010 No Ordinary Business with Mullion Group

Reducing carbon emissions is increasingly important to meet international commitments, domestic policy imperatives, and to implement more sustainable land management practices. Today’s guest on No Ordinary Business, Dr. Robert Waterworth from the Mullion Group, talks to us about how Mullion is helping policymakers and corporations more easily measure and report greenhouse gas emissions using open source software for sustainable land management.

Gina:  Welcome to No Ordinary Business, Rob! Thanks so much for joining me today.


Rob:  It’s a pleasure.


Gina:  Before we get into Mullion, tell us a little bit about your own story and background and how you got to where you are today.


Rob:  Sure. Well, I guess it all starts with having a love of the environment. I always had a real fascination with landscapes, forests in particular. This led me to study Forest Science, at the University of Melbourne, which taught me what I call the 4 E-s: ecology, economics, engineering, and experimentation. It was a unique course in many ways, with a strong focus on practical application of knowledge and science. 

From there, I started working in forest measurement in the ‘90s and then moved into the Australian government to work on carbon accounting in the early 2000s. That was interesting because it was a very new area and there was a huge driver for Australia to lead in this at the time because we had signed the Kyoto Protocol. 

The interesting part for Australia was that unlike most of the other signatory countries in the developed world, Australia’s landscape was really still developing. There was a lot of deforestation in the 1980s and ‘90s and then a lot of reforestation in the late ‘90’s and 2000s and a lot of changes in management practice. A large proportion of Australia’s emissions were still pouring out of the land sector. And also in many ways, we were a bit more like a developing country in terms of data: we didn’t have an existing long-term forest inventory or remote sensing programme so we had to start from scratch. So we needed a very different system from other developed countries that were not facing this issue

After that, I worked in the international area for a while, around the UNFCCC negotiations, and also in developing some of the development assistance packages for climate change in developing countries. That was really good because it gave an idea of how developing countries were able to implement many of the available solutions and the issues they faced in using the available funds.

In 2014, a small group of us decided to start the Mullion Group.  Our initial focus was on consulting, mainly with government and NGOs, around issues of on greenhouse gas inventory systems for the land sector, but recently we started to look towards software services for the public and private sectors.


Gina: When you initially launched Mullion, what was the gap in the market that you were trying to fill?


Rob:  Our team had worked in a variety of areas including government. In particular, we’d worked in the interface between the policy and the technical world. What we were seeing with all the other consulting firms and groups was a lot of very high-quality technical solutions but they weren’t really well referenced to the policy and reporting needs that government or even the private sector had. We tried to fit neatly in between those two worlds where we would be able to help countries figure out what it was that they needed to get from their systems and then work with the technical implementers to design and implement systems that met those needs.


Gina: So your value proposition was unique because your team had not only the technical skillset but also the policy expertise and experience that could really ground into the public sector needs. What were the needs that you were trying to fulfil? 


Rob: The very first thing was trying to get the policymakers more engaged in the process.  One of the problems with these technical solutions has continuously been that they are seen as technical and so the high-level policy people tend to disengage and just say: ‘Well, that’s a technical thing, I don’t want to do it.’ It becomes a huge problem because if they’re not engaged then the technical people can’t deliver what’s actually needed. 

Early on we did a lot of work with the Clinton Climate Initiative. The real advantage of working with them was that they had the ability to get into the high levels of government and talk about the need to bring the technical aspects into the policy discussion. Once we had that, it helped us bring the technical element to the table and that made a difference. 


Gina:  How did you move into the software development space?


Rob:    We had always worked with software, and several of our staff are professional software developers. Our software was developed to address a key problem: that people were thinking about all the components of emissions estimation separately. For example when forest inventory trained people were considering emissions they immediately people ran off to the ground and started measuring. And when people were thinking about mapping, they immediately went off and got some remote sensing data and produced maps. But few people were thinking about how do these data actually come together to produce the information needed by policymakers.

What we found is countries have gone and done these two exercises separately then realised that it’s actually very difficult to bring those data sets together to produce something useful because they lacked a system design that could guide the data collection and processing. 


Gina:  Can you expand on that?


Rob: Many people and countries have looked to design systems looking at the way they run:  collecting data, processing that data into products, and then integrating those different products to produce information.  However, if you’re designing a system, you have to go about it the other way. You start with what you need, followed by how you’re going to integrate it, what products you require to meet that need, and then go and do the data collection. By focusing on the data first, we’ve often missed what was actually needed in the first place.


Gina: Tell us a little bit about your software.


