22 Jan 2019


(Hint, when the future of our food system is at stake)

Words by Reece Proudfoot, WWF-Australia Innovation Strategist

As a young boy, dreaming about being an astronaut (so cliché, but hey), I came across a long-standing urban legend concerning the US-Russia space race. It went something like this; During the 1960s NASA spent millions of dollars researching and developing a space pen – i.e. a pen that could write in zero gravity (the much-loved Biro, alas, could not). The Russians, however, saved their millions and just used a pencil.

Whether this is true or not (most believe it’s a myth), this story signifies a few important points:

  1. When solving complex problems you don’t necessarily need a complex solution. Sometimes it’s best to keep it simple!
  2. With limited funds (especially applicable for a charity like WWF) – always make sure you are solving the right problem. (Was the problem that ink pens don’t work in space? Or was it actually not being able to write in space?)
  3. Sometimes you don’t need to do the resource-intensive ‘inventing’ per se. You can partner with folks and orgs who have already invented pretty cool solutions which can be repurposed.
  4. And finally, technology can be powerful and transformative, but it is a means to an end. It is an option for solving a problem. It’s not an end in itself.

Now it’s well-known that the US won the race to the moon, but both countries made it eventually. This was because they had a single-minded focus on achieving this goal (their ‘moonshot’). They invested time and money and harnessed new, powerful technologies (not just pencils) that got them there. And they engaged millions of citizens as supporters along the way.

Today, the term ‘moonshot’ (that is; “a difficult or expensive task, the outcome of which is expected to have great significance.”) has been co-opted to refer to any ambitious goal, slightly audacious, bold, perhaps even a little reckless, but one worth trying.

And there is no greater issue in need of a moonshot than fixing our global food system. Why? Because biodiversity loss is happening at greater rates than ever. And 70% of global biodiversity loss is attributable to food production (yes, it really is that big). In addition to this, food production also contributes to significant human rights abuses, including modern day slavery.

Pretty important, hey?

Without a dramatic move beyond ‘business as usual’ the current severe decline of the natural systems that support modern societies will continue – with serious consequences for nature and people.

Quite simply, halting biodiversity loss is up there with climate change as being fundamental to the future of our species, our planet and the species we share it with.

Now whether you’re a hardcore environmentalist, or like me - you’re just quite fond of living, eating etc. biodiversity loss and sustainable food is an issue that should be on everyone’s plate (pun intended). Simply put - we need to fix it. But the great news is we know how to fix it. We just need to mobilise people, brains, money and resources to do it!

Over the last 40 years WWF has focussed on transforming the way that global food supply chains and markets operate, to reduce environmental impact. Over the last 12 months, through our innovation program and venture accelerator ‘Panda Labs’ and in partnership with BCG DV, WWF have been developing an ambitious new solution, and just last week, we launched it – a platform called OpenSC.

Open What?

Now imagine, you’re sitting down for a meal at your favourite restaurant. You see delicious pan-fried tuna steak on the menu, but before you order you take out your phone, scan a QR code on the menu, and are able to see exactly where the fish was caught, who caught it (i.e. no slave labour or worker exploitation), the vessel it was caught on, the way it was transported, even the temperature it was transported at.

OpenSC - 1000px

Now instead of just one piece of fish, imagine the effect of this level of transparency and consumer empowerment on a scale of millions of tonnes of fish, beef, cotton, soy, sugar or other global commodities contributing to biodiversity loss. This is the scale of the ambition for WWF, and consequently OpenSC.

What is OpenSC?

OpenSC is the world’s first platform accessible to businesses and consumers that uses cutting edge technology, including blockchain, to track individual food products from origin to consumer and simultaneously runs checks on sustainability. For a more detailed explanation of what OpenSC is and how it works, read this!

OpenSC infographic
© WWF-Australia

Now OpenSC leverages some pretty cutting edge technology, including blockchain. Blockchain might seem like just another buzzword, but this technology, particularly when it comes to supply chain sustainability, traceability and transparency, has the potential to be transformative.

But OpenSC is not just a blockchain platform. Just like our space pen scenario, we set out to solve a problem, and remained agnostic about the solution. Just like “How might we enable astronauts to write in space?”, with OpenSC we started with the problem:

“How might we capture data on a product at source, verify the sustainability credentials, store this data in a trustworthy way and expose it to consumers in an engaging and user-friendly manner”.

“How might we capture data on a product at source, verify the sustainability credentials, store this data in a trustworthy way and expose it to consumers in an engaging and user-friendly manner”.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock

Blockchain, in addition to a number of other emerging technologies and social trends, happened to be one of the existing solutions we could leverage to solve this problem. We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. But there’s no doubt that we are at an inflection point - where emerging technologies are more widely available and accessible than ever, with the cost for implementation at scale having been reduced to pennies on the dollar, meaning we didn’t have to look far to find our ‘pencil’.

In order to verify the suitability of blockchain and other technology and human solutions (and continue our investment of time and resources) WWF and BCG DV set about running short, contained experiments, or ‘validation sprints’. These sprints aimed to prove that our prototype solutions actually had merit, had the potential to solve the problem, and the potential to be scaled globally across multiple supply chains.

With two pilots successfully conducted on tuna and wild-caught prawn supply chains, and a number of our assumptions validated, OpenSC was launched at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos in front of global political, business and civil society leaders.

So why is WWF, an Environmental NGO, building a tech-enabled venture?

Some might say this is an ambitious, even bold move. Why is an ENGO launching a ‘purpose with profit’ software platform? Well firstly, it’s not just WWF involved in this venture. ‘Wicked’ problems require new, unorthodox approaches to problem solving, and new, innovative partnerships and collaborations between unusual allies. This is why WWF has partnered with BCG DV (with significant experience in the development of blockchain-enabled traceability platforms) on OpenSC.

But most importantly, it goes without saying that the scale of the problems we face calls for ambition, even audacity. And the question remains - in a world with rapidly increasing biodiversity loss, climate change and inequality, with the clock ticking and where business as usual is no longer an option, who is going to step up to take the necessary risks to develop new the models and experiment with new, bold solutions?

Just this week Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, with US$6 trillion of assets under management said:

"Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose. Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them."

With the lines blurring more than ever between for-profit and not-for-profit, with business increasingly willing to accept responsibility for environmental stewardship and with ethics at the centre of the debate about the development and exploitation of emerging technologies, it is crucial that NGOs reconsider their role as solution facilitators, take a leadership role in creating new pathways forward in collaboration with business and technology companies, and perhaps even rewrite some of the rules along the way (with pencils, not space pens, obviously).

Is your organisation interested in partnering with WWF? Get in touch