ADM+S and Australian Red Cross Partnership
11 February 2022
Prof Julian Thomas, RMIT University
Amanda Robinson, Red Cross Australia
Ivana Jurko, Red Cross Australia
Amal Varghese, Red Cross Australia
Listen on Anchor
Duration: 36:42


Amal: Welcome to the inaugural event to mark the launch to the Technology for Society Series, brought to you by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society; ADMS in short. And Humanitech at Australian Red Cross. The series will bring insights and perspectives of leading researchers in the humanities, social, and technological sciences, as well as industry and humanitarian leaders on the critical issues emerging at the intersection of humanity, and increasingly, intelligent technologies.

By convening the best minds, working at the intersection of technology and social intervention, we hope to spark discussions around the design, development, and use and application of technologies in society. And we hope to amplify ideas and solutions that may have great reach in the humanitarian sector and beyond. My name is Amal Varghese, Advocacy and Research Manager at Humanitech Australian Red Cross, and I would like to officially welcome you to this first event- Why Australian Red Cross and ADMS came together to form a Strategic partnership.

I would love to welcome Professor Julian Thomas, Amanda Robinson, and Ivana Jurko. Professor Julian Thomas is the Director of the Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision Making and Society, and he sits as well, on the Humanitech Advisory Board. Amanda Robinson is the co-founder and Director of Humanitech at Australian Red Cross, and she serves as well, on RMIT’s College of Business and Law Industry Advisory Group. Ivana Jurko is the co-Founder and Influence lead at Humanitech, and she is also a Partner Investigator at the ADMS Centre.

So clearly Julian, Amanda, and Ivana are active at Humanitech Australian Red Cross, and RMIT University. They have seen first-hand the value of working collaboratively across sectors to examine and solve challenging problems at the intersection of technology and society. So, it is a great privilege that today they have agreed to reflect and share their experiences on how a multi-sector, collaborative approach can be beneficial in solving problems, how they cultivated this strategic partnership, and how they see this creating value in the future.

So, I guess first to you Julian. In our conversations you’ve told me how excited you are about working with Humanitech and Australian Red Cross. Can you tell me a little bit about what sparked that strategic partnership and what interests you about the Centre and Red Cross working together?

Julian: Of course, thank you, and yeah. I’m very happy to talk about it. We first started talking together about this area and the set of problems that ADMS Centre and Humanitech are seeking to address, quite a while ago now. These Centre’s are a fair time in the development, and I think it goes back to 2017, 2018. We started talking about the kind of work that in our different organisations, we wanted to do. Of course, I was at RMIT at this point, and very interested to talk to people in the Red Cross, with whom RMIT had had a long collaboration. And I knew the work that had been going on there for a long time. So, I was very interested in engaging with what was rapidly emerging as a really significant and challenging problem for researchers, which was how would we go about mitigating the risks of some very significant emerging new technologies? Especially in the areas of artificial intelligence and automated decision making. But in order to develop a really strong program of research in that area, I knew that we had to work with organisations that would enable us to do a few different things. And this is what is really exciting about the partnership with Humanitech. First of all, it’s how do we make sure that the research we do, coming from a university background, can make a difference. So, it’s one thing to do this work at an abstract level, or a theoretical level, but really the imperative for us was to make sure that our work would have some sort of positive social impact. And that of course is not something we were well-equipped to do ourselves. We’d always known that the way you do that is by working with other organisations. So, it was very exciting to hear about all the plans that were then brewing for Humanitech- the recognition in the Red Cross that this. There were a set of strategic issues and problems arising, and also opportunities arising out of the digital transformation of the Humanitech sector. So that was timed very well. But there was another thing as well, that was in my mind. You know there is always a conventional story with these sorts of partnerships, that Universities are good at the long-term deeper research, and that when you go into the non-government sector or other agencies, you start to look at how ideas can be applied. The other way it works, that we often miss and that’s very important to us, is that as researchers we often get our best ideas from talking to people in organisations like the Red Cross and like Humanitech, because there is an understanding there of the contingencies, the problems, the challenges that arise on the ground. And that inspires us in turn, to reframe our questions and go back to the problems, and rethink our research programs. So, it’s not a lineal flow from research to innovation to translation, it’s more complicated than that, and much more interesting. And it’s that sort of complex collaboration that we really enjoy with Humanitech and then Red Cross.

