Interview with the CEO of NEC, a cutting-edge technology company with SDGs at the forefront of its agenda
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unanimously adopted by member countries at the United Nations Summit in September 2015 as "international goals to realize a sustainable and better world by 2030", with a central pledge to "leave no one behind".
Proactive efforts are being made in Japan and around the world to achieve these goals. NEC, a company with a history of more than 120 years, spoke with us about its efforts to address the SDGs.
The following is an interview with Mr. Takayuki Morita, who took on the role of President and CEO of NEC in April 2021.
Orchestrating a brighter world
--The SDGs set 17 goals and 169 targets. How did NEC get involved in pursuing these goals?
Back in June 2014, NEC launched its brand message, "Orchestrating a brighter world". As it turned out, the concept of this brand message was perfectly aligned with the SDGs, which were adopted the following year.
The word "orchestrating" expresses NEC's commitment to co-creating new value by collaborating with people around the world using NEC's advanced Information and Communication Technology (ICT), and is a message that expresses NEC's strong desire to create a future society that is brighter and more prosperous for all.
NEC was founded in 1899 as the first foreign-affiliated company in Japan. It started as a company full of venture spirit, with a pledge from its founder, Kunihiko Iwadare, to popularize the telephone in Japan. While this is considered the first founding of the company, you could say its second founding occurred in 1977.
--What happened in 1977?
NEC's President at the time, Koji Kobayashi, advocated "C&C", or the integration of computer and communications technologies. At the time in the U.S., computers and communications were regulated by antitrust laws that prohibited them from intruding on each other's territory. Kobayashi's worldview and vision, however, was that the fusion of the two was a technological necessity. At the time, this was considered novel and bold. In a way, he foresaw the Internet-centric world of today, and NEC went on to become one of the top five companies in the world in three areas: computers, communications, and the semiconductors that connect them.
However, with the collapse of the bubble economy in Japan, followed by the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, and the Great East Japan Earthquake, NEC was faced with a severe business environment and began to incur large losses.
--So, the time had come for change?
Yes. It was at this time that we announced our transformation into a social value creation company. The year was 2013, and we consider this our third founding. Seven years later in fiscal 2020, we achieved a record-high net profit.
In 2020, NEC announced its purpose, "Orchestrating a brighter world," backed by a statement: "Aiming to create the social values of safety, security, fairness, and eﬃciency to promote a more sustainable world where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential."
The spread of COVID-19 is now causing a dramatic shift in our social environment and a rethink of social values. And in the process, society has recognized the essential role that ICT plays in social change and transformation. For this reason, I am reminded once again that we have taken the right direction with NEC's purpose, and that NEC's technologies and businesses have an extremely large responsibility.
Deploying the world's first scalable child fingerprint identification solution to promote vaccinations
--What kinds of initiatives is NEC undertaking in this area?
To give you an example, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, is an international organization working in the area of vaccines. Their mission is to save the lives of children and protect people's health by increasing equitable and sustainable use of vaccines. Their work covers procurement of vaccines through to their distribution. The organization is managed by the vaccine industries, research institutions, NGOs, and foundations, in addition to member governments, WHO (World Health Organization), and UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund). These days when we hear the word "vaccine," we tend to think of countermeasures against the spread of COVID-19, but this organization was established back in 2000 at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The Japanese government has been a donor since 2011, and NEC is actively involved in Gavi's initiatives.
--What specific aspect of their work have you been involved in?
We try to support Gavi activities by using our proprietary technology. If you don't know which person has had what vaccine, and when they were vaccinated, it results in mass confusion on the frontline among those administering the vaccines. This is where IT can help.
Even today, about 1.1 billion people, or one in four children, have no official ID.
--For example, even if inventory is available, vaccines cannot be appropriately given or managed without an ID. It's quite a frustrating situation, isn't it?
It certainly is. So, in June 2019, NEC, together with Simprints Technology Ltd, a UK startup that has developed fingerprint scanners built to withstand harsh environments, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Gavi on initiatives to promote vaccine immunization through scalable child fingerprint recognition.
Implementing this plan with conventional extraction and matching engines would be very challenging, since young children's fingerprints tend to be blurred due to their softness. In light of these challenges, we are now conducting proof of concept validation of the technology in Bangladesh using NEC's fingerprint authentication engine optimized for children aged one to five, and have achieved high accuracy authentication.
