Adapting to and experimenting with new technologies and dynamics

Emerging technology

The technological revolution is dramatically changing how we live and work. How do we support communities to take advantage of these opportunities and invest in these rapid changes to enhance the effectiveness of our work?

New technologies are transforming the world and how people live and work. Data analytics, robotics, and artificial intelligence are just a few examples of transformative technology that can positively impact RCRC capacity to address humanitarian and development need. Already, scientific and technological innovation is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Data, machine learning and other technological advancements can help forecast disasters and crises and provide stronger sources for analysis and insight on a range of issues. Technologies like blockchain are being tested as a means to provide digital identity to those that might have lost physical identification documents as they cross borders, and for their potential to revolutionise financial markets and public ledgers.   These changes are evolving rapidly and require constant investment and experimentation to understand and apply.  However, there are risks with emerging technologies, that the benefits will not  be felt by all, and the digital divide can create further inequality for those left behind. Current discourse is also emerging around the implications and risks of ethics and biases inbuilt into artificial intelligence algorithms that might further perpetuate inequality. In addition, increasing awareness and concerns around data privacy rights and changing privacy legislation is already forcing humanitarian organisations to re-think the privacy rights of data subjects. There are also concerns about digital technologies dislocating people from each other, contributing to social and mental health issues, and there are emerging risks to be monitored around cyberwarfare and malicious intent, particularly as many of our services carry sensitive digital information. Furthermore, as our operations and structures increasingly come to rely on digital platforms, we will face greater risks in protecting that data and our operational mechanisms.

Recognising that in a more globalised world citizens have complex needs that no longer fit traditional approaches and assumptions, and that the exponential growth in technology and consumption has led to a surge in experimentation, governments, corporations and start-ups alike are testing different approaches to programs and policy making, ways of working, engaging and understanding their end user/citizens.  Organisations are recognizing that the sources and consumers of data have changed – often with affected communities playing lead roles in both spheres. To capitalise on opportunities to better connect with our communities and people, requires a constant process of horizon scanning, experimentation and diffusion of new technologies and approaches. The trend analysis undertaken for Strategy 2020 did not identify social media as an emerging issue, but just 10 years later, it has transformed the way we conduct our work. However, the process of transformation and adoption of social media has taken a long time to implement, and we lag behind many organisations. An approach that treats innovation as an integral component across all our internal processes and policies will be required.

Considerations and tension points for the Red Cross and Red Crescent

  • How does the network invest in foresight and anticipation to ensure strategic focus within a fast-paced and rapidly changing world? At the same time, how can National Societies foster innovation, agility and the capacity for adaptation and opportunism in the face of new trends? Are there spaces in the organization for consistent experimentation, Research and Development, and innovation?
  • Is the network recruiting the right skills and investing in the right competencies to capitalize on opportunities emerging from technological and digital advancement?
  • Are we able to support National Societies to close the digital divide and take advantage of opportunities emerging in this sphere?
  • How does the RCRC engage with non-traditional actors, start-ups and informal networks, and explore new models of partnership creatively to meet development goals?
  • There is a tension that is emerging around the need for the network to invest more into emerging technology, and beyond just periphery innovation experiments, in order to drive changed decision making structures. There is, in addition, consistent reflection on what the role of the RCRC might be, and what value add we might bring to a highly connected, networked world, and how we might respond to the changing risk landscape as a result of this.

What are the possibilities?

Technological innovation is shaping the lives and habits of affected communities, and it will continue transforming the work of our National Societies. As the Internet of Things expands rapidly – with devices, buildings, vehicles and other inanimate objects collecting and sharing growing amounts of data about our needs and habits – this has powerful potential to help National Societies understand their end users, services and operating environments more clearly, driving insights into gaps and inefficiencies, and enabling more nuanced and efficient program and services delivery. Better communication tools, artificial intelligence and data could deliver reliable predictive analytics and enable forecast-based action, real time monitoring and new insights, improving our international disaster responses.  Advances in machine learning and robotics could supplement our traditional staffing and volunteer approaches, while the use of drones and 3D printing in the field could transform our work in conflict and disaster settings.  This  could potentially mitigate or reduce risks to humanitarian workers and beneficiaries. Innovative experimentation has already been undertaken by RCRC, but is often more agile in structures outside the system such as Reference Centres and start-up offshoots. If we continue to invest in these mechanisms and approaches, we can effectively apply technological advancement to our work.

What are your thoughts? Are there other elements to this trend that we should be considering?

How do you think it will affect vulnerability and the Red Cross and Red Crescent?

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