Amal: Excellent. Julian I might come back to you in a moment. I want to hear from Amanda and Ivana. I guess Julian, just planting a seed in your brain- When you look forward to what the Centre and Red Cross are aiming to achieve in the decade or decades to come, what kind of lasting impact would you like to have in this space of the intersection of technology and society? But I’ll let you stew on that for a few minutes, and I’ll ask Ivana and Amada to tell us a little bit about their experience, maybe going back a little bit further before the partnership. Amanda and Ivana, you’ve both been recognised as pioneers in social innovation at Australian Red Cross, I think it’s fair to say. You co-founded Humanitech at Red Cross, which is a fairy, really, operating at the frontier for a traditional organisation. Can you tell us about the emerging set of challenges, some of which Julian talked about, that you saw and have shared previously with me and many others about the very real impact around creating new forms of vulnerability around technology, and how you think frontier technologies could perhaps solve many social problems. Over to you first, Amanda.

Amanda: Yeah, I guess going back to early 2018, which feels like a lifetime ago after the couple of years that we’ve all had. But I think Julian touched on, you know, the iterative nature of these wicked problems that we are looking to solve, and that was part of my job coming into Red Cross as Head of Social Innovation, was how do we solve these wicked problems in society and really start to bring a different perspective to moving the dial on some of these problems.

My background is in digital development, and that was the kind of the perspective that I was bringing, as well as the social innovation lens, back when I joined. And really, I sort of saw technology as a key enabler to solving some of these problems, because of some of the opportunities that are presenting, but also the ability to scale. And so, it started to look at block chain, AI, and other technologies, as a way of, you know, these are the sorts of technologies that would help us have a material impact. At the same time Ivana was working in the research team at Australian Red Cross, and was leading our Futures Foresight Capability, and had really identified that frontier technologies were an opportunity for the sector, certainly, but also that these technologies posed significant risk and had the potential to introduce new forms of vulnerability. So, it was really instrumental for us to understand how were these technologies being developed? What were the impacts into the future? And what were the unintended consequences that we would need to mitigate against now, in order to ensure that those technologies were inclusive and fit for humanity.

And so, we set about setting up this concept that we called Humanitech, really recognising again that social innovation, social impact, is not the sort of domain of one organisation or even one sector. And that the problems that we were seeking to solve were not unique to red Cross, and that actually, what would be most effective would be to lead across sectors, across disciplines, across industries, across perspectives, to really understand these problems deeply and to work towards a new business as usual. Building deep collaborations with stakeholders across those sectors, but also importantly putting community at the Centre. So back to when, I’ll hand over to Ivana, because Ivana has obviously been instrumental in setting up the relationship with, and leading the relationship with, RMIT and the Centre, and the fantastic collaboration that we have.

Ivana: Thanks Amanda, and thanks Julian. It’s a really nice kind of setting of the scene of where the Centre and Humanitech emerged. So, I will segue by I guess stitching those two stories together. So, if I think about how we came to talk about the potential for collaboration, I also go back to early 2018. And I remember we had just come out of this really incredible event that Amanda organised. It was an event that bought the humanitarian sector, the community sector, our friends in universities, as well as some technologies, together over two days to really talk about well how might we solve some of these wicked problems with the help of emerging technologies. And we kind of started unpacking those opportunities, and it became very clear to us that you know, there are vast opportunities, but also, we really needed to understand what some of those unintended consequences might be and that we need to get our skills and knowledge and understanding of that up to scratch, if we were to capitalise on that potential without creating risks or creating harm. Which of course, ‘do no harm’ being one of the core humanitarian principles we operate under.

