Surfing the future

Getting ahead of future trends is not always about predicting particular events or outcomes, but about being poised to respond to the unpredictable.

Imagine surfing a huge, fast-moving wave. You don’t know how the wave is going to break — maybe an offshore wind will slow the wave’s crest or an underwater shoal will force it to crash earlier than expected.

Knowing something about prevailing winds and underwater shoals doesn’t hurt. But ultimately, your ability to stay on the board is not based on knowing exactly how and when the wave will break, but on having the agility, skills and experience to react to whatever comes your way.



For humanitarians, staying on top of fast-moving trends is a bit like riding that wave. While we can be pretty certain of some trends — the world’s temperature will continue to rise, drought and storm cycles will intensify, technology will transform our lives even more deeply — we don’t know how all these complex dynamics will play out and interact.

Humanitarians aren’t the only ones unsure of the future. Most thinkers, high-tech gurus, futurists and financial prognosticators generally only agree on a few basic things: the pace of change will increase, the web of interconnections that define modern life will become even more complex, and nobody really knows where the wave will take us.

  • Will the gap between rich and poor increase or decrease?
  • Will paper money disappear?
  • Will the centres of influence, capital and commerce shift?
  • How big can the world’s cities get?
  • When will space travel really be a thing?
  • What will the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics mean for human beings?
  • What could be the ramifications of genetic engineering on plants, animals and humans?
  • What will be the average age of death in 30 years?
  • What is the future of warfare?
  • What advances in energy and food production will we benefit from?

 The future is uncertain

Some answers to these questions lie in what is already happening. Take the question of money. Roughly 80 per cent of people in some urban areas in China, for example, now use no paper cash in their daily transactions, according to one study. It all happens electronically through mobile phones. In some parts of rural Africa, the statistics reveal a similar trend.

And how about these so-called ‘thinking machines’? Very primitive forms of artificial intelligence already play a huge role in our everyday lives — in our phones, cars and homes. Every time someone makes a purchase or does research on the internet, for example, computers track these activities then use complex mathematical formulas to profile consumers, predict future behaviour and market directly to their potential needs — all without any human input.

Similarly, computers use algorithms to make split-second stock-trading decisions, produce weather modelling analyses or tell certain weapons systems how to react in specific circumstances.

There is considerable debate about how quickly artificial intelligence and robotics will take over greater aspects of human life. But many thinkers predict that as the pace and complexity of life increases, humans will become more and more reliant on artificial intelligence to help them cope. When combined with other evolving technologies — genetic engineering or human enhancement — some predict that in a few generations, human beings could become a very different kind of animal.

It may sound far-fetched. But the assertion is based on developments already under way. Numerous companies are developing human enhancement systems, such as mechanical exoskeletons to improve physical strength. Others offer to install various forms of nano-technology (microscopic devices and computers) into human bodies to improve sight, provide security clearance or track a person’s biological status.

While these technologies pose many possible benefits, they also come with plenty of ethical baggage and potential humanitarian fallout. Might human enhancement technologies be put to malicious use or increase the likelihood of violations of humanitarian law? Will our increasing interface with technology be a source of freedom or leave us more vulnerable to control? If robots or semi-automated or enhanced humans do more work, what will it mean for workers, their families and communities? Will these changes affect people equally around the world?

The future is local

Not all trends and innovations are driven by new technology, however. Nor are they all developed in well-funded labs in developed economies of the global North or West. Many innovations are happening in communities around the world as people figure out new ways to cope with their own complex problems.

A case in point: an Indonesian farmer breeds black soldier flies that eat the garbage in streambeds that cause water blockages and flooding. While the adult insects help prevent flooding, the larvae of those flies can be used to feed farm animals.

This idea caught the eye of the Indonesian Red Cross Society (known locally as PMI), the IFRC, Hamburg University and various donors that teamed up to create an ‘innovation fund’ looking for pioneering flood-prevention ideas to support.

“Innovations are already happening in communities,” says Carlos Álvarez, who works on innovation and futures communications for IFRC’s Policy, Strategy and Knowledge unit. “It’s about bringing them funding and further incubating their innovations so they can be more widely diffused across communities to achieve impact on a larger scale.”

