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  • Writer's pictureBar Pereg

Harnessing Technology for Humanity: Fast-Tracking Innovation in the Humanitarian Sector

By Bar Pereg and Adam Dimanshteyn

This is the first piece in our Innovation Chronicles: where we dive into the nexus of technology, business, and pressing global challenges to share insights, perspectives, and intriguing discoveries. We hope to spark conversation and inspire action as we delve into these significant issues together.

From Bad to Worse: we are facing an escalating humanitarian crisis

The confluence of wars, pandemics, and climate change has yielded a humanitarian crisis which touches nearly every country and constantly grows larger in severity. The phrase “more than doubled” dominates the data: severe food insecurity has more than doubled from 2020 to 2023, with over 345 million people in imminent danger of starvation; the number of natural disasters exceeding $1B in damages per year has more than doubled since 1980, upending lives in the paths of storms and earthquakes and exacerbating the profound difficulties of rebuilding; the number of people forcibly displaced in 2022 is more than double that of in 2012, leaving hundreds of millions without basic levels of security or certainty about the future. As a result, the gulf between communities with crisis management infrastructure and those without has continued to widen, and the demand for efficient and innovative humanitarian efforts is clearer than ever.

The Humanitarian Aid Space: An enormous and evolving industry with much room for growth

While it is common knowledge that the world is marked by natural disasters, food insecurity, and profound inequality, fewer people are aware of just how much money and time is currently invested in assuaging these problems. 2022 saw approximately $300 billion committed to developing nations and communities experiencing acute crises through bilateral, multilateral and philanthropic initiatives focused on everything from maintaining the Ukrainian education system during the war to scaling HIV and malaria treatment programs through Africa.

Unfortunately, these efforts are unable to keep pace with the ever-increasing need. With unprecedented hurricane and earthquake activity, record food insecurity, and complex patterns of displacement stemming from climate change and armed conflicts, we need to make each dollar in the humanitarian economy go further and to empower local communities through sustainable economic development.

Technology plays a vital role in maximizing societal outcome on each dollar invested, just as it has revolutionized sectors like financial services. Take banking, for example, where digital innovations have streamlined processes, reduced inefficiencies, and democratized access to services. From instantaneous money transfers to the democratization of trading, technology has made financial services more inclusive and efficient. Tech holds the potential to do the same for the humanitarian space.

Make no mistake - there are a multitude of intriguing technological developments and interesting participants operating in the humanitarian space, and they are worth mentioning and respecting. Still, it's fair to state that this sector overall isn't as tech-savvy as it could be. Especially when compared to fields like banking or commerce in affluent markets, a vast opportunity for improvement exists.

Why Fast-Tracking? Our imperative of doubling down in the humanitarian space

This type of 'market,' characterized by critical societal needs, a tremendous influx of capital, and immense potential for rapid technological advancements, is precisely what we are targeting. That's why we're intensifying our commitment in this space. We view humanitarian solutions as a prime opportunity to leverage proven technology and make a dramatic impact on pressing problems.

We see countless places that invite this approach: for example, procuring and transporting relief supplies across the globe are inherently time- and labor-intensive, but recent investments in supply chain innovation in the manufacturing and delivery industries could drastically reduce these costs and timeframes. Billions have gone into related innovations in recent years, with $7B of VC capital invested in rapid grocery delivery in 2021 alone; our bet is that this has all resulted in IP we can leverage.

Not only is this market attractive in terms of size and opportunity for tech advancement, but we are also seeing a shift wherein stakeholders are making a much more active, visible effort to increase its footprint and to get businesses involved. Public sector organizations have begun to call for private sector engagement and are now promoting collaboration with companies, with the World Economic Forum’s Human Resilience Investing initiative launching in 2019 and making a splash in promoting blended finance and pushing impact innovation closer to the mainstream. As many other firms, funds, non-profits, and governments take notice, there are more engaged participants - with brainpower and experience - to work with.

Beyond the Hype - respecting the complexities and barriers ahead

Yes, this is a huge opportunity. However, we must recognize the many barriers and complexities that make it harder for technology innovations to drive its possible impact: a general disconnect between those developing growth technology and those who live and breathe humanitarian solutions, a lack of high-quality market data, business models which deviate from those in developed countries, are just a few. We don’t view technology as a silver bullet that can magically and unilaterally solve problems: it must be coupled with a deep understanding of the problems themselves to develop an economical yet humanistic approach for solutioning

This is why we must come with the right set of cross-sector capabilities, partner often and early and take on an experimental and humble approach.

Decoding Our Commitment: What doubling down means to us

We are truly excited about the opportunity to accomplish outsized societal returns by putting existing technology to work and believe this approach can exponentially boost how we serve our most vulnerable populations - but how are we going to do it? To continue to develop the informational, technological and corporate resources needed to succeed in this sector, we at PollyLabs are focusing our efforts on four key goals:

  • Research: To bridge the existing knowledge gaps and augment our understanding of the humanitarian landscape, we will undertake in-depth research into the sector. We aim to uncover innovative applications of technology that could drive significant improvements in humanitarian aid delivery. To this end, we will be collaborating closely with tech partners to redefine what's possible in the humanitarian space.

  • Partner: The humanitarian sector is already packed with remarkable organizations performing groundbreaking work. We aim to complement and build upon these efforts rather than reinvent the wheel. By collaborating early and often, we intend to ensure our work is effective, efficient, and supportive of ongoing initiatives. We're particularly excited about potential collaborations with organizations such as HRI, that are contemplating the role of the private sector in humanitarian work.

  • Back: We actively support promising founders who are building ventures that align with our mission, aiding their growth and facilitating access to vital large-scale funding. Two examples are Aseel and Re+Connect:

    • Aseel is an early-stage venture creating an Etsy-equivalent for growing economies while slashing humanitarian distribution costs by two-thirds. It is developing the infrastructure to connect artisans selling handmade products and enabling transparent humanitarian aid flows globally.

    • Re+Connect is another early-stage venture, a spin-off from MIT, integrating an accessible, reliable, and user-friendly software application with a community engagement program. This initiative empowers residents to act as "community ambassadors," crowdsourcing essential information to bridge the gap between resource and service provision and community needs during disasters.

  • Incubate: we co create new solutions alongside exceptional 'future founders' who bring lived experience to these critical areas, keeping in mind that many of the most effective entrepreneurs for this market are underrepresented and are themselves from marginalized communities. Our approach to co-creating ventures is rigorous and thesis-driven, which boosts the likelihood of success for companies striving to address pressing global issues.

The real outcome we are working for - going out of business

At the core of our approach is the strong belief that the humanitarian sector must extend beyond immediate relief. Regardless of whether a crisis is man-made or natural, sporadic or persistent, every intervention should contribute to laying the foundation for the future economic prosperity of the community it touches.

The collective goal is not to excel in aid innovation, but to accelerate the collective effort to eliminate the need for it.


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