Q&A with Zahid Torres-Rahman: Radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19

Zahid Torres-Rahman

Co-Founder and CEO,
Business Fights Poverty

Business Fights Poverty has taken an active lead in promoting radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19. In the following Q&A, Zahid shares his key learnings and perspectives on curating purposeful collaboration and gets us thinking about what’s next.

31 July, 2020

Q: Zahid, tell us a bit about yourself: Who are you and what you stand for?

A: I have over 20 years’ experience in business and international development and am passionate about helping businesses collaborate with others to scale their social impact.

Q: So, how did you end up getting involved with COVID-19 responses? 

A: It was just before 6 o’clock on 11 March, and I was on my last call of the day when news broke that the WHO Director-General had declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Sometimes life-changing moments are only recognizable as such in retrospect, but sometimes – like this one – you recognize their significance in the very moment.

It just so happened that my call was with Myriam Sidibé, world-renowned handwashing expert, and Catalina Garcia Gomez, Global Director of Corporate Affairs at AB InBev. For those of you who have met either of these inspiring women, you won’t be surprised to learn that within about five minutes, we had agreed to launch a Business and COVID-19 Response.

Add in three more driven women – Jane Nelson, Director at the Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative; Liz Patterson, Head of Responsible and Inclusive Business at the UK Department for International Development; and Yvette Torres- Rahman, my wife and Business Fights Poverty Co-Founder – and within a matter of days we had pivoted our organization to focus exclusively on guiding companies’ immediate and longer-term decision making to support the most vulnerable in the face of COVID-19.

For me personally, it felt like our 15 years’ of curating purposeful collaboration had all been a practice for this one moment. To their immense credit, our entire team leant into the challenge – working at a pace that none of us had worked at before.

Q: Business Fights Poverty has taken an active lead in promoting radical collaborative innovation in the face of COVID-19. What are the key learnings so far?

A: It helped that from the start, Business Fights Poverty has operated a fully-flexible, dispersed workforce model, and a large part of our experience has been in driving online collaboration. 

We compressed our Challenge-based social problem-solving approach – which normally takes 6 to 9 months – into a 10-day cycle and, through 18 events in the following 9 weeks, we brought together over 14,000 people across our amazing community and co-created 50 outputs to guide and inspire business action, in partnership with Jane Nelson and funded by UK aid from the UK Government, along with a number of our corporate partners.

You can find all of these materials in our Business and COVID-19 Response Centre, and I invite you to share them widely. These include our original Response Framework, published in March, and our follow-up, Rebuild Better Framework, which looks towards how businesses can support efforts to create a more inclusive, sustainable and resilient future. We have also produced seven Action Toolkits that focus on specific topics: tackling gender-based violence, supporting vulnerable workers, helping micro and small businesses, promoting handwashing and other preventative measures, creating national collaboration platforms, driving rapid innovation through collaboration, and supporting NGO partners.

While we were busy distilling actionable insights for decision-makers at the global level, Myriam and her team were accelerating massive action on the ground in Kenya through the National Business Compact on Coronavirus, and you can read more about her experience and reflections in her Action Toolkit (also available in the Response Centre).

This has been a true team effort, and I am grateful to all those who played a part: our lead authors, the close to 30 other people who stepped into our core team, the many experts and practitioners who shared their insights through our events, and the various companies and content partners who came forward to support this collective effort. More broadly, I have been moved by the many people across our community who have sprung into action, mobilizing their businesses, NGOs, or government departments, and collaborating in new ways – even with traditional competitors – to make an urgent difference. Over 30 of our fellow business networks have also been coordinating and collaborating with us behind the scenes.

Most inspiring has been the fact that this has all been done despite unprecedented personal and professional stress. We have all been impacted, and we have all been moved by those on the frontline who have been keeping us safe. We took the early, but difficult, decision to cancel our flagship Washington event, due to take place in April, and have since cancelled all of our large in-person events this year. Iain Forrest, a medical student and cellist from New York, was due to open our DC event. Instead, we asked him to perform for a video that we dedicated to all front line workers. The result is a performance that moves me to tears every time I watch it!

In terms of some key learnings, I would summarize them as follows:

  1. Be flexible
  2. Utilize existing models
  3. Partner with the experts
  4. Active decision-making
  5. Keep sharing

Q: What do you think is next for business and society in the battle against COVID-19?

A: This is only the start. The pandemic is far from over – and is only just peaking in many countries with weak health systems and social safety nets. With the pandemic likely to come back in force in many countries, and with the most vulnerable facing the greatest risks, we will be dealing with a complex mix of emergency response, recovery and rebuilding for a long time to come. 

Importantly, we as a community have the opportunity and, I believe, the responsibility, to act now to build a better future. Let’s face it; the pandemic has exacerbated deep inequalities and fragilities in the current system that have always been there. Actions we take now will have long-term consequences for those who have been most impacted, the very people whom all of us in this community have dedicated our careers to supporting.

Q: As the world looks to “rebuild better“, what key issues do companies and stakeholders need to consider?  And what is the role of partnerships in addressing these?

