own crisis with the arrival of blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and crypto currencies. Having being around longer than television, they are finding it harder to adapt. Charities were also trusted intermediaries, doing vital work where the state can’t or won’t. With technological disruption and “ultra-transparency”, what is their future?


Are charities prepared to adapt?


The first big change will be in the way charities can operate. Massive investments in new platforms and technology has a trickle-down effect. Technology created to serve investors, advertisers and paying users will benefit those outside these circles too. Mark Zuckerberg plans to bring internet to the whole world. A cynic sees billions more dollars in advertising revenue for Facebook. A smart NGO sees a brilliant, pre-funded opportunity for stronger, easier links to beneficiaries, more transparent communications, and instant monitoring and evaluation of impacts. A connected world could mean digital tweets echoing the sounds of birds from even the deepest parts of the rainforest. 


Secondly, technology makes the world more transparent. Donors are not only able to see the problem more clearly, they are able to react immediately, picking up their phones to donate. They can and should also be increasingly demanding about having access to information about the impact of their donation.


We will start to see real time reporting, and blockchain technology used in philanthropy as well as commerce. Donors will be able to track their contribution as it moves from charity to beneficiary and precise details about the ‘bang for your buck’ will be readily available. The technology for this is already available in platforms like Rather than a certificate and a fluffy toy, donors will soon be demanding current GPS coordinates of ‘their’ polar bear and proof that their £2 a month is keeping it alive and well: something that traditional conservation charities may not be willing to provide.


Smart Donors


The third big change will be in the way people give. This is linked to transparency of impact and cost effectiveness. Charitable giving is largely based on an emotional response. A laser focus on impact means emotional choices about causes have less intellectual clout than rational ones. If you are shown hard proof that your $10 can either mitigate the most pressing risk to our species, or buy three tins of dog food for an already overfunded shelter, you might rethink which charity you give to. The logical conclusion of this is digital philanthropy, where smart machines emerge as a new kind of super-rational donor.


Whether this is a dystopian vision or a sensible response to the need to redistribute wealth fairly remains to be seen. But the ultra-transparency afforded by technological advances is already changing the way people give. The Effective Altruism movement asks people to reject emotional or personal reasoning (“my mother died of cancer”; “donkeys are cute”) when deciding who to give to. They recommend causes, and specific charities that will have the most cost-effective impact on the survival of our species, based on rigorous and objective evaluation. Climate change is one of those causes, and Cool Earth one of those charities.


Public trust in charities is at an all-time low, at a time when decentralised action and investment in critical causes is needed most urgently. Cool Earth believes the biggest benefit of the technological revolution will be that the traditional charitable model starts to dissolve. This will clear the way for new philanthropic mechanisms and new ways of spending and auditing public money. In the race to prevent deforestation and catastrophic climate change, it’s adapt or die. 


Chloe Rickard is communications manager at Cool Earth. 


Photograph: Cool Earth.

  • twitter
  • fb
  • stumble
  • linkedin
  • reddit
  • email

Can technology help us to feed the world?

How to work together to produce safe and sustainable food


Around one in nine people on earth do not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. And in the next 50 years as diets become richer, experts estimate that to feed a population of 9bn people, more food will have to be produced than has been during the past 10,000 years in total. Combined with the challenges of climate change, water scarcity, and biodiversity degradation; not to mention the impact of antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic resistance; and new and emerging pathogens – the outlook appears bleak.


The food industry has the most complex supply chain – being both global and highly fragmented at the same time. Given this degree of complexity, it is difficult for food producers to have good visibility beyond their first tier of suppliers and they are unlikely to have any direct sight of the farmers and fisheries at the primary production stage. At this level, a large food brand may be supplied by hundreds of thousands of small suppliers, who are totally out of reach. We live in an era when food safety scares and sustainability scandals can rightly go viral on social media in a matter of hours, with long reaching consequences for the individuals affected and for the brands involved; it’s time for the food industry to find a new model to address these challenges.


