How can technology help the UN improve its effectiveness and reputation?

Ryan Gawn looks at a new report on how emerging technology can help the United Nations reform

The September gathering of world leaders has come and gone, and UN Secretary-General Guterres is now back at his desk. Whilst his attention is likely to be focussed on headlines coming from North Korea, Syria and Myanmar, he is also battling to advance reform of the UN system. As with any large bureaucracy (not least one which has to manage the expectations of 193 member states) the ever present reform agenda can quickly become  all-consuming for a Secretary-General. This leaves very little time to look outside the UN system and its political machinations, and identify challenges and opportunities on the horizon. Such as emerging technologies.

Big Questions

The pace of technological change brings with it extraordinary opportunities and challenges for the UN and its work. A new report looks ahead, shines a spotlight on the future, and makes some practical recommendations for the Secretary-General on how the UN can respond. Authored by former UK Ambassador Tom Fletcher and supported by the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, New York University and the Makhzoumi Foundation, “United Networks – How Technology can help the United Nations Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century” sets out some big questions for the future of the UN:

“How can the UN adapt its methods to the Networked Age without compromising its values? How can technology increase UN effectiveness and efficiency, build public trust, mobilise opinion and action, and weaponise compassion? How to make the sum of the parts more able to deliver on the goals set out so powerfully in the UN Charter seven decades ago?”

20 recommendations

As part of a team of expert contributors (including young people, tech gurus and activists), I led on the public engagement and political issues which emerging technologies can bring. Consulting with innovation leaders, governments, tech companies and NGOs, we were astounded by the many examples where existing technology is already being used to tackle many of the problems which the UN seeks to solve. It also makes 20 recommendations for the Secretary-General to consider, proposing international agreements (e.g. a Geneva convention on state actions in cyberspace, a universal declaration of digital rights, a single digital identity), equipping the UN with the right skills and resources (e.g. a Deputy Secretary-General for the Future, a global crowdfunding platform to fund humanitarian work, machine learning & data modelling to predict migrant and refugee flows, harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to make better decisions), and using the UN’s status to enhance citizenship and reduce extremism (e.g. diplo-bots to reduce online extremism, enhancing internet access and reducing the digital divide, a digital global curriculum).

Reputation & public engagement

A critical factor in the reform agenda and the ability of the UN to effectively innovate and harness technology is its reputation and public engagement – the UN is nothing without public, business, civil society and member state support. Considered by many to be the closest humanity has to world government, many of the criticisms of the UN are borne from the high expectations citizens have of the organisation, particularly regarding transparency, accountability, legitimacy, demonstrating impact, and regaining trust. And so in engaging with its audiences, the UN faces a profound dichotomy in managing expectations – how to balance the aspirational and moral value of the UN with the realist politics of a multilateral organisation within a cumbersome bureaucracy. UK Prime Minister Theresa May highlighted this very issue in her recent address to the General Assembly: …throughout its history the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes and the effectiveness of its delivery. When the need for multilateral action has never been greater the shortcomings of the UN and its institutions risk undermining the confidence of states as members and donors.”

The report presents this expectation / impact gap with 21st century digital twist – emerging technologies in public engagement will only exacerbate citizens’ demands for information, evidence of impact, authentic engagement, and compelling narratives on the value the UN brings. This is coupled with the rapid pace of technological change, media consumption and marketing shifts (voice, mobile, AR & VR), changes in attention spans, information expectations and social media echo chambers.

Nevertheless, emerging technologies can also help solve some of these challenges. The report provides some practical recommendations in this area, with a common thread involving harnessing technologies to provide both wider and deeper engagement – empowering audiences to both input into and communicate the UN’s work and mission. Examples include a digital first strategy, stronger authentic social media engagement by officials, a more transparent process for S-G selection, crowd sourcing of solutions, digital platforms for policy debate, chat-bots to enhance audience engagement and democratisation of user generated content to empower citizens, activists and campaigners in the digital space.”