A: These questions are at the heart of a series of discussions we launched across our community and beyond – to understand what “better” means at a society level, business level and an individual level. This includes Business Fights Poverty Online 2020 where over 1,000 people from across the globe joined together for a week of conversation, connection and collaboration. 

Important questions we are working on that will also help businesses to rebuild better include: 

  1. How can we embed purpose into business?
  2. How can companies and others best work together to support MSMEs and vulnerable workers?
  3. What are the opportunities for re-skilling and up-skilling?
  4. What can be done to ensure equity in our workplaces?
  5. How can we collaborate to accelerate and deepen positive impact?

Anuj Dhariwal & Mario Augusto Maia from HelloScience both were guest speakers at the Business Fights Poverty Online event (13-17 July, 2020), which was part of the High-Level Political Forum (HLFP). The HLPF annual meeting is the core United Nations platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

“As every crisis also brings new opportunities, we must see what we first need to unlearn, both as employees and managers, and what new skills need to be learnt. Digital skills were becoming a must have anyways, Covid-19 crisis just brought it earlier. Focus on new ways of working and how you may convert your obstacles into your USPs. Upskilling is a continuous rigor, like a fitness program, and not a one-month subscription”

– Dr. Anuj Dhariwal, Director, Head of Scouting & Venture, Novozymes

“Looking at it from an investor’s perspective, it would be highly relevant to see corporates with complete understanding, commitment and disclosure related to ‘social impact and risks through the value chains’ where they operate. This has always been appreciated but Covid-19 has certainly made the need for change even more pronounced with supply chain breakdowns leading to different social implications across it. Ultimately, corporates should examine every part of their businesses, activities, relationships and supply chain using social impact lens

Mario Augusto Maia, Head of External Innovation and Investments, Novozymes

Learn more about Business Fights Poverty Online 2020 

The resounding learning so far: People want to lean in, to “rebuild better” and are willing to roll up their sleeves in order to do so, but as an African proverb says:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

And we will be looking to work more closely with the HelloScience community in the near future, and would love for you to be a part of this work going forward. If you would like to know more, join the community or get involved, please do join us here: https://businessfightspoverty.org 

Q&A with Jens Ahrengot: New HelloScience Features

Jens Ahrengot Boddum

Full-stack Developer, HelloScience Team

In the following Q&A, our resident coder Jens gives some insights about what he’s currently working on, what he likes about working with HelloScience and what the community can expect when back from summer holidays.

31 July, 2020

Q: Jens, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?

A: Hi, nice to meet you all!

I’m a software developer with over a decade of experience and have worked on a range of projects around the world, ranging from angel-funded startups to fortune 500’s. 

For the past 3 years I’ve been working on the 1.731.393 lines of code that keep helloscience.io running. 

When I’m not coding for a living, I’m often coding for fun on various side projects; otherwise you’ll often find me fixing up my old Alfa Romeo or grilling something on the barbecue. 

Q: What are you working on and what can the community expect when we come back from the summer holiday?

A: Right now we’re working on three parallel tracks on the helloscience.io platform. 

Track 1 is a new brand-new feature on the front page. We’re calling it the Bulletin Board, and you can think of it much like your personal feed on LinkedIn, except this isn’t limited to people you follow. This is a place where everyone can post their latest activities and achievements, ask for help and guidance or simply just read along to follow the success stories of others in our vibrant and growing community. 

The Bulletin Board will allow you to reach out to everyone on the platform with a single post. All the features you know from our comments and collaboration spaces will be there, including user tagging, rich embeds for videos, presentations, cases and much more. We’re excited about this feature and think it will bring everyone much closer together and are hoping to launch it shortly after the summer break.

Track 2 is a complete messaging system. The value in our platform comes from our users and in particular from lowering barriers to communication as much as possible. The messaging system will be our first step at improving this area. It’s something we’ve been working on for quite a while now, but it is a large feature with many milestones still ahead of us.

With the messaging system, we’re also doing a complete reimplementation of our notification system, to make it more useful and allow you to pick exactly which updates are the most important and relevant to and for you.  

Track 3 is ongoing improvements and maintenance of the software behind the platform. We’re constantly looking at how we can make the User Interface (UI) easier to use, keeping load times to a minimum, reducing technical issues and keeping the servers up to date – and generally just making this a nicer place to visit.

So, in short, we have lots of things cooking at the moment and we’re very happy to have you all onboard for this journey. You’re all helping us to uniquely position HelloScience in the space between entrepreneurship, sustainability and community involvement – and we want to make this happen for you — Thank you!

Q: Why do you think it is interesting working with HelloScience?

A: It’s all in the community. I think we have some fantastic actors here and if we can pull off our job of providing the right platform, together, we can help support an immensely positive societal impact.

On the ‘Community Feedback’ timeline below you can share your ideas and feedback. Look into the crystal ball of the HelloScience platform development, and shape the future of the new features by leaving a comment.

