The Highlights

·       According to the 2017 UNHCR’s Annual Report on Forced Displacement, 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes. That’s about 44,400 displacements a day. We were only able to successfully resettle 102,800 of that number.  


·       Currently, we don’t assess anything about refugees other than their security background, their identity and the circumstance of their displacement. We don’t look at them as potential talent; we don’t look at them in the eyes of being a value-add to society. Instead, we look at them as a displaced person, a burden.


·       Establishing identity is essential because it is one of the most cited excuses for closing borders. We are saying that we don’t trust that you are who you say you are; we can’t verify it to the degree that satisfies our protocols. Being able to address this issue of identity in a way that is immutable is important.


·       Another issue is a lack of agency interoperability. We have siloed datasets across the board, so governments have their information and then some of it is fed to them by the UNHCR, but the UNHCR has its way of managing data, its own system, its own content regarding what data they hold, etcetera and then each country has its own. Each aid agency has access to some data, so you don’t know what Refugees International has versus the International Rescue Committee etcetera.


·       Emerge is a humanitarian for-profit company using emerging technologies to address pressing humanitarian issues.  We have designed and are launching ‘Homeward’, an identity management and intelligent resettlement platform for displaced populations. Homeward's multi-layered, self-managed digital identity profile includes some data on employability potential and socio-cultural preferences, which are used to match claimants to a specific city conducive to their economic independence and social integration. Homeward is a holistic, future-focused solution to the way the world currently identifies and resettles the vast and growing numbers of displaced persons around the world.


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Gina: In the last half-century, there have been 46 major world incidents resulting in the displacement of more than 151 million people. Less than three million refugees in this group were resettled within a year of their displacement. Today’s guest on No Ordinary Business is Lucia Gallardo, the founder and CEO of Emerge and creator of Homeward, an identity management and intelligent resettlement platform powered by blockchain, IOT security solutions and IBM Watson. Welcome, Lucia to No Ordinary Business!


Lucia: Thank you so much for having me. I am excited to speak to this issue from the lens of what technology can offer its resolutions.


Gina: Tell us a little bit about your own journey and how you came to be where you are today?


Lucia:  Emerge was inevitable since I was 12 years old - the first memory I have of being face to face with situations of injustice and pervasive poverty. I went to school with the top 1% in Honduras, where I was born and raised. My parents did this wonderful job of fostering values in me as a young girl like generosity and charity, kindness and compassion from the lens “you have, and therefore it is important you give.” 

But when I was about 12, my science teacher assigned us a project to take any concept we learned in school that year and apply it to real life, so I selected water. My group took a tour of a water purification plant and on the way down; we stopped to interview neighbouring communities around the plant to see if there were any side effects of living next to such a massive water plant. 

We naively started asking questions and it turned out this community didn’t even have access to running water. They collected their water from rain and from a river that was a couple hours away. Every two weeks, whatever water the rest of the city didn’t use, the plant donated to that neighbourhood, meaning there was actually a benefit of living next to the plant. That was a monumental experience. I can still feel the way I felt in that moment. I don’t remember a lot of anything else from that day or the water purification process but that realisation set the course of my life. 

Since then I’ve been obsessed with humanitarian issues, especially those exacerbated by poverty and inequality and they became my life’s mission. I moved to Canada in 2009, just after a Honduran political crisis, where government institutions and civil groups moved to remove a president from office because of his desire to stay in power.  It created a circumstance where it was no longer safe for me to stay in Honduras. Eventually, I started working with the new government’s foreign service, my job mostly focused on undocumented immigrants trying to get into Canada. I did that for about four years and from there, moved to the tech sector because I felt like I could have more impact by building something more tangible, by becoming part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem. 

Emerge is currently the manifestation of all of my life experiences coming together at the right time with the right technology, timing that enables us to take blockchain, artificial intelligence and/or IOT devices and bring them together within a decentralised solution to address key issues in fractured ecosystems. 


Gina: Tell us about Emerge.


Lucia:  Emerge is a humanitarian for-profit company using emerging technologies to address pressing issues, as defined by the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals. Our products include: Theseus – a logistics solution to transparently track, trace and optimise the global movement of goods, while reducing waste and fostering fair economic opportunities; Trusted Voices – which creates an immutable chain of custody for the source material used in today’s news; Leap – the world’s first report to track blockchain ecosystems in emerging markets; and Homeward, an identity management and intelligent resettlement platform for displaced populations, which we’re here to talk about today.

Homeward's multi-layered, self-managed digital identity profile includes some data on employability potential and socio-cultural preferences, which are used to match claimants to a specific city conducive to their economic independence and social integration. 