More opportunities than challenges

An inherently optimistic report, it does not see emerging technology as a panacea to solve all the UN’s many challenges. It won’t always be as empowering and enlightening as Silicon Valley tech gods may opine, and will inherently be somewhat limited by our mere human use (or misuse) of it. Nevertheless, it recognises that there are opportunities, and that the UN must innovate with urgency or face a slow slide into under resourced decline and irrelevance. More importantly, it highlights the need for the UN to be ahead of the curve – looking outwards, partnering and engaging, and setting the agenda – just as it has already achieved in many other areas. A stronger reputation and public engagement can only help in making this aspiration a reality. As Fletcher concludes:

“If digital information is the 21st century’s most precious resource, the battle for it will be as contested as the battles for fire, axes, iron or steel. Between libertarians and control freaks. Between people who want to share ideas and those who want to exploit them. Between those who want more transparency, including many individuals, companies, and governments. And those who want more secrecy. Between old and new sources of power.”

Update – 27/09/17: United Nations opens new centre in Netherlands to monitor artificial intelligence and predict possible threats

Roadmap for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies – HLPF side event

Every time I read the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, I am struck again by the magnitude of the task of delivering them. The agenda hails itself as “supremely ambitious and transformational,” which is all well and good, but only if there is equivalent ambition in implementation.

At the Center on International Cooperation, our focus is on the targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies – not just those in SDG16, but in all Sustainable Development Goals.

We started with violence against children, helping create the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. With the partnership, we contributed to the INSPIRE strategies, the first time the international community has united behind clear recommendations to policymakers on how these forms of violence can be prevented.

Over the past year, we have supported the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a group of member states, international organizations, global partnerships, and other partners that has been convened by the governments of Brazil, Sierra Leone, and Switzerland.

Based on existing country leadership and best practice, the Pathfinders have developed a roadmap for 36 targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). For the first time, this tracks a way forward for turning the ambition of the SDG targets for peaceful, just and inclusive societies into reality.

You can read the roadmap here.

Today, the draft roadmap was presented at a side event at the High-level Political Forum in New York. Here’s what the UN Deputy-Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, had to say about the roadmap:

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The roadmap proposes three cross-cutting strategies:

  • Invest in prevention so that all societies and people reach their full potential.
  • Transform institutions so that they can meet aspirations for a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future.
  • Include and empower people so that they can fulfill their potential to work for a better future.

It sets out nine catalytic actions: on violence against women, children and vulnerable groups, building safer cities, prevention for the most vulnerable countries, access to justice, legal identity, tackling corruption and illicit flows, open government, empowering people as agents of change, and respecting rights and promoting gender equality. around a common agenda.

The roadmap is the result of an extensive process of consultation and debate, and will be finalized in the coming weeks. We will then launch it in September, at the High-level week of the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly.

The Pathfinders will then continue their work as a platform for action. The group will not displace existing activity, but will act as a ‘docking station’, bringing partners from across the world together around a shared vision.

The focus is on the High-level Political Forum in 2019, when Presidents and Prime Ministers will gather for a summit on the 2030 Agenda and ask ‘what have you achieved over the past four years?’

Will we have a good answer to that question?

The Ten Commandments of Referendums

Guest post by Quintin Oliver, of Stratagem International, @StratagemInt

Hot off the plane from Bogota where he was advising on the upcoming referendum, Quintin Oliver tells us his ten commandments on referendums:

  1. Referendums are not elections – there are brexit-referendum-questionno candidates and no posts to win, and although parties are involved, they and the voters are addressing an issue; campaigners must ‘unlearn’ their election campaigning instincts. First mover advantage often goes to those who successfully ‘frame’ the terms of debate. Think Brexit, as ‘taking back our country’.
  2. Voters often answer the wrong question (Charles de Gaulle) – referendums are susceptible to ‘capture’ by other players, and voters often use them to register a protest against the government of the day, or against the political elites. Think the Swedish Euro vote of 2003 vote, led by Abba, Volvo and Saab, which was expected to pass.
  3. Referendums, especially on big national scottishissues, against a background of conflict, usually become more emotional, than rational; voters express their instincts, rather than their cold, rational, evidence-based selves. They remember the past and are reluctant to embrace an uncertain – or overly idealistic – future. Think Scotland 2014.
  4. Most referendums are lost (albeit narrowly) – indicating that promoting the ‘change’ case is harder, especially if complicated, recently published and containing tough concessions, unless there is a huge consensus that the change is overwhelmingly acceptable And much more attractive than now. This is exacerbated mid-term (when governments tend to be less popular) and in tough economic times, when the risks of change may seem higher. Think Cyprus 2004, when the Greek south was entering the EU, regardless.
  5. Winning a ‘No’ campaign in a referendum is easier – opponents can scatter objections and complaints, untruths and deceptions, with impunity, while the Yes side has to articulate its change proposition lucidly, coherently and cogently; they must not become defensive and bogged down in detail. Think the Alternative Vote debacle of 2011, when a 2:1 polling lead was reversed.
  6. Referendum debates can be volatile and uncertain – with shifts in opinion and voting intentions as (sometimes unexpected) issues gain prominence and traction. The status quo can become more attractive against a kaleidoscope of untested options, especially if a credible Plan B (renegotiation) is promoted. Think Nice l and Lisbon l in the Republic, both reversed after concessions.
  7. Referendums allow many more yessignni2012voices – voters tend to look first to their political party of choice for advice but then seek other cues from voices they trust, or who appear widely to be opinion-formers (churches, labour unions, NGOs, artists, celebrities, athletes…); voters especially like to see traditionally opposing politicians putting aside their differences in the national interest and sharing platforms to promote their unified case, especially if this contrasts with the opponents. Think Good Friday Agreement poll in 1998.
  8. Referendums permit a significant space same-sex-marriage-referendum-irelandto organised civil society (usually excluded from traditional elections) – since it can articulate bottom-up, grassroots depth and richness around the issues for debate, with knowledge and experience, credibility and authenticity. Elections are rarely ‘fun’, but referendums can give expression to creativity, satire, parody and excitement; music and art can capture and shift the national mood. Think the 2015 Equal Marriage plebiscite in Ireland.
  9. Referendums are rarely well played by the media, especially where there is no embedded referendum culture – the media seek ‘presidential’ or ‘gladiatorial’ style’ contests, polar opposite positions, argument and conflict, as in elections, whereas the policy content of a plebiscite should permit richer, textured discourse; shades of grey should be encouraged, not pummelled into submission; doubt, worry and concern are legitimate feelings. Think Netherlands overturning the obscure EU-Ukraine trade deal.
  10. Referendums are often susceptible to undue diaspora influence, both in terms of out of country votes, but also contribution to the debate, positive and negative, funding and campaign support. The international media often look first to local (to them) voices, and ‘frame’ their hypothesis accordingly. Think various recent Greek polls…

Quintin Oliver ran Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement YES Campaign in 1998, and advises globally on referendums, with Colombia and Cyprus polls upcoming soon.

The coolest thing I’ve been involved in (in a very small way) this year

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Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.

Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* get slightly teary at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.

Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.

And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.

And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.

But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.

So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.

I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.

We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?

So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.

I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.

And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.

But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on.

How the tax fight is being won

Guest post from Alice Macdonald, Save the Children’s head of action/2015 campaign, @alicemac83.

As part of Save the Children’s History of Change series (see more here and here), Alasdair Roxburgh (previously Head of Campaigns at Christian Aid) talked us through the history of the tax movement.

It was an inspiring talk (you can listen to the whole thing here) about how campaigners around the world managed to turn tax – which let’s be honest isn’t the most exciting of subjects –  into a big political issue and achieved changes which will help to ensure that millions of people around the world benefit from the tax revenues which belong to them.

Though tax may not be sexy – it matters. It matters for the obvious reasons – it provides the services we all need whether we live in the UK or in Tanzania – hospitals, schools, roads. It can encourage good behaviour like saving money through ISAs and discourage bad habits through increasing the price of things like cigarettes. If we use it well tax can help reshape the world. And it also matters for less obvious reasons – by paying tax we sign up to be active citizens contributing to improving the world around us.

But to date the tax system has been skewed towards the interests of the richest in society. It’s notoriously hard to put an exact number of how much money is lost through tax dodging but estimates put it at hundreds of billions lost from some of the world’s poorest countries. There is no doubt that tax dodging costs lives. The money lost could be spent on vital services like healthcare. That’s why the tax justice movement was born.