Q&A: The 14th Climate Partnership Launch

Søren Riis is Dr Phil. and integrates the philosophy of technology with Science and Technology Studies (STS).

He’s also the co-founder of the Danish startup company, www.gomore.com and founder of www.urbanawinebox.com

Søren is a member of the 14th climate partnership, an initiative led by Danish politician and former Danish Minister for Education and Research Tommy Ahlers,  supported by The Danish Chamber of Commerce.

HelloScience invited Søren to this Q&A session just after the 14th climate partnership launched its report with a number of recommendations to make Denmark a leading green entrepreneurial country.

26 June, 2020

Q: Søren, tell us a bit about yourself: Who are you and what you stand for? 

A: I’m a concerned citizen, an engaged individual and a philosopher of passion and profession.

Q: What is the 14th climate partnership all about, why is this agenda important?

A: The 14th climate partnership is about our common planet, preventing overhanging disasters, growing new ideas together and making the best of our place in history. 

It is important to me for at least three reasons; 1) I feel a personal call to help the transition to a green and at the same time better way of living. 2) As co-founder of the car- and ridesharing platform, GoMore, I would like to bring my experience from this work and the start-up community in general in play, and through the 14th climate partnership help giving new green entrepreneurs the best possible environment to develop their ideas. 3) It is a personal kick for me to collaborate with inspiring and dedicated people. 

Q: Why is it important to celebrate Moonshot technologies?

A: A moonshot technology literally often makes us look at the world, a problem, and ourselves in a different and very inspiring way. This makes “Moonshot” technologies very rewarding. 

However, there are also a couple of paradoxes about “Moonshot” technologies. If you only look at the narrow gain from the “first” real moon shot technology – namely Apollo 11 – then it brought 21.5 kg lunar rock back to Earth. In a broader sense, however, going to the moon and “Moonshots” are about “reaching for the stars”, developing technologies that are out of this world, and making grand collaborative projects work. 

Q: Søren, tell us about your ultimate Moonshot.

A: It is often good to gain some “altitude” in order to be able to look a bit beyond the current state of affairs. The history of technology is full of examples of dreamers and people breaking the status quo. When Matias Møl Dalsgaard and I first created GoMore, very few people thought that people would be willing to share cars and rides on a big scale – let alone with people they had never even met before. And this was just a bit more than 10 years ago, and today GoMore has more than 2 Million members in three countries.

However, over the last couple of years I have been thinking about what I like to call the “ultimate green transportation technology”. This technology is not the answer to transportation challenges, but it keeps fascinating me and I think it can be part of an attractive future. In one sense to me it represents a “Moonshot” technology, but in another sense, we have all the ingredients ready at hand to develop it, yet the perfect combination is still missing.

In short, the technology I am dreaming about is a combination of an airship and a solar farm: An airship does not use any energy to float in the air – and if this classic (almost disappeared) technology is combined with cutting-edge solar panels to propel the structure, then we have a fantastic green self-generating mode of transport. State of the art solar panels weigh very little and make enough energy to enable an airship to travel as fast as a train – but opposed to trains it needs very little infrastructure and travels on “starlight”. I do not see any reason why such airships could and should not be developed on a big scale. With this mode of transport, everybody could travel with a clean conscience, get a new perspective on travelling and see the earth floating by. 

If anybody reading this also thinks it would be interesting supporting and experimenting with this “moonshot” technology, please contact me at soren@gomore.com; I am already in touch with some engineering students at DTU Skylab, who want to help take the first steps …

Q: You also were the talent track lead in the 14th climate partnership.  What was your key recommendation?

A: We recommend attracting talent to green Danish startups by giving them more visibility in Denmark and abroad – and a much better chance to organize and share insights and experiences. We advised that this could be achieved by establishing a dedicated online platform, helping the community of green startups in Denmark to connect and flourish.

First of all this platform would need to help the community get to know each other better and develop long term. In Denmark, many students work in pretty random places next to their studies, without so much progressive learning taking place. We would like the students from technical and natural science disciplines, as well as from the humanities find jobs in startup companies more easily. In addition, we also focused on the need to make it easier and more attractive for young talents to either work for or create their own startup. 

Mette Lykke, CEO of Too Good To Go and member of the 14th Climate Partnership presents the the report on the long term support of visionary entrepreneurs with a ‘green mindset’.

Q: How can HelloScience play a part?

A: I very much hope that HelloScience can and will play a crucial part in this green community by connecting smart and engaged mentors of established companies with students and startups working on very concrete projects. It is my impression that this kind of collaboration and knowledge sharing across institutions and generations can prove to be very powerful. Many corporate employees miss the excitement and innovative power of startups and they often have a lot to offer. On the other hand, there is also great value for startups in having access to the deep, in-depth experience and established networks which Corporate mentors can bring to the table. 

Q: How have the recommendations been received?

A: I am happy to see that the most ambitious recommendation with the highest impact probably is going to be implemented, namely the adoption of a CO2-tax. Although we are not the only ones suggesting this, I do believe that our work has had a positive influence on Danish politicians.