The system addresses key barriers to resettlement and helps disperse claims geographically and across migration pathways while allowing applicants to present themselves as a value-add to local economies and communities. Emerge's approach is also activating and training a new labour force through its ecosystem of partners that include training and education programmes, hiring pools and potential employers, support services, and providers of creditability and financial programmes. Homeward is a holistic, future-focused solution to the way the world currently identifies and resettles the vast and growing numbers of displaced persons around the world.


Gina: It seems like your personal experience of fleeing an unstable country has directly fed into your work.


Lucia: Yes, being recognised as displaced is a very hard burden of proof to meet. I couldn’t meet that standard and so I think one piece is it shouldn’t be so hard for people to relocate if they fear for their life. It shouldn’t be so hard for us to listen to their stories. For instance, look at what’s happening with the migrant caravan, where most have walked 3,000 km to get from Honduras to the border near Tijuana. It’s not an easy walk, it’s not like there’s a road in every piece of it. It’s a 3,000-km walk and many of them carry about 8 dollars in their pockets to make this trip. The least we can do is actually hear what they have to say and give them this opportunity to officially make a claim for asylum.

I think I’m deeply tied to the issue not because I couldn’t meet the burden of proof, but mostly because when I first worked with undocumented immigrants, I had so many phone calls where I just couldn’t justify creating documentation that would send them back. In my heart, I did not believe that they should be sent back to their respective countries. I carried a lot of guilt. It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had because of the psychological and emotional toll of being part of the problem, and over time that was too much for me to bear. 

Eventually, I quit, and now I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum where I’m trying to enable intelligent resettlements so that it doesn’t have to be so hard for people and so that we can tap into this labour force and consumer base and this piece of humanity that we render invisible so very often.


Gina: What is the extent the problem of displaced persons?


Lucia: It’s pretty massive. It’s significant to note that there are different types of displacement. You have refugees and asylum seekers, like people escaping omnipresent violence in Syria and Myanmar, you have victims of natural disasters, you have situations of economic migration – fleeing extreme poverty and its resulting widespread violence, which is why a lot of immigrants are coming from Central America towards the United States. All of these causes of displacement mean that you will get different levels of assistance from international organisations and governments.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for looking at refugees as a whole. In 2017, they counted 68.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. They are coming from these economic/violent situations in Central America, they’re coming out of political situations like Venezuela, they’re coming out of circumstances of persecution in Myanmar, or across different countries in Africa like the DRC, and of course, Syria which has been a massive contributor to displaced persons for the last years. There were about 44,400 displacements a day in 2017. To make matters worse, we’re getting worse at helping them.  Of that total number of 68.5 million people that were forcibly displaced, we were only able to successfully resettle 102,800. 102,800, is such a low number and a 54% decline from 2016.


Gina: Why is the resettlement rate so low?


Lucia: There are a couple of key issues that we need to look at. One piece is that we struggle to identify and verify documentation and identity to the degree that satisfies national governments. About 52% of the refugees are children below the age of 18. It becomes really hard to track their identity, especially if they’re very young, under the age of five. It’s really hard to keep track of who they are because they change so quickly. They grow up so fast that it’s hard to keep an accurate measure of who they are – even with biometrics. 

Another piece we struggle with is security, the inability to help them given the confines of what the UNHCR can do.  They set up a refugee camp in say Jordan, but they’re so over flooded with people that about 80% of displaced persons there are living on the fringe of that refugee camp and therefore may struggle to access the full support of being underneath the UNHCR umbrella. I saw the same issue with the migrant caravan in Tijuana. People that weren’t at the main shelter in El Barretal struggled to access any support.

Another problem is that you have an overwhelming number of claims concentrated in specific places and this is especially true in the context of crossing a physical border. Generally for example, if they’re crossing from the U.S. into Canada, they focus their claims on Montreal and Toronto because those are the easier cities to get to. These are the cities that have to bear the burdens of processing these claims and it becomes very expensive and a bottleneck. 

We have an overall lack of agency interoperability. We have siloed datasets across the board so governments have their own information and then some of it is fed to them by the UNHCR but the UNHCR has its own way of managing data, its own system, its own content in terms of what data they hold, etcetera and then each country has its own versions of this as well. Each aid agency has access to some data so you don’t know what Refugees International has versus the International Rescue Committee etcetera. 

