Everywhere I go nowadays people are talking about impact. From Millennials wanting to find it in their work lives, to impact investors seeing a business model in the triple bottom line; ‘for good’ tech architects wanting to impact the world; slightly more humbled humanitarian workers bringing impact to a community in conflict; ESGs in corporate branding; impact tokens in Web3 and a growing consumer population voting with their money on what they will purchase based on environmental impact.
Impact is currently measured in the humanitarian and development sector through proxy indicators and outputs. How many PPR kits were delivered, or was a shelter constructed? As I have learnt over 25 years, just because a house is built does not mean that the family has been positively impacted. Has that process forced the family into debt meaning they couldn’t afford to pay for health care for their unwell infant? Or have they been relocated away from employment opportunities, so they can’t live in it anyway?
In the corporate and public sectors, impact is measured through proxy indicators and checklists, with greenwashing and box ticking being used to protect brands from consumer flight, and politicians from a scandal. Anyone involved with an audit will be aware of the processes involved to ensure that the locations chosen are the top performing and cleaned up in advance of the visit, and that the choice of people spoken to is controlled and, in some cases, tracked. Media scandals about greenwashing abound.
Impact in technology programs, Web3, blockchain and Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) is currently being measured through scraping the internet for data, drones and artificial intelligence. While the data here is more timely and larger in scale, the issues with biased algorithms are evident, whilst the most marginalised have no trace on the internet so remain hidden.
With a growing sense of urgency and responsibility around the climate crisis and its social and environmental impact, it is increasingly essential that funds are spent on real impact. The knowledge and ability to measure that impact is becoming increasingly important as it is driving where both the consumers and investors (private and public) funds are being invested.
The normal corporate drivers however, across all sectors, encourage measurements of impact to be grey and adaptable by engineering in costly and complex self-reporting systems. My sense is that with the impending crisis looming, and with growing consumer awareness and education driving a stronger market incentive to deliver impact, it is critical to ensure that the measurement of that impact is transparent, equitable, simple and scalable.
Is it not time simply to ask the affected person their opinion of the impact: to ask for their feedback through a safe and independent mechanism? This would give agency to those affected, not to mention enhancing their sense of dignity through having their voice heard. It would also uncover the complexity of the situation and reveal how to adapt to ensure impact more efficiently. Most importantly, as has been evidenced so far by Talk To Loop, seeking feedback using a safe and independent mechanism keeps people safe.
25 years ago, when I started working in humanitarian action, speaking at scale to local people was not possible. I was only able to speak with HQ and my family once a month on a Thuraya satellite phone. But now the technology exists to connect us all, directly, at scale and on an ongoing basis.
Institutions who embed people’s direct feedback into their business model have been able to deliver trust and significant growth.
AirBnB for example, has made sharing a part of your home with a complete stranger off the internet, commonplace. Trust has been designed into the core of their service model. Feedback from hosts and guests is transparently available to all sides. For almost a decade now, this kind of direct exchange and transparency is being baked into similar business models using the same technology.
Those with less power have always felt disenfranchised and abandoned; from the bonded factory labourer to the trafficked teenager; from the poor cocoa farmer to the family whose home has just been flooded. If we ask the owner of a new house or the hospital that received the PPE kits, or the staff working in a garment factory, about the impact they are experiencing, then we can flip that sense of disenfranchisement on its head. These people can report dumping of waste in their waterways, slave labour, and good employment practices. They can be given agency to inform where impact funds go, even if they are not the all-powerful consumer.
Today’s technology, as never before, enables people to report to independent actors anonymously. Data can be aggregated but people can be supported directly. That sounds like a more effective currency of impact to me. Transparent, equitable, simple and scalable.