On top of that, by combining the fingerprint images with key information such as name, age, and gender, it is possible to verify the identity of children without IDs through fingerprint authentication, thereby allowing us to contribute to the fair distribution of vaccines and the management of vaccination records.
In addition, NEC is the first company in the world to successfully scan and match the fingerprints of newborn children just two hours after birth. NEC aims at making it possible to establish a "lifelong ID" that can be used throughout a person's lifetime.
Supporting food supply with biometric authentication
--The "Lifelong ID" certainly matches the SDG objective to "Leave No One Behind." What other activities are you implementing?
In response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in the 2010s, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) launched a project to visualize the logistics supply chain for the transportation of medical supplies to areas affected by the pandemic. NEC was the first Asian company to participate in and support this project.
The WFP aims to create a world without hunger. It provides food aid in emergencies, like conflicts and natural disasters. In this way, the WFP is led by professionals in handling logistics on the "battlefield", so to speak.
This example clearly shows that the supply chain of goods forms the foundation of all emergency humanitarian aid activities. The visualization of transportation status and data collection/tracing for inventory management can remove unnecessary middlemen, enable more efficient large-scale delivery, and prevent double distribution.
With the aim of making a greater contribution to humanitarian aid activities, NEC signed an MOU with the WFP in August 2019. We are working to improve the WFP's beneficiary management system through responsible use of biometric technology. Through these efforts, we aim to ensure that necessary items are delivered to the people who need them. NEC's biometric technologies are focused on supporting the safety, security, efficiency, and equality of society as a whole, while maximizing the advantages of each technology.
Infrared thermography as a countermeasure against infectious diseases at the border
--NEC's unique, world-leading advanced technology is being put to excellent use.
When the Ebola epidemic began to spread in 2015, infrared thermography was deployed as a countermeasure at border facilities (airports and ports) in West Africa. This was another area in which NEC was able to provide invaluable assistance.
An infrared thermography camera can measure the body surface temperature of people passing through airports and border crossings without physical contact, making it possible to screen people for fever safely and in real time. As of the end of March 2021, NEC has delivered a total of 139 sets of infrared thermography cameras (manufactured by Japan Avionics, a subsidiary of NEC at the time) to 18 African countries mainly through Official Development Assistance (ODA).
We also provided training for airport staff and quarantine officers on installation, use, and maintenance of the equipment at the time of delivery.
--And it's something that could be used as a countermeasure against the spread of COVID-19, also.
That's right. In fact, it's already being used. We are providing five major airports in Hawaii with our thermal temperature screening system for travelers that combines this infrared thermography with biometric and video analysis technologies.
The system uses infrared thermography installed at arrival gates to automatically screen the body surface temperature of passengers who have disembarked from a plane. The introduction of this system means it is no longer necessary for airport staff to manually screen passengers from each flight, and thus lower the risk of infection for staff.
Also—and this is very important—the images of passengers collected by this system are handled anonymously and not associated with personal information like names and addresses. Furthermore, the pictures will be erased within 30 minutes and will not be shared with any other kind of information. We take the utmost care to protect personal information.
Landmine detection leveraging AI to streamline removal operations
--From the perspective of saving lives, NEC's cutting-edge technology can be used for humanitarian purposes in conflict zones across the world.
That's correct. This all began when Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), visited Japan in 2019, and held discussions with us about the possibility of using biometric authentication to help bring displaced families back together. The ICRC is an organization that works with the most vulnerable people in conflict situations. With the use of digital technologies increasing in humanitarian aid, data management and protection has become a key issue. NEC contributed to the debate on data protection for biometrics by reviewing the "Data Protection Handbook for Humanitarian Action, Second Edition" before it was published.
Following this, and after various discussions, NEC and the ICRC signed an MOU in June 2021 to use all of NEC's technologies to solve humanitarian issues in conflict zones. Specifically, joint efforts include image recognition, AI-based prediction of minefields (landmine sites), and protection of personal data.
Minefields remain in many parts of the world that have experienced conflicts. At NEC we are starting to build a database that compiles the huge volume of landmine-related information—on topography, weather, locations, and other areas—that is currently spread across international organizations, NGOs, and universities, and use AI analysis to predict where landmines are buried.
By doing so, we can significantly reduce the process of locating landmines, which is reliant on human labor, and improve safety, thereby minimizing the risk of people coming to harm.