The soldier fly idea is just one of many that has come up in the last year as IFRC, ICRC and National Society teams have sought to interpret emerging and future trends and support ideas that will help the Movement get ahead of that wave — a key theme of the 2017 Statutory Meetings of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, set for November, in Turkey.

The RC² Forum, which will take place during the meetings, will focus on current and future dilemmas, as well as potential solutions. The ideas that emerge will complement discussion at the IFRC General Assembly, inform debates and decisions during the Council of Delegates, and help guide the agenda of the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 2019.

With so many questions ahead, however, the challenge for the Movement is not necessarily about predicting specific outcomes or developing the perfect gadget or innovation for any potential scenario. In a sense, it’s about learning to be better surfers.

“The question for us becomes: ‘How do we build the mechanisms and cultures within our organizations so that we are constantly scanning the horizon and adapting to the changes around us?’” says Shaun Hazeldine, who leads the IFRC team analysing future trends.

At the core of these discussions are some very fundamental and compelling questions: what kind of Movement do we need to be to face these complex and rapidly evolving challenges and what kind of humanitarians do we need to be in a world where even basic assumptions of past generations — including what it means to be human — may be open to question?

Promise or threat?

Given the rapid and potentially monumental changes ahead, is the future for humanity a bright one? Or will the changes to come lead to something darker? What does all this mean for humanitarians?

At gatherings of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteersand staff assembled to examine future trends as part of the ‘Futures and Foresights’ process, opinion was generally split, says Aarathi Krishnan, an IFRC innovation coordinator based in Kuala Lumpur. “About half saw the changes ahead as an opportunity and the other half saw them as a threat,” she says.

Bright or dark, change is upon us. And it’s happening fast. For the business world, staying on top of fast-moving trends, market forces and consumer tastes has always been critical.

With change happening ever more quickly, companies are investing even more in interpreting future trends, largely through the analysis of vast quantities of data. In short, they use computer-run mathematical formulas to look at patterns in vast quantities of data to reach conclusions or make decisions.

The convergence of artificial intelligence, computers capable of ‘deep learning’ and cloud computing (which allows vast data sets to be gathered, merged and analysed) provides new ways of seeing, understanding and influencing both individual behaviour and broad political and economic trends.

The transparent waves in this photo are described by their creator, Pablo Suarez, director of research for the IFRC Climate Centre, as a ‘data sculpture’. The peaks and valleys represent variations in water flow upstream and downstream of a dam in Togo, where a machine-learning programme is being used to predict flood dangers. Photo: Janot Mendler de Suarez/IFRC Climate Centre

Big data

Humanitarian organizations have tended not to invest far less heavily in innovation, making use of breakthroughs developed in other sectors. But that is starting to change. How ‘big data’ is used may be one example. The Netherlands Red Cross, for example, has launched the 510 Global Initiative, which seeks to make humanitarian aid faster and more cost-effective by using machine learning to predict the damage caused by typhoons, earthquakes and floods.

“Based on historical damage data, we are increasingly able to predict the impact of a disaster, just hours after it happens,” says Maarten Van der Veen, the initiator of the project for the Netherlands Red Cross. “This initial data can help us prioritize our immediate relief operations.”

At the Nangbéto dam on the Mono River in Togo, meanwhile, machine-learning systems are helping hydropower operators predict flood risks and communicate these risks to communities downstream.

“Hydropower dams are natural partners for this initiative as it is possible to predict when flooding is likely to occur,” says Pablo Suarez, who is associate director for research and innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and one of the architects behind the scheme.

After a major flood on the Mono River in 2010, when it took 34 days for disaster relief funding from international sources to reach the Togolese Red Cross, Suarez and colleagues developed a system that uses a complex algorithm to analyse past rainfall patterns and predict when the dam will reach full capacity. Disaster prevention funds are then released before any flooding takes place based on forecasts of likely peak flows downstream.

My data, my dignity

These projects are just two examples of the role data can and will play in our future. By 2018, some 3.6 billion – almost half of the world’s population – are expected to use at least one messaging app.

Humanitarian organizations are no exception. One example is ‘What now?’, an initiative supported by a partnership between Google and the IFRC’s Global Disaster Preparedness Centre, that provides worldwide mobile users with early warning and action guidance.