It got off to a pretty technical start with the conversation pretty much confined to the policy wonks. It was only when the financial crisis hit in 2008 and stories about corporate giants hit the headlines that it really moved up the political and public agenda. That was a turning point for the movement and it began to strengthen and now counts hundreds of organisations around the world from big NGOs like Oxfam and ActionAid to grassroots organisations, faith networks, student movements and trade unions.

It hasn’t been an easy ride, especially in the early days of the campaign. Governments and companies repeatedly slammed the door in campaigners’ faces and organisations like Christian Aid were even labelled the “Tax Taliban” by opponents. But despite the hurdles, the tax movement has already achieved some major wins – getting tax on the agenda at the G7, a law on EU transparency and the Dodd Frank Act which both mean that extractive companies are obliged to publish how much tax they pay on a county by country basis. The campaign also transformed the narrative around tax, taking it from the technicalities to an issue of justice helping to rally people around the world to challenge a financial system in which let the richest get away with robbing the poorest.

What can we learn from the movement for future campaigns? There are 5 key lessons:

  1. Persistence pays off: it took 5-6 years to secure the first big campaign win. Campaigners need to be ready for the hard slog and not expect instant results.
  2. Change your tactics and targets: the campaign mixed it up from private lobbying, targeted actions, hard-hitting reports and stunts and identifying targets and supporters from MPs to corporate champions.
  3. Nothing is too complicated to campaign on: at the beginning the campaign didn’t talk about values and got too tied up in the technicalities. When the campaign turned tax into an issue of social justice it really took off. So don’t always focus on facts and stats but focus on values and the impact on people.
  4. Small targeted campaigning works: You don’t always need to make a big noise to achieve success. For example securing the European directive on country by country reporting for extractive industries was secured by a very specific targeted e-action.

Of course the fight isn’t over yet. In September, the world agreed an ambitious agenda to end poverty, inequality and fight climate change – the new global goals for Sustainable Development something which as Head of action/2015 I’ve been closely involved in campaigning for along with millions around the world.

That ambition won’t be delivered without money and tax will be a crucial part of finding that finance. Ultimately the whole global financial system needs to change so that the world’s richest governments and richest companies are no longer able to dictate the terms of engagement and countries are able to operate on a level playing field. We need to strengthen legislation, ensure it is complied with and make sure that citizens are able to hold their leaders to account.  The fight isn’t over yet but the strength of the movement gives us plenty of room for optimism.

Alice Macdonald is the Head of the action/2015 campaign at Save the Children. Action/2015 is a global coalition aimed at securing ambitious action on poverty, inequality and climate change which has mobilised millions of people this year.  She has worked in international development for the last decade holding a variety of roles across campaigns, policy and advocacy.

Investing in our soft power assets – the GREAT campaign & the Spending Review

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the GREAT Britain campaign, which has been a focal point for the UK’s prosperity agenda. Find the others with the following links: FCO, British Council, BBC World Service.

 

Another ambitious initiative has established itself as one of the UK’s more innovative soft power tools – the GREAT Britain campaign. Active in 144 countries, the £113.5 million campaign (2012 – 2015), is the government’s major branding campaign to promote the UK as a destination for tourists, trade anSan Fran harbourd investment, and students, in order to secure economic growth. As Director, Conrad Bird highlights, the award-winning campaign has focussed unashamedly in driving the prosperity / economic growth agenda with clear objectives aiming to stimulate foreign direct investment, tourism and strengthen the UK’s economy – “…it is about jobs and growth for Britain; it is designed to make money for Britain”. Conceived and coordinated from the Prime Minister’s Office in Downing Street (but working with UKTI, the FCO, British Council, VisitBritain and VisitEngland), the campaign was recently commended by the National Audit Office, reporting a return on investment (so far) of £1.2 billion.