That particular event was in February 2018. I think that was the first time the name of Humanitech was uttered publicly, and it kind of then got us thinking about how might we create a more permanent platform for collaboration, where Red Cross could bring collaborators across those sectors, perspectives and disciplines, to work together on those issues. We very quicky realised we certainly cannot go it alone. It’s simply not possible to a, engage in this space from a research and development capacity, but also in creating that wholistic understanding. So, we wanted to pursue this cross-sectoral type of partnerships. So, it was really very fortunate timing, because I think only a few weeks after this event was when Julian reached out to us to have that initial conversation in a beautiful sunny courtyard at RMIT University. And you know, when Julian had painted the picture of the Centre, which by that stage had already been in motion for I think a better part of the year, and it was now coming to a point of ramping up and getting partners onboard. And it was this amazing idea, we were going to be looking at automation of decision making, but importantly, we were going to be looking at what does this mean for society? What does this mean for people and communities? It was a humanities-led centre, so really kind of spotlighting that social aspect and bringing all the other disciplines together. And it was an applied sort of a Centre, so looking at real world issues and practical tools and strategies, and creating of evidence so that we might actually do something about it in the real world.

So, I think it’s very fair to say that it really struck a chord with Amanda and myself. It was very much aligned around the big picture, but also increasingly pervasive and increasingly urgent questions that we were dealing with. And yeah, it kind of started from there. We were very fortunate and very eager to support the Centre. And over the last few years we managed to create what I would call a very genuine and deep collaboration on different levels, around Humanitech, and within the Centre itself.

Amal: And Julian, just going back to that question I had posed around vision for the future- when you look forward to the Centre and Red Cross, and what multi-stakeholder and multi-sector approach to solving these increasingly pervasive and urgent problems as Ivana mentioned, what kind of lasting impact would you like to have in the space, or your colleagues, working at that intersection of tech and society?

Julian: We’re pretty ambitious actually, as you would have gathered. We’ve got an ambitious research program which is really all about how the social impacts of these technologies play out in a range of critical domains. But we are really looking to make a difference in a few critical areas, as Ivana and Amanda have said. I mean we first of all, of course, we want to make sure that we create a set of useful tools and resources for organisations like the Red Cross and Humanitech, in the areas in which they’re working. We want to make sure that we have a strong evidence base for action in this area, and for better public policy. We want to make sure that we have a better public debate about the impacts of these technologies which are now widely present in our everyday lives, but of course misconceptions abound about them on all sides. So as public policy develops, and of course a whole range of other capabilities outside government, its more important than ever that there’s a strong public understanding of the social aspects of these technologies. We would very much like to see that. I think the other thing that we really would love to see coming out of the partnership and the work of the Centre and Humanitech together, is something which I think we agreed from the start that there is a really critical need for, is that as these technologies do become more and more widely used, we are going to need another kind of workforce in all of our organisations. So, a new generation of people who are trained across the disciplines in order to understand the social aspects of these technologies. You need to draw on more than just one academic or professional discipline, for example. So what we are very keen to do is to work with organisations like Humanitech to make sure that we have a workforce which is skilled across those disciplines in order to understand the issues that are raised, in order to have the capabilities to engage with, develop and deal with the technologies, and therefore to mitigate the risks that they represent and of course maximise the benefits that they offer for those communities who stand most to gain from those things.

Amal: Excellent point there Julian. Amanda I might jump to you, because Julian just mentioned developing an entirely different workforce, and that requires a lot of education, training, and an entirely different model. An entirely different business as usual. Amanda, you work at, or certainly you sit on the Industry Advisory board of the College of Business and Law at RMIT, and for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been passionate about, and a great advocate about educating the next generation of business and tech leaders to have that sort of humanity and sort of people first approach. Can you tell us what you’ve got in mind Amanda, about how we do that? How we educate and train our young people in the existing work force so that we can have a different future and inspire completely new ways and ideas; new ways of doing things.