Rob: In Australia, we developed a Full Carbon Accounting Model (FullCAM), which still runs inside the Australian government. We realised that a tool like that was probably needed in other countries but FullCAM was designed specifically for the Australian context so it was very hard to take it overseas and use it in different countries. 

The need for the software came from a program the Clinton Foundation had at the time called SLEEK (System for Land-based Emissions Estimation for Kenya).  Through our collaboration with the Clinton Foundation and the Kenyan Government, we started to work with experts in Canada that had also developed a very advanced system. We sat down with them and asked: if we’re going to have a new system, if you’re going to start from scratch, what would be all of the things we would want to take advantage of in light of the science, data products like, in particular remote sensing, but also using computer technology and cloud technology? 

That’s how we started FLINT (Full Lands Integration Tool) as a second-generation integration tool, through collaboration with the Clinton Foundation, ourselves, Canadian, and Kenyan governments.


Gina: When did this evolve?


Rob: Between 2014 and 2016. That system’s aim was much broader than producing emissions estimates for the land sector. Kenya wanted something that would provide them with far more information and allow them to do projections and consider other factors such as food security. There was no existing tool that could do that, that could integrate all of the different types of data needed to produce this output.  That’s why we started building the FLINT. To be cost effective and more widely useful, we built a tool that was generic that lots of countries can use.


Gina: Can you explain in layman’s terms what the software does?


Rob: Basically, it integrates the key types of data that countries have and need to use to estimate greenhouse gas emissions, such as remote sensing data. You can then attach a variety of different methods from emissions factors to sophisticated models to then estimate the emissions occurring on the land. For example, if a piece of land changes say there was deforestation, what impact there would be on emissions on that piece of land. It’s really integrating all of the existing data. We haven’t locked ourselves to any specific model or remote sensing platform because there are so many that all of those data choices are still made by governments. 


Gina: It’s data agnostic.


Rob: Yes, exactly.


Gina: And it can be used as a predictive tool for land use planning? 


Rob: Yes. So the system is dependent on what you attach to it. We are trying to address the problem of focusing on just one component and getting only part of the story.  In a lot of these countries, deforestation is followed by some period of cropping or grazing and then replanting the land into a plantation. All of that has a very significant impact from emissions profiles. By integrating all of these different aspects into one system, you can start making better judgements versus having high-level data that’s only focusing on one activity. 


Gina: How does this software help policymakers overcome their aversion to dealing with the technical aspects of managing carbon emissions?


Rob: That’s what we’re trying to do with the FLINTpro platform. We are trying to develop this into an online interactive platform that allows not only the power users, the technical people, to build new systems and test data and produce the reports they need, but also to actually put the results of those analyses directly into the hands of policymakers so that they start doing some high-level analyses directly. 


Gina: What’s the basic difference between FLINT and FLINTpro?


Rob: So FLINT is the open-source integration system: it’s basically the core calculator but you need a team of technical developers to use the system. FLINTpro takes that core FLINT system, add a series of modules, makes it cloud-enabled and wraps the whole service in web-based interfaces so that it is much easier to use. It is useful for many countries that don’t have the internal capacity to employ a team of technical developers.


Gina: It’s a user-friendly version for the less technical policy maker.


Rob: That’s right, but it is also for the technical user that just wants to make their job easier and more effective.

The unique thing about FLINT itself is that it’s highly flexible so that it can be used in pretty much any country. It’s not limited to just doing greenhouse gas emissions so you can attach all types of modules to it and as long as those modules are scientifically valid, it can produce information for other factors such as crop yields, biodiversity, or financial transfers. The other point for the FLINT is that it doesn’t just do the inventories but allows you to do projections and this has been a key thing that’s been missed by a lot of groups.

The advantage of the FLINTpro on top of that is really the ease of use. You have the online interfaces, you have access to all of the cloud storage and also the processing speed because obviously, this type of processing can be quite compute intensive and so it makes sense in many ways to run it on a cloud. And also the ability for us to provide all preloaded datasets from global datasets for example so that countries can start with a simple system, they don’t have to start with a sophisticated system at all, they can just use global datasets and get a result. This is the most important part, to get them moving and then look at that result and start replacing the data and progressively improve the system through time.


Gina: What are the various reasons countries and companies are tracking and monitoring their carbon emissions?


Rob: The most obvious one from an international perspective is the Paris Agreement. Participating countries will record their NDCs (National Determined Contributions). They also have all of these other commitments that they’re starting to put in place. For example, around the New York Declaration for the restoration of forests as well as the other different conventions like biological diversity and desertification that many countries have also signed up to. There is a huge range of different effective agreements that these countries are looking at trying to meet or contribute to.


