Michael Porter, a famous thinker on 20th Century business strategy, has argued that economic outcomes in the pursuit of social change are becoming the new norm for business.

Whilst waiting for capitalism to reinvent itself and more social value to be created and shared alongside each output of economic production, today’s socially biased organisations must survive and hold the fort.

Around the world, donations are falling, from Malaysia to Hungary; the “capacity crunch” is biting; talent is decamping, with a whopping 45% of employees in the US and 51% of UK third sector fundraisers looking to jump ship; and missions are drifting.

It is called the “starvation cycle”, a phenomenon whereby many non-profits, charities, NGOs, social enterprises and other social organisations are denied core resources to build capacity, and are thus also denied a path to sustainability. Even in rich, progressive, societies like New Zealand, the result is a decline in survival rate by 45% in the past 6 years.

The root cause of most of these challenges is constrained capacity. The Innovation Network, a best practices research body, conducted a series of studies into the capacity of non-profits and other social organisations to manage program evaluation between 2010 and 2016. The findings revealed very worrying resource constraints.

For instance, only 8% of organisations can afford dedicated evaluation staff, down from 25% in 2012. Yet, for their funders and other major stakeholders, impact evaluation is the most critical yardstick for trust-building and an absolute necessity to sustain a supporting relationship. But when 84% of nonprofits spend less than the recommended levels on evaluation (up from 76% in 2010), corner-cutting is inevitable.

The inability of social organisations to retain the right staff and invest in the systems needed for critical functions like evaluation feed into severe fundraising limitations, which perpetuate persistent funding shortfalls. For example, 87% of nonprofits surveyed by the Innovation Network do not benefit from pay-for-performance opportunities, with 43% lacking the capacity altogether. 79% of respondent organisations say lack of personnel time is the biggest barrier.

Meanwhile, competition for grants and other flexible funding is intensifying at a serious pace. According to the Society for Non-profits, only 7.5% of grant applications succeed.

At first glance, capacity crunch and personnel time constraints of this nature seem perfectly made for digital intervention. A whole software industry has been built on the productivity needs of business. Social organisations, it would seem, only need to reach. Unfortunately, only 16% of such organisations can be classified as “digitally mature”. A Hewlett Foundation “field scanning” report on social organisations’ capacity issues reinforced this fact by placing at the very top of its list of critical gaps: “Technology access, digital security, and overcoming the digital divide.”

The spectacular rise of ChatGPT in the public consciousness in the last few months heralds a new era of digital technology. One where the significant barriers of classical technology adoption have been substantially lowered, paving the way for social organisations to transcend many of their current limitations.

That ChatGPT promises to democratise access to Artificial Intelligence (AI), the most productivity-focused segment of the digital spectrum is an added bonanza. Imagine the prospect of evaluation reports, fundraising pitches, annual statement drafts and complex project financial analysis all generated in a few minutes by non-specialist interns. Imagine the impact on non-profit capacity.

Even more intriguingly, ChatGPT may offer capabilities for actual service delivery, not just for internal organisational development. For example, a recent McKinsey report by the global consultancy claimed that “[t]hrough an analysis of about 160 AI social impact use cases,” they have “identified and characterized ten domains where adding AI to the solution mix could have large-scale social impact. These range across all 17 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and could potentially help hundreds of millions of people worldwide.”

Consider the case, for instance, of Liberia, which has just 300 doctors at home for a population of 5.3 million (up from 25 at home in 2000 when the population was ~3 million). There are two psychiatristssix ophthalmologistseleven pediatricians, and zero – yes a grand zero – urologists. Imagine the good that an organisation like Last Mile Health can do if an AI system could equip its community health workers to perform at near specialist-level. It is at this point that it gets a bit more complicated.

The idea of getting an AI system to perform specialist-level tasks, hopefully at lower cost and with greater productivity, is an old pursuit, most prominently in a branch of AI called “expert systems”. The government of Japan, for instance, tried for two decades (from 1982 onwards) to take expert systems mainstream by dramatically improving their interface with ordinary humans to thoroughly lacklustre effect. Their use has been confined to enterprise ever since.

However, in 1992, a Management Information Systems expert called Sean Eom surveyed enterprise deployments of expert systems and found strong concentration in operations optimisation and finance, the same areas of emphasis presented above for social organisations today.

Results of Sean Eom’s Survey (1992)

Today, the original expert systems model is no longer very fashionable. Competing branches of AI like machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) have all but taken over. ChatGPT belongs to the NLP branch of AI, in particular a domain known as “large language models” (LLMs), which is fast catching up with machine learning as the dominant form of AI-based productivity enhancement.