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The campaign has not been without resource challenges, as James Pamment from the USC Center on Public Diplomacy explains, “Despite the potentially demotivating effects of cutbacks and the marketing freeze, GREAT has provided a focal point for the prosperity agenda. Backed by hard cash, positivity dividends from the Jubilee and Olympics, support at the highest political levels, and metrics which demonstrate value in a manner easy to understand, GREAT has opened the door to opportunities for organisations and staff at a time when resources have been stretched.”

 

With over 400 businesses and hbond-is-greatigh-profile individuals backing the brand with joint funding and sponsorship (contributing over £69m in cash and in kind support), the campaign is in an increasingly strong position to seek further support from the private sector given the increasing value of the 11-21snowdonia-2-RGBGREAT brand itself, and track record in delivering results for business. With further campaign plans for the next 12 – 18 months (e.g. using the Bond movie to promote the UK, Exporting is GREAT campaign targeted at SMEs, tourism campaigns on Culture & Countryside, activity marking Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, supporting Liverpool’s 2016 International Festival of Business), it is clear that the campaign is seeking to build on the momentum generated and will no doubt will be hoping for adequate resourcing for its ambitious plans. The 2015 Conservative manifesto hints at future support – “We will boost our support for first-time exporters and back the GREAT campaign, so we can achieve our goal of having 100,000 more UK companies exporting in 2020.

Investing in our soft power assets – the BBC World Service & the Spending Review

This is the third in a series of blogs on the upcoming Spending Review, and how Britain maximises its influence and soft power across the world at a time of declining budgets. This focuses on the BBC World Service, “Britain’s gift to the world”. Find the others with the following links: FCO, British Council.

Other UK soft power assets fall into the “unprotected” category and are at risk of cuts. Since the Chatham House / YouGov Survey began polling in 2010, BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting has been seen by UK opinion-formers as the UK’s top foreign policy tool, consistently ranking higher than all other foreign policy “assets”.

Broadcasting to 210m people every week and with a budget less than half that of BBC2, the World Service faces increasing challenges in the form of domestic and international competition, technical change, and a legacy of underinvestment. FCO funding was cut by 16% in 2010, leading to the departure of about a fifth of bbcits staff. This has had an impact – in 2005 the organisation provided services in 43 languages, now down to 28. In contrast, there is increased competition – following a 2007 directive from Premier Hu Jintao, China has been investing heavily in soft power assets with state journalists now pumping out content in more than 60 languages. Lacking first mover advantage, it is clear that competitors have strategic ambitions. Yu-Shan Wu of the South African Institute for International Affairs comments, “Since the Beijing Olympics, we have seen increased efforts to provide China’s perspective on global affairs, signalling relations with Africa have moved beyond infrastructure development to include a broadcasting and a people-to-people element. There are now regular exchanges between Chinese and African journalists, and it is clear that China is stepping up and laying the foundations for a more concerted public diplomacy effort in the region.”

From April last year, the World Service ceased to be funded by the FCO, and is now resourced by a share of the BBC licence fee. Although its budget was increased by the BBC in 2014 (up by £6.5m to £245m), the BBC itself faces many of its own funding challenges. In July, the Chancellor called on the organisation to make savings and make ‘a contribution’ to the budget cuts Britain is facing. Ministers asked the BBC to shoulder the £750m burden of paying free licence fees for the over-75s, and later that month unveiled a green paper on the future of the broadcaster which questioned if it should continue to be “all things to all people”. In the same month, the organisation announced that 1,000 jobs would go to cover a £150m shortfall in frozen licence fee income.

The World Service is somewhat insulated from wider BBC cuts, as the BBC has to seek the Foreign Secretary’s approval to close an existing language service (or launch a new one). Nevertheless, in early September, Director-GeneraWorldsNewsroom1l Tony Hall made the first of a series of responses to the green paper. Making a “passionate defence of the important role the BBC plays at home and abroad”, he unveiled proposals for a significant expansion of the World Service, including; a satellite TV service or YouTube channel for Russian speakers, a daily news programme on shortwave for North Korea, expansion of the BBC Arabic Service (with increased MENA coverage), and increased digital and mobile offerings for Indian and Nigerian markets. Interestingly, the proposals sought financial support from the government, suggesting matched funding, conditional upon increased commercialisation of the BBC’s Global News operation outside the UK.

More on the expansion plans here.