Gina: What about in the private sector?


Rob: The private sector is also very interesting because there you have many of the largest commodity companies, such as Unilever, for example, have signed up to zero deforestation commitments. 

The real challenge in the public and private sector is starting to look at how to engage with countries to purchase carbon units. How do you actually support these bilateral trading arrangements either between countries or between a country and a company? How do you make sure that all of these efforts are consistent? I think it’s going to be one of the future challenges that are coming up fairly quickly because both the public and private sectors are working on the problem but from different angles. 


Gina: So the challenge is to find a common language or measurement that they can all subscribe to?


Rob: That’s right. And to make sure that they understand where there are differences, which can very well occur.


Gina: In terms of reporting, are there clear definitions of reporting standards so that everyone is at least reporting the same information or information that’s created in a consistent way?


Rob: Yes and no. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) guidelines are generally seen as a standard that everyone looks to. The guidelines work for countries but are not designed for use by companies. They also have very limited information on how to implement projects. So they provide the core concepts, rules, and frameworks, but there is a lot of space between that and implementation. 

And then there are the ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) standards that offer guidance how you would report on this for avoided deforestation projects, for example. And then, on top of that, you then have all the voluntary standards such as the Verified Carbon Standard. So yes, there are standards but there’s no one standard that fits all circumstances at the moment.


Gina: And who are your customers? Who is using FLINT and to whom are you marketing FLINTpro?


Rob: The main people we’ve been working with on the consulting based offering and FLINT to date have been developing countries. In particular, those focused on REDD+.

The advantage of FLINTpro for us is that you can reach every country very easily very quickly and so if they’re interested in the software, they can actually start using it themselves. They don’t need to wait for us, they don’t need to hire a development team for example to go and download the open source Flint, try to understand how it works, try to compile it and try to build it. 


Gina: Where are you at with releasing Flintpro?


Rob:    FLINTpro is at version 0.1 now and we’re looking for full release in December 2018. We’re working with a couple of countries now to test the systems.


Gina:   How is it going so far?


Rob:    Good. Despite being challenging, it’s a really interesting process. Everything from designing the interfaces so it’s easily understandable, to dealing with a lot of the technical challenges around how to quickly visualise the results of FLINTpro. The system can produce a lot of maps but how do you use those maps that are produced and quickly process them and put them up inside a visualisation tool. We are not using pre-canned maps. What it means is that countries or companies or users can create multiple simulations and then quickly compare the scenarios.  That’s been a really interesting challenge and I think one that we’ve managed to get through but yes, I’m sure we’ll hit more.


Gina: Is this an alternative to geospatial modelling?


Rob: It’s a type of geospatial modelling, it doesn’t replace GIS. I think this has been one of the challenges, to be honest. A lot of people seem to think we’re trying to replace them. We’re not, we’re just trying to take the data and make much more use of it. What it does do is it replaces the model of GIS scripting and sort of internal processes that normally would be undertaken by a specific GIS modelling system but it tries to automate those as much as possible. So you will still need people producing maps and forest cover and forest cover change and you still need people saying what’s happening on the ground, the system can’t do all of that. But what it can do is it can get all of that data and put it together in a more structured way.


Gina: In your view, what is the potential scope of technology’s role in driving conservation forward? 


Rob: That’s a great question. I sort of vacillate on this a bit. Obviously, technology will play and has to play a solution, in particular, in the greenhouse gas space. There has to be something that comes along to drive this forward. I guess, so I see technology as absolutely pivotal. 

There is the problem I see where people who don’t feel that current solutions are adequate and so they wait and don’t act because they feel there will be a new technical solution to the challenges, and that’s the part that worries me. I think you need to continuously work with what you have as best you can and fight for the solutions. If a technical solution comes along then yes, obviously use it. But to say that there’s no ideal solution and therefore do nothing is a little bit dangerous. In particular, the technology needs to focus on how it’s actually working with the people who are trying to take action. There’s obviously a lot of technologies out there, but if they’re not focused on people and how we actually then use that technology to reduce emissions for example or improve our landscape management, then it’s probably not going to happen. In some ways, you can see that from a lot of the products that have come from the remote sensing world recently, there are some incredible products but they’re still not really being used to their full extent. 

So the challenge is not just getting the technology there, it’s how to get it out and operational so that it can truly have an effect. There are not a lot of people working in that operational space at the moment and that’s probably where the technology is slipping a little bit.


Gina: Do you see FLINTpro being used by civil society?


