WEF Executive Chairman and Founder Klaus Schwab presents his book, 'The Fourth Industrial Revolution' during a news conference in Cologny in January 2016. Photo by: REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

DAVOS, Switzerland — For international NGOs, many of the technologies on the agenda at the World Economic Forum annual meetings in Davos, Switzerland, last week will require them to rethink the way they work.

“Historically, INGOs have not had to transform in the face of radically evolving external circumstances,” said Mark Viso, CEO at Pact. “We could continue with business as usual, implementing projects based on donor-identified needs, and continue to do some good in the world. But, at Pact, we believe that this isn’t sufficient to end poverty, so we’re challenging ourselves to adapt — to transform— from the organization’s governance to the way we program.”

“We’re at a point in time where we must take bold, transformative action if we are to ensure the advances of the Fourth Industrial Revolution benefit everyone,” he added.

NGOs are increasingly aware of the fact that they cannot navigate this period of rapid technological change if they remain in their silos. That was part of the motivation for Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a new initiative launched in Davos last week, which Pact and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation are supporting.

Over the next three years, the more than 25 organizations that have joined the effort will identify ways to pursue the benefits of technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence, while also addressing the challenge of consumer trust and protecting the people they aim to serve.

Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO at Mercy Corps, speaks with Devex about the NGO of the future at the WEF meetings in 2018. Via YouTube

A new report from WEF and Pact, published last week to coincide with the launch of the new civil society platform, highlights the importance of partnerships between civil society organizations and other sectors.

“Our sector isn’t currently designed to be nimble, responsive to community needs or comfortable with a higher tolerance for failure that is necessary for iterative testing,” Viso said. “These are deep-seated challenges that we must work together as a sector with our community, government and business partners to tackle head-on.”

Policy conversations around emerging technology don’t engage civil society organizations as much as they could or as much as they should, said Silvia Magnoni, head of civil society communities at WEF.

She acknowledged some of the challenges this platform will face. It must figure out how to stand out among the growing number of technology and innovation initiatives in international development, how to involve smaller civil society organizations and not just large INGOs in this effort, and how best to convince these groups to invest in technology when they have scarce resources and must consider other competing priorities.

In addition to its work with civil society organizations, WEF is also working closely with governments on what it describes as 4IR technologies, largely through its Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which launched in San Francisco but has since expanded globally.

For example, at the annual meetings last year, WEF announced that Rwanda would be the first country to adopt performance-based regulations for all drones. Last week in Davos, WEF announced a new partnership with the state of Andhra Pradesh, India, which will pilot a newly launched drone toolkit for governments.

WEF is broadening its work on drones in Africa and exploring a pan African platform for drone regulation. At the same time, it is also deepening its work on health, for example by working with partners such as the Asian Development Bank to standardize global health data, and working with Rwanda to pilot precision medicine for cancer treatment.

As WEF and its NGO partners work with Rwanda and other developing countries to embrace new technologies, the question is how to design these solutions in a way that builds trust for consumers, said Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s minister of ICT and innovation. She noted that donors are often missing the mark when it comes to aligning with her innovation priorities.

“Sometimes we’ve seen a disconnect between the priorities we have as a continent and where the money is flowing,” she added.

Paula Ingabire, Rwanda's minister of ICT and innovation, on the importance of co-creation when developing projects focused on innovation and new technologies. Via YouTube.

It is essential that private sector partners, development partners, and partners such as WEF help governments choose which innovations make the most sense to implement, said Carla Kriwet, who leads work at Philips on connected care.

“Technology needs whole-system thinking; a co-creation environment where there’s trust between the participants, where we share the risk if it’s not sustainable or things go wrong,” she said.

Pact’s Viso said the metrics of success for this new civil society initiative include NGOs dedicating the time and budget necessary to explore the adoption of new technologies, changing the type of talent they are looking for and attracting, and coming up with new governance and business models to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.