Dr. Norman Borlaug was one of The Rockefeller Foundation’s longest-serving program officers. Credited with launching the Green Revolution, which saved a billion lives and earned him the Nobel Prize in 1970, Dr. Borlaug once told my mentor at the Foundation that if you tell a farmer how to improve yields by 20 percent, they might listen. But if you show them how to double yields, they’ll start doing things differently. It’s an oft-forgotten lesson: Capturing the full potential of data and technology depends on changing human behavior.
The Foundation has long embraced the power of science and technology to change the world. To differentiate our approach from regular charity, we coined the term “scientific philanthropy”: study the root causes of a problem, develop and test innovative solutions, then scale what works.
Take our work in agriculture, for example. In 1943, the Foundation formally partnered with the Mexican government to address the country’s inadequate production of corn. The team tested over 800 varieties of Mexican corn to study their behavior under various conditions. Based on the data, the team worked with local farmers to plant the best varieties, improving crop yield almost immediately.
Today’s revolution in data and technology is promising to unlock a parallel revolution in food and agriculture.
Just five years after The Rockefeller Foundation’s collaboration with Mexico began, Mexico was self-sufficiently producing corn—all as a result of collecting data and then working with the local government, farmers, and other stakeholders to act on those results.
Today’s revolution in data and technology is promising to unlock a parallel revolution in food and agriculture. The ceaseless collection of data, thanks to sensors and satellites, mobile phones and drones, has inundated data scientists, statisticians, and practitioners with inputs and indicators to tackle social issues at unprecedented speeds and scale. However, as in the past, we can only realize the promise of this technology when we factor in how people and organizations need to change and learn from instances in which they do not.
Those who we see harnessing data and technology to drive change need to keep this point front and center. For example, a Rockefeller Foundation grantee, WeRobotics, is a pioneer in the nascent field of drones in development. The team’s “EcoRobotics” program is examining how to use drones in rural agricultural communities, which could help to analyze soil, monitor and assess crop health, or assist with planting and spraying. Their success is contingent upon working directly with members of the community and training other NGOs to build trust to make their technology more accessible – exactly the sort of behavioral change taught by Dr. Borlaug.
Admittedly, behavioral change is not easy. Food and agriculture are deeply ingrained in our local communities and our personal values, which contextualize, guide, and shape our approach. Ensuring that data and technological-driven agricultural innovation is centered on human impact so communities are directly involved in implementing behavioral changes will help us achieve the impact we all want to see. Understanding the personal motivations, social influences, and cultural values of farmers, food vendors, policy makers, investors, and even scientists is a critical first step.
New data and technology bring huge potential for progress; realizing it, however, ultimately requires changes in behavior informed and motivated by the people and communities directly impacted.