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How IBM is Giving a Major Boost to Vulnerable Communities Working Hard to Innovate

IBM's new Sustainability Accelerator puts cutting edge AI, cloud tech, and access to its own experts, into the hands of innovators across the globe.

When setting out to check the quality and safety across over 100 acres of wetlands, it’s a lot easier with the right tools — just ask Dr. Nisha Priya Mani. In 2021, she and her team at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) India began to see the power that access to advanced cloud intelligence could bring to their ongoing efforts to rejuvenate Southern India’s Lake Sembakkam.

Their mission since 2018: spearhead an ambitious project to reclaim and boost the sustainability (and livability, for its fauna) of one of India’s most polluted bodies of water. This included boosting the wetland’s natural water storage capacity by 40%, improving its flood-mitigation capabilities, and essentially rebuilding a biodiverse habitat over its contemporary degraded state.

Lake Sembakkam with accumulated silt, wastewater inlets flowing from near by houses, and invasive aquatic plants courtesy of The Nature Conservancy.

When IBM volunteered to support the project with its technologies in 2021, however, the possibilities for the depth of analysis came into focus. IBM’s team helped develop a roadmap and technical design for an Internet of Things (IoT) system with sensors for measuring and monitoring water quality, while also leveraging remote sensing capabilities and spatial datasets. Naturally, this also included an alert when water quality reached concerning levels.

It was a sea change in terms of how quickly data could be compiled and actioned for a project of this scope in the area. To date, the project is tracking impressive results.

Our initial restoration activities have measurably increased the water storage capacity of the lake by over 1,00,000m3 through silt removal and have offered flood mitigation benefits through construction of embankments and flood regulator gates.

Official status statement from TNC Website

Today, in addition to their collaboration in Lake Sembakkam, TNC is also one of three members of IBM’s Sustainability Accelerator pilot program, a new program primed to be a flagship example of how corporate social responsibility, paired with the innovation deep within global communities, can combine to create something far greater than the sum of its parts.

What is the IBM Sustainability Accelerator?

IBM’s 2022 Sustainability Accelerator program is an extension of initiatives like what TNC has been able to achieve with its lake restoration project. It’s a new program, announced in February of this year, that is opening up IBM’s suite of technologies to applicants across the globe, particularly in communities most vulnerable to environmental challenges.

It’s also a landmark program that allows IBM to truly get its feet wet and work closely to help solve for some of climate change’s biggest challenges, on the local level. For companies selected to participate, IBM will provide access and credits for its artificial intelligence and cloud services like IBM Watson, IBM Cloud, or the Environmental Intelligence Suite, among others.

It all comes wrapped in a bow with a cohort of assigned IBM staffers, working from the ground up with each the selected orgs, to develop programs that make the best inherent use of the tools to create results. In short, it’s about far more than providing a grant or donations.

Less of a grant, more of a partnership

While corporations providing financial support is always welcome, it has its limitations. First, scalability in a challenge; more money spent on an existing solution can mean more of a less-efficient and unoptimized process.

The Sustainability Accelerator helps solve for this by allowing community governments and non-profits to educate and involve IBM in the understanding of their localized sustainability projects in a way that helps IBM be a part of the solution, rather than simply funding what’s already there.

In essence, it leverages the very best of global expertise, and combines it with the very best of IBM’s knowledge and technologies, to create environmental solutions that can measurably make a difference.

Naturally, IBM isn’t shirking the the added-value of showcasing their capabilities to a global audience, but it’s intrinsically tied to a push that leverages their tech in a way that makes an impact on the key environmental issues of our time.

It’s a solution that offers scalability and long-term impact to the organizations involved by not only donating funds to selected companies, but access to bleeding edge tools, and human resources that most orgs only dream of.

What are the details of the Sustainability Accelerator and how can non-profits sign up?

To get the specifics of the program, we sat down with Jen Roynon, IBM Canada’s head of corporate social responsibility, who gave us her perspective on the added value the Sustanability Accelerator provides.

“To provide the kind of support for our partners we envision, it’s all about capitalizing on IBM talent and expertise; getting our IBM designers, architects, data scientists, consultants, all wrapped around the participating partner organization to really help create a digital transformation,” said Roynon.

