The Elkington Report

Drinking at the exponential firehose: Hope for data overload?

A graphic of ocean waves with ones and zeroes
If supply chains could talk, they could have devastating stories.

I love the power of that good old Americanism "drinking at the firehose" — meaning being fed data way faster than the mind can absorb.

But information overload is now our daily reality as we plunge ever deeper into the world of exponential innovation and entrepreneurship. And, as we struggle to keep our noses above the riptides, one theme keeps popping to the surface: provenance.

When we hunted mammoths, we didn’t much care much about provenance. Later, when we bought products by leaning over a farmer’s gate, we knew where our food was coming from, if we cared to think about it.

But waves of globalization have ensured that the sources of what we buy became increasingly hazy. No problem if supply chains were run by angels, but as companies such as Nike found to their cost, angelic values rarely survive an encounter with hard-driving, greed-is-good capitalism.

To ensure at least a degree of transparency and authenticity, people such as the port wine producers used red-hot irons to sear their brands into the barrels their wine was shipped in. But as globalization continued to extend our supply chains, line-of-sight transparency for many products stretched — and then snapped. 

This was brought home to me recently in, of all places, London Zoo. I loathe zoos, but had been invited to chair a convening of various elements of the global tuna supply chain. In the room were the likes of Tesco (a major U.K. supermarket chain), fish canners such as John West (recently at the epicenter of a major controversy around the unsustainability of its tuna supply chain) and Princes (owned by Mitsubishi), seafood suppliers such as New England Seafood and a number of key NGOs, from edgy to mainstream.

As schoolchildren pressed their noses to the windows, wondering what sort of animals we were, we debated issues that are literally life and death — and not just for fish and fisherfolk. One way in which the world has tried to get a grip on illegal fishing, for example, has been to post trained observers aboard fishing vessels. Several have disappeared, presumably murdered.

So it’s easy to see how emotions can run high, Indeed, I had been warned that the Zoo process could mirror what would happen if all the cages were to be opened. Hardly. It was soon clear that everyone wanted to tackle the systemic dysfunctions in global supply chains. But one of many unanswered questions I came away with was how new technology might bring the sources of fish such as tuna back within our collective line of sight.

One possibility: Blockchain. This technology has gained much media exposure — and some notoriety — in recent times, mainly because of its role in powering Bitcoin, the alternative currency. Shortly after the tuna event, I talked to Jessi Baker, CEO of Provenance, whose aim is to use Blockchain to build "trust in great companies and their products."

Its pitch: "Every day we buy products that impact our planet. Opaque supply chains are devastating environments and compromising the wellbeing of people, animals and communities. Every product and business is different, but rarely do we have the information we need to make positive choices about what to buy."

Provenance, we are told, "is a real-time data platform that empowers brands to take steps toward greater transparency by tracing the origins and histories of products. With our technology you can easily gather and verify stories, keep them connected to physical things and embed them anywhere online."

When I asked Baker about her own provenance, she explained that she had been working on a Ph.D in crypto-currencies when she began to wonder whether the same technology could be used to inform consumer choice along complex supply chains. The aim was to give consumers the "back stories of products" in ways that could be shared via social media.

Although she noted that Provenance are still proving the underlying technology, and they have no plans to provide any form of scoring system, Baker is confident that Blockchain will enable and power new forms of certification that can help clean up supply chains — and provide valuable point-of-sale differentiation.

But along the way she expects to see the same sort of competitive and political struggles that marred the early years of the Internet. In this case there will be a growing need for common protocols and open-data standards ensuring that new forms of provenance do what they say they do on the can.

Volans recently co-hosted an event on the theme "Will Tech Unicorns Save Our Planet" at London’s Google-supported Campus. I met some fascinating would-be exponential organizations, including Yoti — who are working to do for people what Provenance plan to do for products such as fish

But most of these technologies work for consenting adults doing good work — and who want to be recognized as such. What about those who have embraced the dark side? How do we shine an exponentially brighter spotlight on the breakdown trajectories in the global economy?

We also recently hosted Gillian Caldwell, the new CEO of Global Witness, one of my very favorite NGOs. They do astounding — and often hazardous — work in exposing corruption and environmental abuse. Their threefold mission: to find the facts; uncover the story; and change the system. So how do we also turn that work into a new generation of apps? 

Like it or not, brave people, including Global Witness and tuna fishing observers, still will need to put their lives at risk. But there must be ways to bend these new technologies — among them Blockchain, drones, Big Data and artificial intelligence — to the task of exposing those creating bad impacts, not just those providing and tracking the good impacts the world increasingly says it wants?