--The removal of landmines, something that directly threatens people's lives, is certainly an urgent issue.
It is. Even now, there are 60 countries and regions, mainly in Asia and Africa, that still have landmines buried in them. Every year, approximately 7,000 people fall victim to landmines (and approximately 3,000 people are killed). 70% of these victims are civilians not involved in war, and more than half of them are children. It is a heartbreaking situation.
Hybrid Energy Storage System for off-grid Mobile Network Operator Base Tower Station in the desert
--What are some other examples of NEC's utilization of ICT?
In Africa, mobile communications infrastructure is now very important. This is because mobile phones are used not only for calling and texting, but also for KYC (personal verification) and mobile money services.
Mobile Network Operator Base Tower Stations in the middle of deserts have no access to an electrical grid. In such unelectrified areas, diesel generators have been used to supply power to Mobile Network Operator Base Tower Stations. However, the problem with diesel fuel is that it emits more CO2 per unit than gasoline. There is also the cost of transporting the fuel to these Mobile Network Operator Base Tower Stations.
In February 2018, NEC acquired the South Africa-based ICT company called XON, and developed a Hybrid Energy Storage Solution for these off-grid towers that combines battery storage, a control system, solar panels, and a diesel generator. This has enabled a reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel transportation costs, and the stable operation of Mobile Network Operator Base Tower Stations.
--That certainly contributes to Goal 7 "Affordable and Clean Energy", Goal 9 "Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure", and Goal 13 "Climate Action" of the SDGs.
An environmentally friendly ICT agricultural platform
To give you another example of our work in other areas, in 2015, NEC began collaborating with Kagome Co., Ltd. in development of cultivation technology for tomatoes intended for processing. We conducted ICT-based practical testing on tomato farms in Portugal, Australia, the United States, and other countries.
In an AI farming experiment that we conducted in Portugal in 2019, we were able to achieve a yield of 127 tons per hectare, about 1.3 times the average yield of all Portuguese farmers, with about 20% less nitrogen fertilizer inputs than the average.
And from 2020, in collaboration with Kagome, we have also started an AI-based agricultural support business for primary tomato raw material processing manufacturers, mainly in Europe.
We also enhanced our agricultural ICT platform "CropScope" in June 2021,
--The CropScope initiative contributes to Goal 2 "Zero Hunger", Goal 12 "Responsible Consumption and Production", and Goal 13 "Climate Action". Can you tell me a little more about the system?
Yes, CropScope offers two services: a service that uses sensors and satellite photographs to visualize the farm environment, such as the growth and moisture status of tomatoes, and a service that provides farming advice using AI.
The AI capitalizes on a wealth of know-how from experienced cultivators, enabling it to provide guidance on the optimum amounts of water and fertilizer, and the best time to apply them. This platform enables tomato growers, regardless of experience and skill level, to stabilize their harvests and reduce cultivation costs, while implementing environmentally friendly farming.
Furthermore, by using AI to reproduce the farming know-how of experienced Agronomist, we are able to solve an issue many growers struggle with—the issue of passing on techniques to new growers. At the same time, it enables the expansion of production areas and provides operational support for new growers.
On top of that, because it allows us to comprehensively grasp the growth status of tomatoes, optimal harvest adjustments can be made based on objective data, thereby improving productivity. We are also using digital twins to simulate a virtual field.
Of course, this system can also be applied to crops other than tomatoes. We plan to continue using NEC proprietary ICT to digitize all aspects of the agriculture industry and achieve sustainable agriculture that can flexibly respond to societal challenges such as climate change and food safety.
Promoting social value creation in line with NEC 2030VISION
--Do all of the initiatives that you have spoken about today center on your overall NEC Group Vision?
Yes, they do. NEC Group aims to "Seize the Future Together" by working together with our customers and partners as a social value creation company. To achieve this goal, we have formulated the NEC 2030VISION, which describes our future vision for 2030.
The NEC 2030VISION is for people to live harmoniously with the earth to secure the future, to nurture prosperous cities with inclusive and harmonious societies, to create a sustainable society by shaping new industries and workstyles, and to bring people together and fill each day with inspiration by supporting a healthy and equal environment.
First of all, we will continue to make sincere efforts in each of our initiatives so that people can share the same "NEC 2030VISION". I believe that creating opportunities for marvelous achievements in society is the way to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
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