This, she explained, is crucial to helping orgs leverage the technologies being brought to the table through the program. Whether it’s Watson, IBM Cloud Credits, or the optimal usage of weather data credits, mentorship is included depending on what the organization’s challenge is and what the technological needs are.

“It’s about capacity-building for our partners,” added Roynon.

For the 2022 cohort, the focus is on clean energy. Proposals are due by April 30, 2022, and must be submitted through the Submission Portal.

“We’re eager to support organizations that are actively working on clean energy & sustainable energy, and truly encourage them to apply, across Canada and globally. We love to see organizations focusing on how clean or dirty energy are impacting the vulnerable populations in their jurisdictions.”

The initiative is divided into two Phases, with key benchmarks in each, and each making maximum use of some of IBM’s proven systems.

Phase I: Accelerator engagements with selected organizations will kick off with the IBM Garage. IBM’s methodology to apply design thinking and agile techniques to fast-track meaningful innovation and drive lasting culture change. During this process, IBM experts will work with the beneficiary organization to identify their needs and establish a clear roadmap to design, develop, deploy, and continually improve technology to help solve specific public challenges.

“Phase one is really about helping chart out the transformational journey of the organization, from ideation to building to scaling. We involve designers, data architects, consultants – every part of the IBM Garage ecosystem is designed to fast-track that kind of digital transformation.”

Jen Roynon, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, IBM Canada

Phase II: In the second phase, IBM experts from across the industry dig in to configure IBM resources and technology designed with a focus on helping participants meet the community and environmental impact goals established in the first Phase. As mentioned earlier, these technologies include IBM WatsonIBM Cloud, and the Environmental Intelligence Suite, among others. But it doesn’t stop there. In addition, IBM Sustainability Accelerator beneficiary organizations will receive monthly IBM Cloud credits, weather data credits, mentorship, and access to the IBM partner ecosystem.

Pilot program already showing signs of success.

To date, IBM has conducted a pilot project with three initial participants of the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, including the team at The Nature Conservancy India, who are now focusing on farming and crop burning for the purposes of their Accelerator-focused project.

Along with two other organizations, these teams have begun their projects focused with a theme of sustainable agriculture, and they’ve successfully finished their Phase 1 this past December:

  • The Nature Conservancy India: The Nature Conservancy India is building a public information platform to help eliminate crop residue burning in North India in furtherance of their goal to improve agricultural sustainability, public health, and help reduce climate change impact in India.
  • Heifer International: U.S.-headquartered Heifer International is working with IBM to develop scalable and affordable digital solutions designed to equip farmers’ cooperatives in Malawi with weather and crop yield forecasts to help increase their yields and incomes.
  • Plan21 Foundation for Sustainable Human Development:­ Argentinian non-profit Plan21 is helping smallholder farmers in Latin America manage their crops more sustainably — with the goal of increasing their productivity and income, and contributing to consumer awareness and the development of more responsible markets.

A two-year program with eyes on the far future.

IBM’s focus on sustainability, combined with the manner in which it’s being implemented, is bringing an commendable format to the corporate social responsibility space.

The Accelerator is ostensibly a showpiece format for allowing a global corporation to both showcase its technologies while committing to work hand-in-hand with non-profits in a way that not only drives fundamental change on the ground for these orgs, but can create new systems for partnership bringing the best of for-profit and non-profit to the table.

Moreover, it’s all paired to an inherently scalable working model that will be a roadmap for corporations, governments and non-profits worldwide on how to collaborate for measurable impact.

Driving sustainability is crucial because the planet requires a cohesive effort to address the ecological crises we face. But sustainability will also be a $12 trillion business a year by 2030, according to Accenture, and looking at the opportunity for business growth that it offers is something all corporations are paying close attention to.

“I’m really excited,” added Roynon. “My goal over the next month is to get the word out to as many folks working on clean energy & sustainability as possible.”

Jen invites any organizations even simply considering an application, or questioning if their work is a fit for the Sustainability Accelerator, reach out to her directly with any questions.

We at Techbomb News will keep an eye on the program as more info and applications continue.


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