Lastly, we don’t really assess anything about refugees other than their security background, their identity and the circumstance of their displacement. We don’t look at them as potential talent, we don’t look at them with eyes of being a value-add to society, instead, we look at them as a displaced person, a burden, and therefore they should: first, accept more conditions in order for us to resettle them, or second, it’s out of our own compassion that we decide to open a set number of visas for Syrian refugees, etcetera. It’s largely a narrative of their burden and our compassion. Actually, these people don’t want to be displaced, they had lives before they were displaced. We need to start looking at them as a value-add. When public opinion is formed by narratives that are based on a burden mentality then it becomes really hard for people to be open-minded about the potential value of opening more slots and welcoming people into our communities despite the fact that there are actually so many benefits. 


Gina: What are the shortcomings of resettlement approaches today?


Lucia: I think the piece on identity is essential because it is one of the most cited excuses for closing borders. We are saying that we don’t trust that you are who you say you are - we can’t verify it to the degree that satisfies our protocols. Being able to address this issue of identity in a way that is immutable is very important. 

The second issue is again, looking at them as a value add. You have countries that have very open immigration systems – programmes that are open year round and constantly take in people, and we are limited in our ability to resettle people that are coming from displaced circumstances because they go to specifically designated categories that are very limited. Understanding how to best leverage the different migration pathways and understanding how to look at resettlement from a holistic perspective as opposed to looking at it in severely restricted and constrained boxes are very important.

The last barrier I think is that lack of agency interoperability. The UNHCR is responsible for significant amounts of screening, tracking people as they move across countries. If you’re in a circumstance of displacement in Africa for example, and you feel you can’t get help in say Tanzania, you might try and cross another border. This is all extremely dangerous. While these individuals are on the move, it’s really hard to track who they are, this is why a lot of people go missing. There’s a specific region in Mexico they call the ‘Valley of Death’ because that’s where most of the disappearances take place. We have to solve this identity piece in a more portable, ubiquitous manner allowing for interoperability between all these agencies using technology while factoring in what happens outside technological solutions, as well as providing enough trust, self-management and security to encourage mass adoption.


Gina: What is Emerge is doing to tackle the issues you’ve just outlined?


Lucia: For us, it’s really about looking at this opportunity of technology that takes fractured ecosystems and then allows them to come together in different ways. We’ve designed a platform that focuses on creating a comprehensive identity profile and then using that profile to resettle people intelligently. 

Homeward is a multi-layered identity system that is made up of data like physical biometric data, fingerprints, iris scans, and partial facial, etcetera, behavioural biometric data, and geolocation. It contains data on employability potential and socio-cultural preferences so we’re looking at the individual not just within the context of their current skills but also of what potential lies within them. What are their strengths in problem-solving, what are their strengths in people management, in conflict resolution, what is the structure of their logic, and so on? That information gives you an output of a career or labour strength that you skew towards. If you are for example highly empathetic and prioritise people in your decision-making and you are a collaborative problem solver, you’re likely conducive to having a career in human resources or communications. In sum, we’re looking at a future measure of your contributions to a labour force. 

We look at things like your socio-cultural preferences because if, for example, you’re a devoted Mormon, I don’t know that San Francisco would be the right city for you. The last piece of this is taking all of this data, which we keep on separate servers in GDPR-like regulatory environments. We’re hashing the locations of a person’s data attributes on these servers into a smart contract and using a public key infrastructure that creates an encrypted unique digital identity for every single person on our system. This is the bit that’s important. It is an immutable ID number that will allow us to attach all of this information of the resettlement journey to one ID number so that no national government can question that this person is who they say they are or that they’ve not gone through the experience that they claim that they have.  

A key piece is in collecting this kind of data on people - what you could contribute, how you add value to society and then correlate it with data from cities. We look at things like population size and density. We look at age dependency ratios, which tell you how much youth influx into populations is needed in order to be able to afford pension funds or to be able to balance out disparities between the labour force and the retired population segment. We look at what the city’s economic makeup is, their cultural community sizes, and things like this and then we run it through an intelligent regression analysis on IBM Watson. The output is that we will identify which city is an optimal match for this claimant because of ‘xyz’ reasons; they will be a value-add to this specific city. This is key because it’s allowing us to disperse claims across geography so that cities that are overburdened can breathe a little easier and other cities that could benefit from influxes of the population can actually have access to tapping into that. 

The next piece of that is dispersing claims across migration pathways because we are looking at the claimant’s strengths in the labour force, we’re looking at what they can do, then we’re able to identify people who could qualify for a different niched immigration programme like the Global Skills Programme in Canada or a vocational trade visa. So, in understanding how to funnel people across these pathways, it also becomes really useful to be able to process more people much more easily. 

