It’s common to hear of businesses in finance and manufacturing leveraging transformative technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). Impact of businesses in these sectors is generally simple to quantify, with new technologies often improving the efficiency of the process and the accuracy of the results. Results for business impacts in social and environmental sustainability, however, are often more intangible. Furthermore, socially minded businesses have lacked digital management, thus making them vulnerable to fraud and waste.
As a public health professional with a background in global health and sustainable development, I am no stranger to the need for proof of impact. In my experience, this has often involved laborious manual monitoring and evaluation that did not allow for real-time understanding of the data. However, transformative technologies are now being used in sustainable development to help provide proof of impact, increase data access and transparency, and increase the efficiency of supply chains and operations.
Blockchain, AI, and IoT have proven to be viable solutions in resource-constrained contexts that are also often characterized by decentralization and geographic dispersion. The implementation of these technologies can be seen in solutions that range from financial inclusion among refugees to meal programs in government-run schools in India.
Akshaya Patra is the world’s largest NGO-run school meal program in the world and provides a useful case study of innovative technological application. In a mere six months, with the support of Accenture Labs, Akshaya Patra introduced a location-aware AI system to predict meal demand per school per day. The project also improved cooking operations with IoT-based sensors to facilitate large-scale monitoring and rapid problem identification. Additionally, it used blockchain to increase transparency and trust for accurate reporting and invoicing within the supply chain. (Digital management of supply chain data, specifically in a food-related industry, allows for increased traceability of product—a critical tool for understanding and protecting against foodborne disease.) This innovative implementation of disruptive technologies allows Akshaya Patra to produce and serve one million more meals per year while also saving close to $500,000.
The stakeholder benefits of these technologies can be seen and felt in terms of day-to-day impact. Global NGOs, for example, can give donors more real-time, accurate, and transparent information regarding expenditures. Employees and volunteers on the ground can spend their time focused on providing services (e.g., healthcare, education, and meals) instead of manually collecting data and slowly identifying and trying to solve problems with limited information. Lastly, leadership can make evidence-based decisions that allow for achievement of objectives in resource-constrained environments while pursuing supply chain and operational efficiency and strategic goals.
In the short term, a new and often first-time view of an organization’s data as related to operations and supply chain can allow for rapid identification of potential gaps or weaknesses in process and initiate appropriate corrective action. The timeliness of the information is key. Organizations can now afford the opportunities to be increasingly creative and iterative with the implementation of their business strategies in order to determine the best path forward for providing products or services for their community.
In the long term, these technologies can revolutionize sustainable development practice. Organizations can move away from traditional foreign aid and move toward capacity building and strengthening of local communities and vulnerable groups through the provision of access to finances and other resources that were previously unattainable. Transformative technologies such as blockchain, AI, and IoT will provide growing solutions to achieve more sustainable business practices with positive social and economic outcomes.
Samantha Lie-Tjauw is a 2018 MBA graduate of the Scheller College of Business.