Amanda: Absolutely, and yes, I’m very fortunate to be on the Advisory Board for the College of Business and Law, and as a result the Australian Red Cross is partnered on the new business management degree that is coming out of RMIT. And you know, really commend RMIT around the approach that we’re taking to developing courses that are future-fit, so that we are developing leaders who are thinking about the social implications of business, of technology, thinking about it from a real, all of society lens. And certainly, ESG is getting talked about a lot at the moment. But the social part of that is so, so important, and starting to see these subjects being built into business degrees- like social impact, social innovation, responsible technology, ethics, were really starting to see now the future generation of business leaders being trained and coached in different ways of thinking about the future. And it’s so important. So that’s super exciting, and we’re really thrilled to be having a role and playing a part in that as those new courses get underway.

But also, as Humanitech, what we’re really about is influencing and advocating on behalf of humanity for the development and use, and implementation of responsible technology. So, we are also working very closely with industry to ensure that our approaches- things like Humanity First, things like building in lived-experience frameworks into the development of technology, is very much front and centre. And again, we work with a lot of partners across the corporate sector who are increasingly looking for the sort of guidance and support that we might offer. And how you do this in a way that ensures that humanity is front and centre, and at the core and control of these technologies, to ensure that we are not excluding or creating harm into the future.

Amal: Lovely. Ivana, I might turn to you. You’re a Partner Investigator at the Centre, and of course Julian sits on the Humanitech Advisory board, and you both have an understanding of those two ecosystems. I’d be keen to hear first Ivana, and then perhaps to you Julian, about some of the opportunities and examples about how researchers and practitioners from Red Cross have worked together to think about some of these challenges, noting that we’re probably in the early stage and probably have large scale ambitions. But over to you Ivana.

Ivana: Thanks Amal. Look, like any good partnership; interactions across time, and relationship building exercises. And when I talked before about that genuine and deep collaboration, I think it’s important to reflect that it’s at very different levels of the Centre engagement. So, for example through the Governance system of the Centre, we have our director of Volunteering, Penny Harrison who sits on the International Advisory Board. I’m also fortunate to be on the Executive Committee of the Centre, where I get to hear all about how the Centre is operating, and it’s plans for the future. And of course, the project, and sort of initiative levels. So, there’s opportunities on project basis but there’s also these cross-cutting initiatives across the Centre. And one that’s particularly close to my heart that I probably understand the most, is the Social Services focus area. That’s really kind of putting the lens on all of the activities of the Centre, and then how that might impact on social services, whether it’s access to services, whether its issues of equity, whether its issues of rights. So, it just kind of paints a picture that there’s a lot of different ways of connecting that research and practice. And that was really always at the core of what we wanted to do. And just a week ago I had a conversation with Julian about how the partnership is progressing, and I reflected on my position within the centre in two ways; a little bit of a minister without portfolios, kind of sitting across many different initiatives, trying to support the opportunities and trying to make things happen. And a match maker. I do feel like I’ve been doing a lot of speed-dating across the Centre Investigators and the subject matter experts we have within Australian Red Cross, but also globally with some colleagues in our broader network.

So, it really comes down to that, I think. You know, those are the opportunities. This research and development around these systems and technologies is happening largely outside of our sector. Money literally cannot buy the type of expertise we can tap into through this partnership, and yes you have said it yourself, we are still just moving out of the start-up phase of this Centre. It’s being year 1, which has been a disrupted year due to Covid, but it’s a seven year long initiative, and already we have had a huge amount of interaction from projects related to humanitarian data mapping, and you know, what the capacity of community is to respond to humanitarian needs. To looking at the spread of mis and disinformation, through digital media which is very relevant to our public health work. To numerous others, like research roundtables on child protection or disabilities. So, there’s been a lot of interactions. And every time, particularly as we look into next year looking at more strategic ways of bringing that incredible array of new evidence and insights back into Red Cross. And that will happen through events like this which are demystifying what the Centre does. But also, being a little bit more strategic and systematic about providing more opportunities to participate in roundtables, bringing practitioners and researchers together through projects and initiatives. So yeah, it’s just a really exciting time for us, I think.