I think the way to summarise what we’re doing is that we’re identifying the claimant and their invisible profile and creating a value-add presentation to a sovereign state and saying this person needs to resettle and they would be a perfect match for this city.


Gina: You’re in effect operating as matchmakers between claimants and cities?


Lucia: Yes, that is true.


Gina: So you offer several value propositions, namely identity creation, skills and values evaluation, matchmaking with cities, and exploring all different avenues by which the applicant can gain entry into a country?


Lucia: Yes, the international identification is important, it’s portable. It means that if a refugee has been travelling from Tanzania to Uganda or Kenya then they might be able, they would be able to find some form of ID anywhere in the world. It’s really important for us for this to be a portable system. It’s also self-managed by the claimant, so we created a kill switch that’s available a year after resettlement once they’ve gone on to gain access to a green card or a visa of sorts or they’ve opened a bank account and they’re connected to other forms of structured identity and formalised identity. At that point, they have the option to destroy all of the biometric and employability data that we have on our system. The data attributes will lead nowhere but there will always be a permanent record of the legality of their migration process.

 That’s an attempt at self-regulating and being responsible for the data that we hold. On top of that, we are creating an ecosystem of partnerships where there are companies that are willing to sponsor a visa for someone who can meet their needs. It becomes an understanding of looking at the world a little bit differently and seeing that there are all of these different immigration programmes where we are matchmaking to a degree that will allow us to give these claimants their best chance at integrating and finding a new home with dignity. We want cities and companies to benefit from an untapped invisible labour force, from an untapped invisible amount of potential. That’s really what we’re trying to enable; it’s looking at invisibility and figuring out ways to bring it out into the light.


Gina: I understand that you’re about to pilot the Homeward project?


Lucia: We will be launching Phase 1 of an external pilot in April 2019. We’re targeting 10,000 people coming out of the conflict in Syria and 10,000 people coming out of an economic migration context in Central America. This will allow us to make sure that we look at different forms of displacement and understand how to customise the platform accordingly. Pilot phase 2 looks at every circumstance of displacement such as climate migrants, internally displaced populations, homeless populations and more. We’ll be looking at quite a bit regarding how to customise the platform and then at that point, once we’ve tested 10,000 applications in each realm, we’re going to release it as an open market towards the end of 2019 and 2020.


Gina: Describe your current partnerships or the partnerships that you’re exploring and how they’re helping you to scale?


Lucia: Partnerships that are necessary for us to succeed include the UNHCR and UNICEF, as well as other key international organizations. Beyond that, we are looking at forging partnerships with companies that can offer services to meet the specific needs of this population. For instance, we have established a partnership with CryptoChicks; they will be providing women and youth with remote blockchain development training as they wait for their application to go through. We partnered with Shyft to look at predictive creditability and access to banking. We’ve also partnered with Distilled Identity to ensure our identity profile is pioneering. We’re exploring a couple of large-scale and like multi ecosystem partnerships with Faire and ID2020 and we’re looking at specific banks and having conversations with companies like Master Card, Visa, RBC and Deutsche Bank.

Recently, we formed a partnership with an IG Liaison, a cybersecurity firm to make sure that the data structure and the information governance is responsible and exemplary. We want to make sure our system is the safest and most protective of an individual’s privacy. I don’t believe that displaced persons should be held to a different privacy standard than you or I enjoy.  We are pre-empting these issues and working to make sure that privacy is protected to the maximum degree and that self-determination is respected.


Gina: Would you describe your business model?


Lucia: While Emerge has a humanitarian mission, it is for-profit. Our revenues come from the end of the ecosystem users, through annual licensing fees from all key users such UNHCR, UNICEF and from the cities that are looking for people with certain skills, to be able to triage their services so they can get summaries on what claimants are coming and resettling in their city.  Then there are the ecosystem partners who operate on a smaller set annual fee and a commission-based structure for hiring or for services.  For example, if we enable a resettled person to open a bank account with Deutsche Bank then we get a commission from that. 


Gina: What are some of the challenges that you face as barriers to entry?


Lucia: The key barrier right now is access to capital. It’s really difficult to speak to a humanitarian issue and match that to the level of capital that I’m trying to raise, or match it to the amounts less socially focused companies are able to raise. To some degree, access to capital has been a barrier and it’s been like a domino effect in terms of having less access to talent and slower progress. I’m looking for more traditional forms of financing and I’m also looking at the opportunity to finance in non-diluted forms, for example, through grants. Finding the right investors will dictate how quickly we can move and how much we can do within a certain timeframe. It’s also important to me that the investors are just as committed to good as we are.