The positioning of Expert Systems vs the NLP Bloom that led to LLMs, Transformers and eventually ChatGPT.
Source: Chethan Kumar (2018)  

Many of the most promising AI toolkits for addressing the capacity crunch of social organisations, and by implication the starvation cycle, are LLM-based, and the signs suggest that this trend will intensify because of ChatGPT’s cultural influence. It is thus critical for social organisation leaders to understand the limitations of the LLM-paradigm and develop their early-stage AI strategies cognisant of those limitations. Below we outline a simple high-level rubric to help leaders think through their organisational situation.

Do you have an “Expert Network”?

In a recent essay, I emphasised the point that LLMs and similar big data-driven systems are about statistical averages. They take snapshots of internet-scale caches of data and then make safe bets as to the most likely answer to a query. The best experts are, however, top-notch for the very reason that they generate insights that are often skewed against the average. They exhibit positive bias.

A social organisation must thus identify the most critical knowledge domains underlying their expertise and unique contributions to society, and adopt a low-cost means to curate a wide enough digital network of experts whose work touches on those domains. Web-crawlers and other simple data miners can be used to track the bets, predictions, assessments and scenarios regularly generated by this network.

Leaders should, however, bear in mind that this is not about an “advisory council” and there is no need for a formal relationship to exist with these experts at this stage.

Are you training “Knowledge Analysts”?

All LLMs are prompt-dependent. For ChatGPT or similar systems to generate the right sequence of answers and then piece them together, someone skilled in conversing with bots is required. A good knowledge analyst enjoys the “insight loop” game where learning grows by subtle shifts in repeated articulations.

For example, a detailed review of ChatGPT’s recent performance on a Wharton MBA test emphasised the critical importance of “hints” from a human expert in refining the bot’s responses. Because these are uncharted waters, organisations must experiment to find the right personnel fits and alignments.

Do you have a “Knowledge Base”?

Systems like ChatGPT are all about presentation. They are trying to write like an averagely educated human. Their trainers scour the open internet and other easily accessible databases to assemble large samples of human writing to drive this meta-mimicry effort.

For LLMs to become truly useful, besides spouting plain vanilla generics (with the occasional giant blooper), they will need access to more specialised sources of data with built-in reinforcement loops to emphasise what matters most.

In a 2019 working paper, I broke down the generic structure of modern computing into “data”, “algorithms” and “integrations”, and explained why integrations are the real driver of value.

Integrating into all manner of random data troves will however eventually constrain automation efficiency due to vastly different rules of access.

Social organisations can address this issue by formalising the stock of data they and their partners carry, specifying rules of access, and enabling secure integration to create trusted knowledge bases on which open-source LLM algorithms can train to deliver bespoke content for services. By so doing, they address the ancient “knowledge bottleneck” problem in expert systems – mimicking platforms like ChatGPT.

Are you open to Architectural Redesign?

Effective use of LLM-type AI does require the organisation to increase its knowledge-centricity, its overall vigilance about where unique insights, real expertise and learning loops are embedded into its processes.

Doing this effectively may see generalist knowledge analysts acquire greater importance than some hallowed specialists, even threatening certain hierarchies essential to the integrity of the organisation.

Such power shifts and socio-political imperatives require serious strategic commitment from the most senior management.

Are you conscious of the emerging Service Provision Network?

The current approach to building LLM training sets is to take data from anywhere and mash it without regard for intellectual property rights. Already, several Big Data-AI companies like Stable Diffusion are facing lawsuits for trying to externalize their costs. And ChatGPT has been excoriated for using sweatshops in Africa.

Going back to the Data-Algorithm-Integrations (DAI) framework introduced earlier, leaders need to pay attention not to source systems without careful disaggregation of those three nodes.

Emerging AI platforms targeting the social sector like FundWriter.ai come into organisational premises with pre-set models based on which they generate outputs like reports. Apart from the embarrassment of potential plagiarism, IP infringement is possible. The DAI framework favours the approach being taken by platforms like Levity which provide more tools for organisations to develop their own proprietary knowledgebases.

Creating knowledge-pools with likeminded organisations around the world under trusted licensing frameworks and implementing IP risk screening layers should consume far less resources than would have been the case just a few years ago. This is due to the fast-dropping costs of Integration-as-a-Service platforms that now enable large organisational networks to integrate data resources and even workflows that generate data.

The data privacy, cybersecurity, and infrastructure concerns arising in these contexts are also often taken care of by these systems out of the box though organisations should always engage the vendors at every step of deployment.