Julian: Sure look, I think Ivana covered just about everything. Her comments underline the kind of range of connections between the work that’s going on in the Centre and the extraordinary field of activity that we see in Humanitech and of course the Red Cross more broadly. As she says, we’ve been going for about a year now. We have a number of projects which are now underway. And several of them of course, do have very direct applications for Red Cross and Humanitech. I mean in particular, I’d mention, and I think Ivana also mentioned this, but the work we’re doing and how we’re building the capabilities of the humanitarian sector in terms of data analytics and understanding where community resources are, are so important in crisis situations and all kinds of emergency responses. I think that’s the kind of thing that we see ourselves doing a good deal more of. Doing the research on how we can share data ethically, how we can draw data sets together for useful purposes, how we can build on the analytic skills that sit in the universities to really establish some strong capabilities in humanitarian organisations, and in the sector. There are so many other areas, as Ivana said where we see intersecting interest. All I can say is that you know, she mentioned that social services area, which is a really important domain for our researchers. It’s one of those critical fields where we see the unintended, or the sometimes-maligned consequences of some of these new technologies, machine learning applications of various kinds, where historical data sets are used, where we enforce disadvantage and where, as we move towards automated and digital services in these areas, especially in the wake of Covid and the pandemic, where we’ve had this very accelerated digital transformation. We’re looking more and more closely at what that transformation involves, and we’re learning a great deal from the conversations we’re having with colleagues from Humanitech and the Red Cross in that context. So that’s going to be a significant focus for our work in the years ahead.

Ivana: If I may add just to that, in 2022 in fact, we are aiming to do a bit of a round table on the humanitarian topic. And it’s likely to be looking at migration issues which present in so many different ways within the Red Cross movement. Both in terms of vulnerable migrants and their access to services, given that things like access to Medicare is being automated increasingly, but also like Visa processing facilities. And then to broader global issues related to digital borders and beyond. It’s a real example of how we can bring that significant Red Cross expertise and connection to people with lived experience, to research experts in this field. And I guess just a point to make on that, is that Red Cross has been working with communities for such a long time, we’ve been in Australia for more than a hundred years. We always try to better, when it comes to engagement and how we work, but we have an enormous body of value-based practice if you like, that guidance of humanitarian and fundamental principles around humanity and human dignity. That guidance that has been translated into a range of codes of conduct and practical guidelines, and now they’re being applied to the digital realm. So, I think we really have a unique value and perspective to bring to these spaces.

Amal: Perfect. Well, I might throw an open question to you all. I might start with you Amanda. You’ve sort of talked about how a partnership between Red Cross and the Centre working together has already started to bear dividends. How can practitioners in your view, and others in the field, connect with and contribute to that research community in a systematic way? And then conversely, you know if your partnership is a prototype for how things could work in Australia and I guess globally, about researchers and practitioners working together, do you set up a blueprint for that? And I guess what’s the kind of example that you see yourself, leaving the light on. Amanda first perhaps?

Amanda: So interesting, thanks Amal. I think after 20 plus years working in this space, I think to think there could be a blueprint is very naïve. So, I think what I’ve learnt over the years is that all of these relationships are built on trust, on transparency, on vulnerability, actually. And that’s been my biggest learning particularly over the last two years. And that building that trust is how we enable really good outcomes. To sort of prescribe a certain way of doing things, yes, we sort of approach it in ways of social innovation, lean and impact. We’re all pioneers and intensely curious about the world, and that means we’re always having conversations about ‘what if we try this?’ and ‘how could we do this better?’ But if I think about the partnerships that we have, with Humanitech, particularly the Centre, and also our founding partner, the Telstra foundation- what I think has been critical to the success of those partnerships is this really deep trust and vulnerability. And the ability to come to a problem and say hey, we don’t know, what should we do, how should we solve this, and how do we move forward together? I think really that’s the only way. And as we build our partnerships and bring stakeholders into what we’re doing, as we’re doing through the lab which we’re standing up at the moment as well-the Humanitech lab, It really is coming from the place of curiosity, vulnerability and trust. So yeah, I think that’s probably the best advice I can give after many years of going about this work, and yeah. We’re incredible lucky to be partnered with the partners that we do have. Julian and Ivana, what are your thoughts?