To produce the food needed safely and sustainably, the food industry needs to build greater resilience and security into its systems. Effective assurance services and enhanced transparency throughout the supply chain can form a solid foundation to achieving this. However, the assurance industry also faces challenges, including a lack of qualified auditors in emerging markets – often the very markets where food production is expected to grow in the coming years. And, the traditional audit model is based on auditors traveling to client sites, where they often spend a large proportion of their time reviewing documents. Don’t get me wrong, this has been an effective way to provide independent third party assurance and continues to ensure confidence in food safety and sustainability. However, given the developments in communications and technology, it seems high time to review our food safety and sustainability assurance business model to take advantage of these developments to work in a more collaborative and efficient way.


Possible solutions


A new model is possible; LRQA has recently delivered remote audits in Iraq and Afghanistan. With no possibility to send an auditor into these conflict zones, LRQA’s technical experts developed specific procedures to conduct remote audits in extraordinary circumstances that were reviewed by the accreditation body UKAS. Our lead auditor interacted with the client and a local subcontractor by using webcams, video conferencing and phone to carry out the audit to the same rigorous standards as if they had been there in person.


Remote assessment and greater transparency in the supply chain have been made possible thanks to disruptive technologies. To support this vision, LRQA has recently announced adoption of greenfence platform technology. Based in Silicon Valley, greenfence is the first platform technology serving the Testing, Inspection and Certification (TIC) marketplace – connecting everyone from large retailers and certification bodies, to global scheme owners and farmers.


The platform is supported by some of the world’s largest food manufacturers and is capable of mapping the entire food supply chain of existing connections and certifications. We expect that it will improve supply chain confidence with greater coverage and visibility, enabling producers to analyse the data more easily to target existing and potential risks more effectively. The assurance business model will then move from a retrospective focus to predictive insight – from what went wrong, to what is likely to go wrong. From an assurance perspective, our services powered by the greenfence platform should address a variety of challenges such as; enabling global traceability and transparency, delivering online assessments to thousands of clients within a short period of time as well as the possibility to benchmark, enabling the assessment of suppliers who are out of reach through traditional audits, overcoming the issues of lack of auditors and geographic limitations, delivering a truly global management of the food supply chain, and reducing audit costs for clients.


Registration on the platform is free and increases the ability to interact with other parts of the supply chain, which will enable more effective and efficient processes. Additional services will include the authentication of existing certificates (for any scheme) as well as various levels of remote assessment, which will enable benchmarking of suppliers and easier risk identification. Remote assessment will not replace on-site audits but will complement them, for example, to pre-assess risks in the supply chain to target on-site audits where there is the biggest perceived risk or to enable compliance to basic standards at an affordable level for very small suppliers.


This development fits well with the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s mission to enhance the safety of life and property. Most organisations do something to make money but at Lloyd’s Register, we make money to do something, as a percentage of our profits go towards the Foundation. Indeed, we envisage that the flexibility provided by this platform and accessible throughout the supply chain will help small farmers in emerging markets to improve their communications, logistics, access to training, exposure to the food market, as well as access to credit markets. Initiatives to connect farmers run by Nestlé in Central America and by Vodafone in East Africa have proven to be highly effective in the fight against world hunger and it is hoped that the greenfence platform will have a similarly positive impact.


Scaling up


Ultimately, the platform aims to consolidate big data from the supply chain including Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and Global Positioning System (GPS) data from transportation, lab results, drones, and on-site webcams to enable real time compliance monitoring with automatic alerts to clients in the case of any nonconformity.


Food safety is non-competitive, and the greenfence platform is no different. To gain the critical mass needed to create real transparency it will need to be used by all parties in the food supply chain, driven by the large food processors. This is the first project of its kind with a holistic aim to enable collaboration to support the changes needed in the global food industry. 


As we continue to address innovative ways of providing assurance to the global food supply chain, to enable the sector to continue to feed the world safely and sustainably, this can only be a positive step.


Vincent Doumeizel is Vice President  - Food, Beverage & Sustainability at Lloyd’s Register Group. 



  • twitter
  • fb
  • stumble
  • linkedin
  • reddit
  • email