Rob: We’d love to see that. I guess at the moment, we’ve had such a strong focus on governments and companies, but the role of civil society is pivotal in this because otherwise, you’re not connecting with the people that it’s affecting. 

I think the interesting part of that is the role of civil society to drive transparency in government and corporations, to actually hold people to account. I think that one of the big advantages of the online systems like FLINTpro is that people can see what was going on in the landscape much more easily and much more quickly and that is a huge step forward. Potentially, FLINTpro can provide a lot more detail on that and also allow them to input their own data for example and analyse that so how they wish to play that advocacy role.


Gina: I think that you hit the nail on the head by citing transparency as being a driver for change. That’s what we’re seeing globally across all different sectors and different issues, not just conservation. Scandals can’t so easily be swept under the rug with the Internet and smartphones and things being uploadable onto YouTube so easily.


Rob: Exactly. And it’s amazing how much effect that has had. It’s not simple for people just to walk away and say: well, maybe that didn’t happen. Because of the Cloud even if harmful activity is not caught right away, because everything is now stored, in a few years’ time, people can go back and find what you’ve done. In some ways, it’s even more powerful than the video and YouTube because you can actually go back through time to say well, no, here’s what happened. And as that power increases, I think you’ll find people getting held more and more to account.


Gina: Absolutely!  Are you tracking and measuring impact?


Rob: Yes, by looking at market mechanisms and emissions trading. With FLINTpro, we’ll be trying to work with government and the private sector users to track use and hope that we will be able to actually start seeing how using these tools help support markets into the future and determine impact in terms of working with land use planners and in other sectors.  We’re a private company but we really want to see better land management, we want to see reduced emissions. We all really care about that and we want to know that what we’re doing is actually having a real impact and a real benefit and so tracking impact is definitely a key part of what we’re looking at.


Gina: What’s your vision for Mullion Group in 5 – 10 years?


Rob: The key thing we’d like to see is that we can become the enabler for dozens of developing countries who to date, have really struggled to even get basic information on what’s happening in their land sector, and actually get them to the point where they’ve effectively leapfrogged many of the developed countries. 

This isn’t all that dissimilar to the telecommunications industry with fixed-line versus mobile phones. Many of the systems that developed countries are running have been running for 50 – 100 years, they’re locked in and they just keep turning the handle on those systems. The ability for developing countries to pick up remote sensing and tools like FLINTpro and all these other things and jump over the top is huge. We’d love to see that happen. 

And I think the other thing that I’m really interested in for our company is how do we become a core partner for scientists and academia and others that helps or allows them to take their information and their new models and their data and actually give them a positive impact. It’s very hard for academics to ever take their modelling to operation, it’s not what they’re good at. They’re fantastic at coming up with sophisticated solutions but not actually then how to turn that into something that can be run inside an operational system. Being able to more quickly get those types of new models and data and test them in the real world of applications, I think that’s something that we’re really interested in seeing. 


Gina:  What’s your experience been with fundraising from the philanthropic and private sector? 


Rob: We’ve been really lucky working with people with experience in carbon emissions that see the advantages in these platforms and understand the problems that countries are facing. But before we made those connections, it was very difficult to find the type of philanthropic capital that is required. 

What you have is a lot of large NGOs working very hard on high-level international and national commitments that are very important but they can’t scale. The key is how do you link national commitments to land use planning, which then leads to the large scale activities that are required. It is pretty hard for environmental conversation groups and philanthropists to get inside that space. 

The other fact with philanthropists that I found really fascinating and probably what makes their life really difficult is in many ways, to get a lot of these solutions working, you really do need to engage with government and that is actually a really difficult task. This was one of the huge advantages of working with the Clinton Foundation.  It was quite amazing in its ability to work with government. Their whole aim was to support government in what the government wanted to do and if the government didn’t want to do it, they would disengage from the project. 

Their contacts to governments provided the Foundation with a link that most other NGOs and many philanthropists simply don’t have. Maybe that’s a challenge for other former presidents to come forward and start taking on that role as well. 


Gina: Right. And another challenge I see is that governments are often risk averse so they want somebody else to test it before they’re willing to put their own money into a new concept.


Rob: That’s right. Also, many governments are sceptical of the NGOs because many of them have been very critical about government so it’s very hard for them to play the honest broker when they’re also trying to be the person that’s holding the government to account. And I think that’s been a really interesting challenge for some of these NGOs trying to work in these countries and get these big amounts of funds in, is that they’re trying to do both, they’re trying to hold the government to account which doesn’t necessarily make them popular with the government but then they’re also trying to work with them and it’s really difficult space.


