Social impact and AI: Fabio Richter’s vision for humanitarian technology

November 22, 2023


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The profusion of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and its existentially consequential impact will leave no domain unturned. Envisioning a new productivity frontier, premonitions of change through AI have largely been proclaimed through its potential economic impact. AI could add up to $4.4 trillion annually to the global economy, according to a McKinsey report published in June 2023. However, an area of impact that remains chronically overlooked is humanitarian action. What is the role of AI and technology in tackling humanitarian challenges?

In this exclusive interview with Fabio Richter, we discuss the future of humanitarian technology, the role of charitable giving, and how his unique background has inspired him to use technology in the global public interest. Fabio shares his thoughts on role models and provides recommendations on how non-profits can use technology to amplify their missions. 

Lord Woolley of Woodford (Photo Credit: LinkedIn)

Fabio is the Founder of the Hot Meal Challenge, a viral fundraising campaign to tackle the United Kingdom’s rampant cost of living crisis by donating hot meals to food insecure homes. The Hot Meal Challenge is an emergency appeal in partnership with Sufra, a leading London-based food poverty charity, where Gen Z’s nominate each other to donate hot meals. Under the patronage of Lord Woolley of Woodford, Fabio created the challenge to raise awareness about the damming effects of hunger on social isolation and mental well-being. 

Fabio, can you tell us about your unique background?

My first work experience was in the flavour and fragrance industry. Whilst studying at King’s College London, I joined Givaudan’s (SWX:GIVN) digital strategy and innovation team to reinvent how perfumers formulate new fragrances. Working at the world’s largest flavour and fragrance company to witness how AI can be used to complement century-old craftsmanship mostly reliant on intuition was uniquely fascinating. This foundational experience shaped my current views on technology. Seeing first-hand how passionate creatives clash with numerically minded data scientists taught me how technology can be a unifying force between different disciplines. Once the perfumers understood that the AI-based scent creation tool would replace tedious note-keeping on spreadsheets to elevate their craftsmanship, everyone was on board. Internalizing the necessity for technology to honour human needs made me want to learn more about the role of innovation to promote human agency. So I enrolled at the London School of Economics for a Master’s degree to explore this. 

Everything changed when the pandemic hit. COVID-19 reversed decades of progress in healthcare, education, and poverty. There was a rallying cry for technologists around the world to do something. So I set out on a journey to build technology in the global public interest. I built a platform that allows students to study together by increasing peer accountability whilst in lockdown and a platform to tackle elderly loneliness through intergenerational dialogue. The feedback was very positive. People were starved for human connection. Once again, I realized that if we deploy technology effectively in times of uncertainty, it can prove itself a robust venue for humans to coalesce around. I rediscovered this idea over and over during other work experiences in Silicon Valley and Hong Kong. But there is so much more to do! 

After addressing these problems, what led you to tackle food poverty? Why did you create the Hot Meal Challenge?

Food inflation in the United Kingdom is up by 15% since last year. That’s the highest it’s ever been in 45 years. Of course, the human tragedy is that the cost-of-living crisis is very unequally distributed. Low-income families from minority ethnic backgrounds have to bear the brunt of this unjust crisis. Worse yet, the resulting consequences of food poverty are loneliness and social exclusion. So I found myself compelled to act.

To address the root cause of this problem it is not enough to just raise donations. I felt it had to be a full display of solidarity, where one small action inspires another. Where small gestures compound over time and people want to get involved. That’s how the idea of the Hot Meal Challenge was born. Through the Hot Meal App, people donate a hot meal (£5), challenge 3 friends to donate (they have 24 hours to accept) and post their personalized donation award on Instagram. The idea is that you pass your generosity to the next friend group. That’s my mission. 

Together with Sufra – a charity that works on the front-line in the fight against hunger and poverty to empower individuals and families – we decided to launch the campaign in the London university student community. Sufra immediately understood the underlying vision and potential of the challenge, because of its strong grassroots approach. Rather than exclusively distributing charitable food aid, we wanted to see how food can bring people together and build resilient communities. Because food fulfils so much more than just physiological needs. By fostering a sense of community, it fulfils moral and spiritual ones too. Accordingly, we decided the hot meals would be served together in a community of other people. We were able to raise over 200 three-course meals just within the first 24 hours of the campaign. 