Final Word

Whilst LLM-based, expert system mimicking, platforms like ChatGPT are still in their infancy, they offer strong hints of how AI will transform organisations. Due to strong capacity constraints, social organisations have not taken full advantage of the current digital boom. They have a duty to their tens of millions of beneficiaries not to let the coming AI bonanza pass them by.                    

In February 1967, Ghana hosted an International Trade Fair on new grounds near the sea in the historic coastal town of La (also known as “Labadi”).

The purpose-built facility was a gleaming sprawl of stalls, exhibition stands, majestic emporiums, and lush tree-lined avenues.

Image Source: Richardson & Stanek (2019)/Original by Jacek Chyrosz (1967)

Over a three week period, the magnificent African Pavilion became the center of gravity in an affair that had drawn 2000 commercial and industrial exhibitors from 33 countries to this breezy corner of Accra.

The international Ghanaian-Polish design team responsible for the Trade Fair’s design spared no effort in imbuing the structures with architectural significance. Trade Fair was to serve as a pulsing artery connecting the redevelopment of old coastal towns like Labadi with the modernisation of the capital’s waterfront and the broader urbanography of commerce and industry in what was even then a serious contest between planning, on one hand, and overpopulation and poverty, on the other hand.

None of those strategic objectives have been met in nearly 60 years. In today’s policy language, they are recognisable in some contemporary projects such as the following: Accra Marine Drive, the Accra Urban Transport Project, Airport City Phase 2, and, of course, the Ghana Trade Fair Redevelopment Project.

Sadly, every one of these projects is plagued with confusion, rampant insider dealing, perennial delay, and disconnection from its original urban-transformation and light-industrial objectives. But in this short piece, we intend to only talk about the Ghana Trade Fair Center (“Trade Fair”) redevelopment affairs.

From the plans based on which Trade Fair was constructed by the Ghana National Construction Company over a five-year period, it is clear that the Osagyefo (Kwame Nkrumah) government saw the project as strongly linked to Ghana’s export promotion goals and Pan-African trade hub/gateway ambitions.

Aerial Plan of the Ghana Trade Fair Center
Source: Stanek (2015)

Long before the now famous AfCFTA would be birthed, the blueprint for the eventual fair that opened in 1967 underscored the need to highlight both “made in Ghana” products and trade across African countries in equal measure. In a kind of early version of today’s “single African market” dream.

Frontpage of the Daily Graphic edition of 11th February, 1976

The Trade Fair center in the years after its launch served the purpose of showcasing innovations in production, especially of manufactures, across the country that would otherwise not have come to the limelight. Small businesses, maverick inventors, industrial startups in suburbia, and cooperatives in the hinterland were particularly keen to secure stands during fairs to catch the eyes of potential customers and investors. But they were equally keen to attract press attention and, directly or indirectly, the focus of officialdom. In the first decade or so, Trade Fair management would produce meticulous catalogs listing the exhibitors and their contact details to facilitate such discoveries.

Image Source: Penn Museum

For example, Ghanaian scientist, Narh Naatey, was one of the early researchers who honed in on the issue of malaria parasites developing resistance to chloroquine. So, he invented a herbal formula called Nasra tablets to circumvent the parasite’s learning behaviour. But how to commercialise and distribute? In 1988, he showed up at the Trade Fair exhibition of that year and displayed his wares. The Ministry of Science & Technology saw his display and committed resources to develop and promote the product. Difficulties navigating the bureaucracy of the Health Ministry ultimately prevented this early product from becoming Ghana’s own Coartem well before Coartem was invented in 1992. But at least Dr. Naatey got a fighting chance because the Trade Fair brought him into contact with supporters. Such was its influence.

As with all state-owned/run facilities in Ghana, the facilities of the Trade Fair soon started to suffer neglect. Poor maintenance practices crept in steadily, and some of its world-class architecture began to fade. Nevertheless, the emphasis on export-promotion, foreign investment (FDI) into local manufacturing, and light industry (especially by small businesses) never wavered, as one can easily glean from a centerspread in the Daily Graphic edition of 13th February, 1976.

In those days, the Trade Fair and its periodic exhibitions were clearly seen as a major fulcrum around which small businesses could accrete visibility, support, and growth. And through business growth, the country’s industrial ambitions, FDI attraction hopes and export promotion plans would all, hopefully, come together coherently and cohesively.

As the country’s economy went through the ups and downs of the 70s and 80s, Trade Fair’s maintenance issues continued to mount. Successive governments tried to hold things together, but by the early 90s, it was clear that something drastic needed to be done. The decision was taken to redesign the business model by transforming the Trade Fair grounds into a permanent hub for business promotion, thus ending the overreliance on the annual fairs and occasional large exhibitions (such as the quadrennial ECOWAS fair). Businesses were invited to do more at and with the Trade Fair, as the ad below in 1992 shows.