Gina: We’ve seen different NGOs take different approaches to advocacy to address this very challenge.   I wonder if civil society needs to determine their focus on being either an advocate for accountability or a partner working with the government rather than doing both or if they can do both while avoiding conflicts of interest.  Both roles are necessary.  


Rob:   In terms of the availability of private capital, I think that’s going to start changing. We’ve already been talking to a couple of very large companies that now see that many of these big landscape changes are actually creating real business opportunity, they’re not just something that needs to be done. 


Gina:   How you define social enterprise? 


Rob:  That’s a really good question. From our side as the private sector, I guess we do see ourselves in many ways as a social enterprise even though we’re structured as a for-profit. It’s trying to tackle a number of social or environmental issues directly both through products and services but also the way you behave inside the company. 


Gina:  What do you think needs to happen in order to shift the needle towards environmental sustainability? 


Rob:  One of the key things is much greater linkage between the high level international and national level commitments and how do you get these commitments operating on the ground. I think that’s a really key challenge to get things moving. 

The other one I find really interesting is the concept of time. How quickly can action happen and how quickly we can break deadlocks that get in the way of taking action? There’s a tendency to be complacent because we sign up to long-term targets that seem to offer a lot of time to address the issue but then nothing gets done. There was a great article actually in the New York Times a few weeks ago, I’m not sure if you saw that, it was ‘The Decade we Almost Stopped Climate Change’


Gina:  Yes, I did read it. It was a great account of how early the US government was made aware of the threats of carbon emissions on climate.


Rob:  I thought that was a fascinating article because you could kind of see where it was almost won and then it just fell over for a few different reasons. 

I am reminded when Australia signed the Kyoto Protocol, everyone assumed there was plenty of time to solve the problem and that all countries would likely make their Kyoto targets. Now I look back 18 years later and realise none of that happened and nearly everyone missed their Kyoto targets. Australia didn’t, and that was mainly due to reductions in deforestation. 

It’s really sitting back and hoping it’s going to happen. I think it really is now at the point where we have to draw a hard floor and just work much harder. That’s probably the key challenge and the really interesting part of what we need to do to shift the needle.


Gina:  I think that we need to shift to more mindsets because there’s still a huge sense of denial that also fosters complacency.  There are competing interests from industry that poses formidable opposition to taking action.


Rob:  That would be 100% correct. And I think this complacency is part of the problem is that we get used to. On the weekend, I was down at the beach with my kids and it’s the middle of winter here. And as we drove back up from the beach, there was quite a large bushfire. This is one of the worst droughts that Australia’s seen in my memory. We shouldn’t be seeing bushfires in the middle of winter. But from my kids’ perspectives, that’s just normal and we have to try to get that understanding that this isn’t actually normal. 


Gina:  One last question for you: what do you think the role of the for-profit sector is in driving sustainability forward? 


Rob:  I think it’s really just incorporating it into the day-to-day activities of business. We’re starting to see that but it is happening very slowly. One of the things I guess that I often see from the public sector is the statement that the private sector needs to be more involved. And that’s true, but what the public sector seems to think is that it just needs private sector money, whereas I think what the private sector needs really is a huge change in culture. 

You’re certainly seeing that in several companies but it obviously just needs to be a lot faster and it needs to have some form of support so that they don’t lose their competitive edge. There’s obvious nervousness throughout a lot of these large companies about who moves first and what’s going to happen if I move first and make the wrong decision. 


Gina:  You need a champion.


Rob:  That’s right, exactly. The head of Unilever, when he started driving zero deforestation idea forward five or six years ago, that’s a classic example. He basically championed it and a lot of companies started falling into place and coming along behind. That’s a great example of a champion affecting change. It hasn’t probably gone as fast as a lot of people would like but it certainly was a significant step in the way that companies were looking at the problem.


Gina:  I agree. We need more examples of this kind of leadership in the corporate space and others will follow.

I want to say thank you for taking the time to chat with me today.  I enjoyed our conversation.


Rob:  That was great, really interesting! It certainly made me think through a lot of stuff that I’ve probably haven’t thought enough about over the last couple of years. It’s easy knowing that this is one of the problems, it’s easy to get buried into trying to produce something specific and forget the bigger picture sometimes, so it’s nice to get reminded.


Gina:  That’s good - it’s always good to be challenged to think outside of the box. If readers want to follow up with you, how can they reach you or somebody within the Group?


Rob:  Our website cites all of our contact details: www.mulliongroup.com.au


Gina:  Thanks, Rob I wish you and Mullion the best of luck with your official launch!