Julian: Likewise, really. We’re very fortunate as well. I mean my main advice to people would be to find partner organisations that are as good as the Red Cross, or Humanitech. Especially, what’s particularly important I think, is working with organisations where you can see that there’s a real strategic alignment. It’s not about dealing with a very immediate problem that’s right Infront of us, but something that you know is going to involve a long-term alignment, and a lot of thinking. That was really evident from our very early conversations. That the issues we were talking about were things that Amanda and Ivana and others at the Red Cross had thought about deeply, at the Red Cross, for years. So, we didn’t have to persuade anyone that the work we were thinking of doing was going to be potentially significant. You know, they could see that. That was tremendously fortunate for us. It does take time. it takes trust as Amanda said. But I think also, just those conversations where you are thinking ahead about, what’s the long-term with this, what are we trying to achieve down the track? That’s enormously appealing, it’s stimulating and exciting when you’re thinking about how you can work with an organisation like this one.

Ivana: Nothing really to add at my end in terms of anything novel or profound, but perhaps just to reiterate both the points that Amanda and Julian have made. And I may have mentioned it before, but the idea of really finding the right partners is so important. People who are willing to align around common goals, and also a fair dose of I think, realism. I mean there’s no magical thinking in this. Like we know it takes time. We know that we are always cocreating in language. Because when you bring different perspectives and different sectors, it takes a while to actually establish common understanding around some issues. So, collaboration can be hard, but it’s so worthwhile. So, dealing with these complex technologies, and even more complex ways that they are reforming how we live, work, play, etcetera, you can’t do it in silos. It really has to be deeply collaborative. So just to reiterate again, feeling really fortunate to be working with such incredible minds, on both sides of the research and practice continuum of this.

Amal: So, look, we’re really excited about this partnership and whilst it has been live for a little while, I guess now is a great time to celebrate it. And really, this conversation will serve as a guide for tracking how we’ve fared over the next few years. But I guess fundamentally it comes back to what we’ve talked about, and I’ll ask each of the panellists to add their two cents. But really, it’s around building and ensuring technology is responsibly built, ethically designed, and inclusive. And really, we’re looking to the future so that what has occurred for a lot of people and a lot of organisations- we don’t want to be reactive about all these things. So, we’re taking that proactive approach. And Julian I might hand over to you to add any comments, and Amanda and Ivana after that.

Julian: Thanks so much Amal, and thanks everybody. And as Ivana said, we can’t think magically about this. It takes work. It takes experimentation. We’re certainly going to do some things that don’t work. We hope we’re going to do quite a few things that do work. But what we’re absolutely convinced about, is that we cannot really make a difference in this space if we’re locked into our own disciplines or our own institutions. And it’s really only by forging connections of this kind, that we can begin to get at what are really difficult and challenging problems for us. So, this is just a beginning. But thank you again for a really terrific conversation.

Ivana: Look really, I think what it comes down to for me, when I think about this issue, is going back to that Humanitech mission. So, if we really want to ensure that these technological advancements in society actually promote and protect human dignity and safety, and that they do so trustworthy ways. We have a choice to engage; we need to engage. And as humanitarians it’s not a question of whether these technologies are coming our way, they’re part of our work already. They’re affecting our communities in different ways. We actually have a duty of care to be part of the conversation. And in our work, we actually talk about creating this new busines as usual that kind of brings people and communities at the centre of this work, and organisations such as the Australian Red Cross, and platforms such as Humanitech, into being a bit of a broker or a translator across the stakeholder groups, or across sectors and disciplines. So, I think we really need to lean into that and into those conversations, to I guess make it a brighter future for us all. Because benefits are enormous, but risks have to be addressed.

Amal: Fantastic. With that, I want to thank all the panellists. Professor Julian Thomas, Amanda Robinson and Ivana Jurko.

Ivana, Amanda: Thanks everyone.