Thus began the practice of more and more businesses situating various facilities permanently on the Trade Fair grounds. Some small businesses obtained favourable locations in easy reach of Accra’s bustling center to produce and sell their various wares. Trade associations acquired offices there. Rent became a major source of non-state income for the operators of the Trade Fair, now reincorporated as a limited liability company and placed on a path to full commercial sustainability.

Management issues, however, continued to dog the Trade Fair. Political appointments at the helm, as it always does, blunted competitive edge and encouraged poor planning and execution. After a particularly disastrous ECOWAS Fair in 1999, the Chief Executive was suspended and committees set up to probe general management failures. But little by way of radical change occurred. Trade Fair continued to fall short of the lofty heights set by the original vision.

Nevertheless, despite the struggle to fulfil its bigger vision, Trade Fair still strove to advance the goal of showcasing entrepreneurial efforts towards local industrialisation. In 2006, for instance, a major focus of the international fair held that year was on promoting joint ventures to strengthen the ability of local companies to harness Ghana’s natural endowments.

By 2015, weak management had ensured that the new business model had been so poorly executed that resources were simply not available to properly maintain the facilities. Pictures started to circulate in the press of rotting buildings and leaking roofs. The hub of the 1967 African Pavilion (nicknamed “the round pavilion”), an architectural jewel of great historical significance, was slowly decaying.

Round Pavilion in 2016
Image Source: Nii Smiley Byte
Round Pavilion in its original glory.
Source: Rymaszewski (1967)

The government was jolted into action. A comprehensive plan for redevelopment that had been in the works for eons was expedited to completion. A competitive tendering process then followed, overseen by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC). The Reroy Group emerged as the winners, and efforts began to develop a roadmap and strategy for implementation. Before any of this could come to fruition, the government of the day lost power in the 2016 general elections.

The new government, as is the custom, sacked all the senior officials (about three-dozen in one go). It then installed an optometrist at the helm of the company. And appointed a shipping cargo millionaire as Chair of the Board. The new Chief Executive wasn’t exactly known for previous work turning around complex industrial and commercial real estate facilities, but she had something far more important going for her: she had been an executive of the ruling party in one of the party’s overseas branches in Georgia, United States.

Efforts began to systematically dismantle every single block in the Trade Fair edifice. The new masterplan for redevelopment was promptly ditched. Adjaye Associates, being the flavour of the month in Ghana, was called in. Large multimillion dollar projects were being parceled and dished to the firm on a silver platter, and Trade Fair joined the list. As is customary, even the pretense of a competitive bid was unnecessary. Architects who had won fair design bids in connection with the project protested, and were routinely ignored. But this was only the beginning.

In an act of extraordinary brazenness, the new Trade Fair leadership sent bulldozers onto the grounds and literally stripped it of most of its historic architecture. The Round Pavillion? Desecrated. The famous Adegbite cubes? What is that? Pulverised. The Chyrosz-Rymaszewski umbrella cones? Please, get real! Violated. It is as if Attila the Hun had arrived in Rome purposely to erase every megastructure of note in the Eternal City. In one short series of overnight raids, Ghana’s only piece of significant industrial-architecture heritage was severely brutalised.

A scene of the Trade Fair in 1967
Source: Stanek (2015)

This alarming spectacle of cultural annihilation triggered nothing by way of serious protest among the Ghanaian elites. Apart from protesting the loss of contracts to regime favourite, Adjaye Associates, the architectural profession stayed eerily quiet. It is quite likely that the entire episode would have gone unreported had the new Trade Fair management not also proceeded to wipe out the small business operators who had been attracted to the grounds since the 1990s to contribute their quota to Ghana’s industrialisation dreams. The likes of Colour Planet, a printing press, had their equipment damaged beyond repair when the bulldozers brought down their factories.

Demolished light industrial facilities at the Trade Fair.
Image Source: Daily Mail (2020)

It is really hard to fathom how this near-vandalism could have emanated from whatever new masterplan Adjaye Associates had put together. How can a world-class architectural design studio come up with a redevelopment plan that fails to fully preserve vital historic architecture and make accommodation for pre-existing viable economic activity? It is possible to understand how political authorities in a country like Ghana would occasionally oversee a planning process so shoddy that standard heritage preservation and economic rights considerations are tossed aside, but it is much harder to envisage how their conduct might be enabled by world-class architects.

