Connected for Good: Fireside Chat with Terry Cunningham, CEO at Descartes Labs, and Bish Sen, EVP of Supply Chain at Unilever
Aug 16, 2021 · 5 min read
Tackling the Pressing Challenge of Deforestation to Help Build a More Sustainable Future
Terry Cunningham, President and CEO of Descartes Labs, and Bish Sen, Executive Vice President of Supply Chain at Unilever, sit down to discuss how Descartes Labs' geospatial analytics platform contributes to a more sustainable future by monitoring deforestation at scale in Unilever's Connected for Good video series.
Bish Sen: [00:00:05] Unilever Compass is our commitment to creating a more sustainable future. This includes two big commitments in nature: creating a deforestation-free supply chain in palm, soy, paper & board, tea, and cocoa by 2023. The second commitment centers around protecting and regenerating one and a half million hectares of land, forest, and ocean surfaces by 2030. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Terry Cunningham, President & CEO of Descartes Labs. Through the partnership of Descartes Labs, we have an eye in the sky. Terry, what is Descartes Labs about?
What is Descartes Labs About?
Terry Cunningham: [00:00:43] Descartes Labs is an analytics software company. We specialize in analyzing data. And in this particular case, we take data from what's known as remote sensors. So these sensors tend to be on satellites, and some of it’s optical, some of it's radar. And we collect it all and use machine learning technology to make sense of these images and this sensor data to answer business questions about what's happening on the surface of the Earth.
Bish Sen: [00:01:17] One of the applications that we are working with Descartes Labs on is detecting deforestation. Terry, can you tell us a little bit about how this whole thing works?
How does Descartes Labs Platform Work?
Terry Cunningham: [00:01:26] The ability to see deforestation and use technology, in some cases very advanced technology, to be able to tell the difference between one region that's been deforested and one region that has not. And one of the things we use is one of the satellite technologies known as Synthetic Aperture Radar. SAR for short. And SAR is this idea of radar that can actually see through clouds and can take the image at night as well. So basically it's twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week of accurate imagery that is being processed.
Bish Sen: [00:02:06] Given some of the regions that we are interested in. Cloud cover has historically been a big problem in terms of getting accurate reporting.
Terry Cunningham: [00:02:14] When we first started working with you, “not good enough” was the message from Unilever. It was like, this is interesting technology, but we need to be positive about the reporting. We need to be clear and accurate about the reporting. So, what was great was you pushed us to improve the accuracy. And so we actually developed this extra layer of capability, taking SAR and then modifying it to what we call InSAR, which is actually comparing imagery and the idea is to get even more accurate output from the satellite imagery so that we can, with certainty, with high certainty, be able to describe to you what area has been deforested, or which area has not been deforested. And this is something that the industry has not used before.
Bish Sen: [00:03:09] And the industry really needs to achieve wholesale change across the end-to-end supply chains and bring in a very different level of transparency and traceability across the value chain. This is really important to understand what's happening on the ground and using the technology approaches that you talked about, to be able to prioritize our action and our response. I feel really excited and proud of the comprehensive digital ecosystem that we are crafting with several technology layers. And this is not just about a satellite problem, but it's about using multiple bits of technology and integrating them to make it work, to provide a more accurate, a more reliable, a more real-time view of the issue. We face many challenges, but one specific one is about what are the hurdles that you face in making more accurate data more widely available, in near-real-time?
Accurate, Real-Time Data
Terry Cunningham: [00:04:13] I remember our first conversation that you and I had was how do we impact and influence change so that we can actually make a difference together? And one of the things that has come up a lot in our business is we must deliver accurate data. It must be validated and verified, and made sure that the science community at large believes the data is accurate. Unilever takes action with that data and starts changing the way they procure and source product or in this case, commodities. That's important, but equally important is to influence the local communities through civil agencies and NGOs. And we, with Unilever’s support, want to make this data or parts of this data readily available to these other constituents, these other organizations that have a very large, very loud voice, in the world of sustainability. We want to arm them with the right information, accurate information, so that we're all looking at the single version of the truth. So, Bish, one of the things, you know, so far today, we've talked a lot about how we do these things, you know, how the technology works. I'm really intrigued with why Unilever even embarked on this mission?
Bish Sen: [00:05:37] Sustainability has been a part of our DNA for the past 100 plus years. Right from the way the company was founded, it was all about creating a sustainable future. So our mission is about creating a sustainable future to make sustainable living commonplace. We believe that this is not just an act of good corporate citizenship, but increasingly consumers have started demanding and will demand even more transparency and even more assurance that the products that they consume have not contributed in any way to deforestation or to making the planet a worse place than where we started off from.
Terry Cunningham: [00:06:25] Large corporations like Unilever always challenge themselves to find the right types of technology, the right kinds of partners. How is it that you go through this process, and what's it like to deal with a lot of these small, in some cases very early-stage startups because of the nature of the technology? They're brand new. What's it like for you and the team working with these small startups?
Large Corporations and Small Tech Startups
Bish Sen: [00:06:51] It's a super exciting journey, Terry. Working with big corporates can be frustrating for nimble entrepreneurial outfits like yours. But at the same time, your entrepreneurial drive, your agility actually rubs off on us as a team. And it's not just the technology solutions that you bring, but it's also the way you work as a team, as a group. That actually has ripple effects in our organization. And I think that the best part of it has been the ability to co-create actually even before co-creating, the ability to imagine a better future together. So, Terry, what has it been like for a company like yours to work with a complex company like Unilever?
Terry Cunningham: [00:07:40] So one of the challenges we have as a technology provider and a solution provider is making sure we're clear on why we're doing what we're doing together. And what Unilever has been very clear on is the mission. The mission has been sustainability. The mission specifically in this case has been deforestation in region, and how critical it is that we can measure it accurately so that actions can be taken to stop it. One of the things you and I talked about in a previous conversation was that your mission was to make the world a better place using this information. And I was quite surprised at the time to hear that you wanted it to be readily available to the community at large. Can you comment on that, that sort of philosophy of your approach?
Making the World a Better Place
Bish Sen: [00:08:30] So I see this piece of work that we're doing together fitting into two dimensions, the first part of it is how do we use the advanced analytics that you're creating, the tracking and transparency that you're providing. How do we use it to build a coalition of the willing? How can we get more people enrolled, be they NGOs, be they palm plantation companies, be they producers, be they other manufacturers. Or indeed at some point in time, civil society and government engaged in it to be able to act in real-time so that if we set aside the target saying not one more forest tree shall be felled. How do we build this? How do we use the power of technology to make that happen? The second angle for me is about using the technology to provide reassurance to our consumers through our brands so that they can be assured that a big brand from the house of Unilever is actually using technology to protect, preserve and regenerate forests. I'm convinced that the power of this technology will help us heal the planet, will help us build traceability and transparency across our extended value chains. And to ultimately, hopefully, lead to a point where not one more tree from a forest will be felled for the purpose of plantations. I really look forward to that.
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