During our launch event we were tremendously privileged to be joined by Lord Woolley of Woodford who is the founder of Operation Black Vote and Principal of Homerton College at Cambridge University. Reflecting on his three decades of campaigning, Lord Woolley shared his manifesto for social change. He said “We shall not ask for justice, equality, and equity. We shall demand it. We shall demand it through the appeal for decency”. Hearing Lord Woolley’s inspiring words reaffirmed my belief that we must join hands and enter a dialogue to influence meaningful societal outcomes. Technology is just a tool. I believe the real force multiplier is putting people at the forefront of it so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. This is how we can be agents of change.

Do you see philanthropy as a force for social change? How can we use technology to boost charitable giving and build resilient communities? What trends to you see?

Philanthropy is undoubtedly a powerful force for social change. It has the potential to address systemic issues and empower marginalized communities. Through strategic giving and thoughtful investments, philanthropy can catalyze positive transformations in society. However, to fully harness its potential, it is essential to leverage technology, invest in local capacity-building and work with policymakers to enact long-term structural change. All three components must work in unison. Because the goal is not to deliver band-aid fixes to humanitarian crises, but to unlock self-reliance within communities. This is the ultimate goal. 

My view is that technology has the potential to be the starting point in this interplay. However, it is important to build technology for the many. Not only for the few. Surprisingly, generational cohorts like Gen Z and Millennials are traditionally overlooked by non-profits. While they are easily dismissed because of their lack of purchasing power relative to older generational cohorts, they outperform them in term of annualized giving rates. Here, non-profits have to understand and reach younger generations multidimensionally. They must understand them demographically, behaviourally and psychographically. 

The prevailing generational experience of Gen Z’s is that it’s not enough to simply do good. They also have to be seen to do good. By tapping into this deep-seated sentiment, non-profits can create sticky engagement models that amplify their mission and deliver their social interventions more effectively. This ties directly into the importance of trust and accountability. Gen Z and Millenials are motivated to donate to causes rather than institutions. They do not trust institutions like older generations do. So if we want to engage with them, we should focus on effectively demonstrating the impact of charitable donations. I believe the importance of social impact verifiability will only grow from here. Using satellite data, AI, or milestone-based financing to help members of Gen Z and Millennials confidently donate could be an interesting starting point. This level of transparency fosters trust between donors and non-profits, ensuring that funds are directed towards intended purposes and that the impact is verifiable.

The long-term trajectory is undeniable. People want to do good. People want to give. While the Giving Institute reports that total charitable giving decreased by 10.5% percent in 2022 – to $499.33 billion in inflation-adjusted terms in the USA because of the economic macro – the trend line points upwards. I deeply believe that technology has the potential to redefine who gives for what, why and how. But we must work diligently to include everyone in this conversation.

What’s the role of AI in accelerating human progress? How do you define humanitarian technology?

Today’s world is more financially levered, carbon constrained and interdependent as ever. If we want to constructively address the triple planetary crisis dawning upon us, we must all be humanitarians. I believe in combining principles of free-market Capitalism with a humanitarian ethic that promotes human dignity and the need to alleviate long-term human suffering. Therefore, I understand humanitarian technology very broadly. A humanitarian technology is one which advances human flourishing by improving health, education, longevity, or human rights in a material way.

Perhaps, the most generational humanitarian technologist of our times is Elon Musk. By accelerating the world’s industrial decarbonization efforts in the automotive, space, transportation, and energy sectors, he offers a blueprint for businesses and individuals to act and sets a new narrative for progress. I am inspired by his vision to create a durable and resilient model for social cooperation.

And yet, the catalysts for human flourishing through technology will not be financial capital or social capital in the long term. Not even GPU computing power to deploy deep learning models. It will be imagination capital. Our innate ability to synthesise mental representations of ideas, images or scenarios and act upon them with conviction. This human imagination will be energized and complemented through AI to unleash newfound creativity and possibilities. I believe it is the motor of human progress that will unlock prosperity. Fundamentally, I see myself as a disciple of human imagination. We will see the gap between human imagination and reality continuously narrow with the help of AI. Seeing the speed to impact increase will allow individuals to collaborate like never before. However, we have to be careful in how AI systems are deployed. The kind of data we use to train AI systems, managing the second-order effects of their predictive decisions and the challenges around their inscrutability all pose systemic risk. Preventing AI systems from replicating and exacerbating structural bias from data is extremely important. 

But I’m optimistic. If we don’t let technology undermine human agency, we will cultivate our collective human imagination to produce profound insights about the universe.

Featured photo of Fabio Richter


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