Anyway, in one fell swoop, the new management of Ghana’s Trade Fair expired the last traces of the original vision of the site. The celebrated Ghanaian-Slavic architecture is mostly gone. The network of small businesses providing jobs and maintaining some industrial vitality in that crucial urban enclave has been dissipated. What was created in their place?

Characteristic of Adjaye-inspired mega-projects in Ghana, what we have now are grand and fantabulous futuristic landscapes on paper. Something that looks like a compact version of the hanging gardens of Babylon, complete with snazzy youtube videos has been making the rounds.

New Masterplan of the Trade Fair
Source: Ghana Trade Fair Company limited

Three years after stripping the historic trade fair of its vitality, the government’s policy has been a whirlwind of confusion. This month, it hosted an investor conference to attract partners. Virtually no serious international financiers showed up. A group of politicians and their assigns gathered to repeat the same tales of coming grandeur and the spectacular rise of a “trade gateway to Africa” from the denuded plains.

What these visionaries didn’t do was update the nation on how much of the $1 billion that was supposed to be unlocked for primary site development on more than 30% of the land has come in. After the fanfare and flourish following the agreement with “Stellar Holding” of Singapore, nothing has been heard since.

Nor did they disclose why all manner of random high net worth individuals are being fixed with patches of prime real estate for the usual combo of condos, retail complexes, and entertainment centers.

The long promised convention center to transform the site into an events tourism hub has found no takers. No investor has seriously committed to developing the exhibition pavilions. And site development and utilities are now five years behind schedule. It is true that some potential future tenants, like Africa Datacenters Corporation, have promised to cite their facilities in the new enclave, but that is, obviously, entirely dependent on the site redevelopment happening.

For now, all we have on the site is rubble:

Trade Fair grounds today (15th July 2023)

Weedy patches of low grass:

Trade Fair grounds today (15th July 2023)

And abandoned heaps of construction sand:

Trade Fair Grounds today (15th July 2023)

Three years after gutting and stripping a site of great historic importance, Trade Fair management has not even bothered to restore the pavement network:

Trade Fair Grounds today (15th July 2023)

All the livelihoods and rich heritage lost would, perhaps, have been justifiable sacrifices if the new management and their political bosses were, in fact, working hard to restore the original vision of turning the enclave into a true hub for export promotion, industrialisation, and FDI attraction, with small businesses at the heart of a galaxy of enabling policies.

Instead, what do we have here? Speculative real estate deals to cover yet another portion of old Accra with an unproductive and elite ego-stroking concrete jungle. Just so that a few people can grow vulgarly rich at the expense of the rest of the country.

If there is a better example of the ailment afflicting modern Ghana, let’s hear it; we are all ears.

In the decade since the UK’s cheerleaders unceremoniously dropped the “Cool Britannia” tagline, the country, ever adaptable, has been steadily reinventing itself as a global green economy powerhouse.

In setting out to decarbonise all UK sectors by 2050, the government has never shied away from its global leadership aspirations.

So, imagine the angst when the government’s own advisory panel returned a sobering verdict suggesting lost ground in recent years. Newspaper headlines blazed neon: Britain has lost global leadership. The news was even considered momentous enough for international newswires to include it in their summary bulletins.

Except of course, as with all these brand-heavy, long-range, policy things, the UK’s global green leadership standing was never that straightforward. And claims of Britain “losing” said standing go back nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the geopolitical competition about who can outgreen whom fastest and smartest also turns the spotlight on global laggards and whether deliberate lagging could itself be wielded by some countries as a counter-strategy.

The European Union has responded to that fear by introducing a policy to tax the carbon content (in its so-called “CBAM” policy) of imports in a move obviously designed to penalise producers in countries with less ambitious carbon-cutting and greening plans. Unsurprisingly, activists in the Global South have been observing these proceedings with extreme suspicion, whilst some specialists, divided though experts are on the CBAM, warn of adverse fiscal impact. Some even hint darkly of a new era of eco-imperialism, though there are also some on the political left that have embraced the CBAM in principle.

In light of the above geopolitical intrigues, I explore in this brief essay the journey the UK has been on so far and chart its successes and failures at a very high level. I discuss how decarbonisation of the electricity subsector has been so much smoother compared with the case in the transport and heating subsectors. Finally, I investigate, in preliminary fashion, potential “discontinuities” that might alter the transitional trajectory defined by the country’s policies.

As a country that has made decarbonisation a central feature of its global soft power diplomacy, its experience offers many interesting insights into the limits of political commitment in the presence of techno-economic hurdles.

Policymakers in countries at different stages of their green transition shift, and notwithstanding current political commitment levels, may still learn a thing or two from keeping tabs on what jurisdictions perceived to be on the cutting-edge have been running into on the decarbonisation frontiers.