While I’m out on maternity leave, I’m excited to highlight the varied viewpoints of some of the amazing people that make up CHILL. I’m proud to work with this diverse and talented team. They hail from around the globe, and bring a rich set of experiences, skills, and passions to bear on everything they do. Today’s guest blogger is Joanna Dillon, innovation outcomes manager for CHILL. As a leader of joint innovation projects such as the initiative she describes below, Joanna seeks out opportunities to create baseline shifts while deepening relationships with customers.

Have you ever wondered about the story behind your cell phone or computer? Do you have an electric car, a mobile tablet, or a smart speaker? Any idea where these products came from? If you’re like a lot of people, you probably know that most electronic products—even those with American brands—are made by contract manufacturers all over the world. But the story gets a bit murky if you try to trace all the component parts back through the chain of suppliers to the source of the materials.

Why does this matter? Well, most electronic products have a significant amount of metals such as gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum. How and where these materials are mined has major ethical and financial implications on millions of people all over the world—as well as on the companies that use them in their products.

It’s what we call a “wicked” problem—something that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, or changing requirements.

Good news and bad news

The increasing demand for minerals used in electronics has created both great opportunities and tremendous hardship for millions of people.

About a quarter of the metals used in the electronics industry today comes from the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) sector. These mines provide important income to about 100 million people in rural areas of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Oceana. However, along with economic opportunity, these small operations can also face such issues as child and forced labor, unsafe working conditions, and degradation of the local environment. And in some areas, they can play a role in illegally financing armed conflict, terrorism, and human rights abuses. It’s no wonder that regulators in the U.S. and Europe have required publicly traded companies to disclose whether they source “conflict minerals” from these regions. Unfortunately, these regulations have caused two unintended consequences: the removal of important economic development in these struggling regions, and increased smuggling to neighboring countries where they can enter the supply chain without traceability.

How can companies like Cisco ensure that their products are ethically sourced without contributing to even greater corruption and economic hardship?

It’s a wicked problem indeed. And it’s just the kind of big, bold industry challenge that CHILL (Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs) was created to solve.

Safeguarding the first mile

CHILL brings two distinct capabilities to this challenge: First, our principle of massive inclusion brings diverse perspectives together to find the overlapping value, and second, we learn by doing. By bringing these two capabilities to the problem, we can hope to prevent conflict minerals from entering our products and support sustainable economic opportunity at the beginning of our supply chain.

The multi-stakeholder initiative began by bringing together an ecosystem of industry leaders in May 2017 at our Living Lab on Securing the Digitized Supply Chain, powered by blockchain. During the two-day lab, Cisco SVP of Supply Chain John Kern joined VPs and SVPs from three customer companies to develop a concept that would provide mineral tagging and traceability for the first mile of the electronics supply chain.

The next step was to “get out of the building” and learn by doing. In this case, that meant traveling to Rwanda to visit ASMs that wanted to improve their due diligence practices and the government agencies and NGOs that support them. We met with three mine operators and conducted three types of research: observation, interviews, and prototyping.

One of the great things about prototyping is the valuable feedback you get as people respond to a tangible working solution. It turns out that many of our assumptions about how our first prototype would work in the field were wrong. If we had not put those assumptions to the test by observing, asking, and demonstrating in the field, would have ended up with a useless solution.

We have now built upon that knowledge and expanded our research and stakeholder ecosystem to other types of operations, including large-scale mines, smelters, and refiners. Our cohort of industry partners will continue to develop the solution and test it with end users in the field, with the audacious hope of eliminating conflict minerals from the supply chain, one mine at a time.

What’s your wicked problem?

Too often, organizations approach complex problems with feasibility studies and endless debate—when the quickest, surest route to a solution may be to get out of the building and just try it. Field observation and rapid prototyping, combined with multiple rounds of end-user feedback, can quickly prove a promising idea, or kill a concept that’s going nowhere.

This project combines CHILL’s hyperinnovation methodology with expertise on the ground from local mining experts, governments, and international development organizations.  Together, we are showing the impact multi-party innovation can have—connecting the dots between human resourcefulness and cutting-edge technology to transform the global supply chain.

What wicked problem do you want to solve?


Kate O'Keeffe

Senior Director

Customer and Partner Innovation