Gina: What you’ve described is a common problem that social enterprises face.  They are hybrid in purpose, if not in structure.  They are merging profit objectives with impact objectives, and generally, both traditional capital financiers and philanthropic capital financiers have not yet developed the confidence to support this new way of doing business.


 Lucia: I find it interesting because we’ve done such a good job at creating the narrative that profit and responsibility lie on opposite ends of the spectrum when in fact research has consistently shown that they grow together quite well. A generational change has taken place for people to understand this. In 2017, there was something like an 80% increase of social enterprise focused businesses that registered in The United States. It is a movement that’s growing, and it is going to become the status quo not just because of consumer pressures for more transparency and responsibility but also innately, new innovators are focused on doing things in the right way. 

We’ve prided ourselves internally as being forward thinking. A big thing that I emphasise in my conversations with investors is that I also want to be experimental in the way that we track our financing. I want to use blockchain to look at our metrics, to look at how much money is coming in, and how we’re spending it. Being open about the way that we operate is important. 


Gina: A prerequisite to the claim that you are an impact-driven organisation is measurement. How will you be measuring and tracking the socio-economic impact of Homeward?


Lucia: We are closely tied to The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. A lot of our social ROI metrics come from this realm and hitting the targets that are relevant to what we’re building. We are also open to other impact metrics like IRIS and B Corp.  We would encode specific performance metrics within specific timelines, for instance, we could say that we are going to create two jobs and grow by 0.02% within the next 3 – 6 months. If that target is met then a pool of money would be released. We would reward ourselves as a company with tiered access to finance so I’m open to exploring arrangements like that.  We are willing to be experimental and want to work with our strategic investors to find the right approach.  


Gina: What’s your vision for Emerge in five years?


Lucia: I have a very clear vision of it being a trailblazer in terms of solving humanitarian issues that are made worse by severely fractured ecosystems. I want The United Nations or the World Food Programme to come to Emerge and say this is a pressing issue and we need to solve it. I’d like to be in a position where we can design a system and a solution that addresses at least a piece of it. That’s where we are headed. It’s about anticipating the future of work, it’s anticipating the rise of city-states, it is anticipating displacement and climate issues and food security issues. Predictions are that displaced person numbers are going to surpass one billion for all the reasons discussed before. We are building a solution that is proactive about addressing a lot of the barriers that are making the situation worse.


Gina: How do you define social enterprise?


Lucia: To me, it’s about understanding how our economic system thrives best through businesses that can build things in a responsible and sustainable way that is innately tied to doing the right thing. That might sound basic, and yet historically speaking, it’s not, and we’ve failed miserably at developing or supporting responsible businesses. 


Gina: Apart from access to financing, what are the things that are needed to help social enterprises succeed?


Lucia: I think the first barrier is the myth that it’s either-or, either you’re profitable, or you’re responsible. That’s not true, and none of the data supports that, instead it shows that they grow together. Being able to change that perception, that misperception and have people understand how for example, being good to your employees reduces turnover and gets less expensive over time. Understanding the way that you operate environmentally is future-proofing your business and pre-empting consumer backlash. Understanding that responsibility and business thrive together will open up capital to venturing social enterprises.


Gina: What’s your vision for making a major transformation towards sustainability?


Lucia: I wholeheartedly swallowed the decentralisation pill. I believe that it requires a collaborative problem-solving approach. The public sector can’t do this alone; the for-profit sector can’t do this alone. You need academic partners because you need a thorough understanding of the issues supported by research. I think it is inevitable that the way that we build the future of the world is going to be ecosystem driven as opposed to product or company driven. I don’t see a world where multinationals are the future; I see a world where conglomerates of different ecosystems work together to address all of the pieces. 

Organisations like ID2020 have pre-empted that in a great way. They are a strategic alliance that brings all these pieces together to tackle and focus on one issue. I think that’s the model of the future and so it’s the way that we’re building Emerge. The way that we build a more sustainable world is by getting the buy-in of everyone involved because ‘no man is an island’ and the only way we get through this is if we do it in a way that is conducive towards collaboration. Trending technology that is built off and that thrives off of decentralisation is proof that we are headed in that direction. The more that we develop these innovative technological solutions that enable us to find a balance between consensus and actual progress, I think the better we’ll be able to find that balance and the more likely we will do it right this time around. 


Gina: How can readers get in touch with you?  


Lucia: I would be happy to speak to anyone who is interested in solving this issue and can be reached at lucia@emergedev.co.  Our website is www.emergedev.co.  


Gina: I thank you for your time today, and for the work that you’re doing, and I wish you the best success!


Lucia: Thank you so much. I appreciated this, and I look forward to reading the piece.