New research from the ICRC suggests that apps should be considered to a much greater extent as a tool to make operations more effective and responsive to rapidly evolving needs. But as the ICRC’s January 2017 report, Humanitarian Futures for Messaging Apps, points out, humanitarian organizations need to tread carefully.

Most messaging apps collect a wide range of information about users as a matter of routine business. So if humanitarians are using messaging apps to reach specific groups of people in need, they must protect that data. Even the inadvertent collection of that data could increase risks to individuals or groups.

Humanitarian organizations, therefore, must have clear and strong data-protection policies that proactively address a range of intersecting issues, from informed consent to effective encryption measures and privacy rights, among other things.

This is relevant beyond the use of messaging apps, as humanitarian organizations increasingly use electronic means to conduct field assessments, register beneficiaries and transfer funds to aid recipients. Some even use biometric data such as handprints to verify the identity of people receiving aid. This is part of the reason the ICRC recently launched a research project with Privacy International to further explore the risks of metadata generated by humanitarian organizations.

New challenges, new baggage

Indeed, with every new opportunity, trend or innovation comes a myriad of interacting technical and ethical dilemmas. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement will need to identify, analyse and respond to these trends — and weigh in on the humanitarian consequences — more rapidly than ever.

In a recent article for the blog of the International Telecommunications Union, the ICRC’s Anja Kaspersen notes that such algorithms have diagnosed some forms of cancer more accurately than experienced human oncologists.

“And recently, an artificial intelligence algorithm called Libratus is showing great promise as a poker player,” she notes. The problem is that, so far at least, it’s hard to know why these algorithms made certain decisions and this makes corrective action or accountability extremely challenging. If artificial intelligence is used to give autonomous targeting power to weapons systems, these questions become even more serious.

“Imagine a deep learning algorithm that proves more capable than humans in distinguishing combatants from civilians,” she writes.

“Knowing it will save more civilians than human decision-makers, do we have an ethical obligation to allow this algorithm to make life-and-death decisions? Or would this be morally unacceptable, knowing that the algorithm will not be able to explain the reasoning that led to a mistake, rendering us incapable of remediating its ability to repeat that mistake?”

Understanding the potential benefits and pitfalls of artificial intelligence [AI] is critical, she says, as we appear to be “on the brink of an AI-powered global arms race… and AI-powered systems are likely to transform modern warfare as dramatically as gunpowder and nuclear arms”.

New players, new playing field

Good or bad, not all big changes affecting humanitarian action come from new technology. New humanitarian actors, including creative alliances between private, public and community actors, are changing the way people engage in humanitarian response.

“A new wave of social impact enterprises are working with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to design solutions and attract alternate forms of financing,” says Ramya Gopalan, IFRC innovation coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Region. “These social impact enterprises often incorporate lean, start-up management style.”

For the Movement, experience has always been one of its greatest assets. But in this new world, this can be a hindrance. “Many organizations as large as ours have an entitled approach,” Gopalan notes. “We believe we will stay in business because it’s always been that way. But that entitled approach no longer holds.”

As humanitarian organizations face more pressure from donors to transform their operating model and better coordinate their actions, including with local groups and other sectors, understanding these trends will be critical.

“The humanitarian ecosystem is screaming for change and this requires a significant mindset shift,” according to Peter Walton and Fiona Tarpey, director and manager of international strategy and policy for the Australian Red Cross, in an article for the Red Cross Red Crescent website (

“We must start taking a longer-term, more systemic approach to collaboration between organizations and Movement components and find more creative coalitions,” they argue.

One example is an Australian Red Cross pilot project in Vanuatu to involve local suppliers in aid delivery. The idea is that partnerships between local suppliers, humanitarian agencies and government are formed to increase the capacity for local businesses to provide goods and services from the first rapid response. This could thereby bring relief more quickly to hard-to-reach island communities while also stimulating the local economy.

Such change will not be without pitfalls, however, and one big challenge for the Movement lies in adapting to change while ensuring respect for the values that have ensured its reputation as a trusted and neutral provider of impartial relief for more than 150 years.

“It’s not about getting rid of our traditions and our culture,” says John Sweeney, who coordinates IFRC’s futures and foresights team. “It’s about figuring out how to take on opportunities and meet the changes head on, finding things that work and scaling them up, making that the new normal and then continuing to mutate and evolve.”


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