The Alan Turing Podcast: How AI & Allyship Can Go Hand in Hand to Build a Better World | With Richard Potter, Digital Strategy Director for Microsoft’s Worldwide Digital Partnerships Team

The Alan Turing Podcast: How AI & Allyship Can Go Hand in Hand to Build a Better World | With Richard Potter, Digital Strategy Director for Microsoft’s Worldwide Digital Partnerships Team

Transcript

Dan: Welcome to the Alan Turing podcast, with James Turing and some of the UK’s most exciting forward-thinking business leaders. Today, Alan is famous as the father of computer science and codebreaker of the Nazi Enigma machine and has been celebrated by the BBC as the greatest person of the 20th century. But it wasn’t always that way.

At the time of his passing in 1954, Alan’s life had been defined as much by the tragic way in which he had been treated by the country he had done so much to help as it had by any of his work in mathematics or computing. Alan’s family are keen to do their part in building a kinder and smarter world that Alan envisioned all those years ago – which is why we’ve launched this podcast series in which James Turing, the great-nephew of Alan, will be speaking to some of the women and men shaping Britain today, covering a range of subjects from sustainability and mental health to inclusivity and innovation.

First of all, just a few words about the organisations behind this series. The Turing Trust is a charity run by the Turing family; they refurbish used IT kit, principally from businesses, and install a range of fantastic educational software and provide it to those who need it most. Principally in rural African communities. Their vision is that one day, every child will be able to enjoy the transformative power of technology.

If your business doesn’t yet have a solution for reusing its old IT kit, please do get in touch.

The other organisation behind this series is Boss Digital, which is an agency I launched in 2010 that specialises in helping B2B and professional service firms generate more business online. We’re incredibly proud to be able to help the Turing Trust accelerate their impact.

So, to reiterate: if your company does not have a strategy for its old IT kit, please visit the Turing Trust website and they will help you turn that waste into a tool that will transform the lives of thousands of students.

Over to James.


James: Hi, Richard. Thank you very much for joining me today, delighted to have you with us. Just to begin, would you mind introducing yourself and your role at Microsoft, please?

Richard: Great to be here. My name is Richard Potter. I am a Digital Strategy Director for Microsoft’s Worldwide Digital Partnerships Team, which means that I spend my day job working with some of the world’s biggest companies, trying to help them reimagine their business models through the use of digital technology.


James: Fantastic, quite a title there. So just to begin things off today, could you tell me a little bit about Microsoft’s approach to sustainability? I think particularly one of the things that caught my eye was your carbon emissions target for 2030?

Richard: Well, For decades, Microsoft has been incredibly concerned with how much impact it makes on the environment. But the more recent announcements that Microsoft has made in the last couple of years have committed the company to be carbon negative by 2030. So what that means is that we’ll be reducing some of the historic carbon that we’ve created. So not just carbon neutral, but we’ll actually be taking away the carbon that historically we’ve generated since our foundation in 1975. And then by 2050, we’ve made a commitment that the removal of the carbon will be complete, meaning we will have taken away the carbon that we’ve created in our entire lifetime as an organisation.

” For decades, Microsoft has been incredibly concerned with how much impact it makes on the environment. But the more recent announcements that Microsoft has made in the last couple of years have committed the company to be carbon negative by 2030.”

James: Pretty good goal to have. And I’ve read that this is working through some kind of internal tax, is that right?

Richard: Well, a number of different mechanisms are being used, including afforestation and reforestation and sequestering carbon in the soil. We’re also using clever forms of carbon capture inside some of our data centre facilities, but internally, one of the motors, the tools that we use inside the organisation, is a carbon fee. And we’ve actually been using that since 2012, internally in the organisation, on our internal – what you would describe as scope one, scope two – carbon production from a sustainability point of view. And as of last year, we’re now extending that carbon fee accounting across our business models to take into account some of that external CO2 that we are aligned with through our scope three emissions. And then that encourages us to have broader conversations with our suppliers to reduce their own scope one, scope two, scope three emissions as well. So you very quickly start getting into a broader ecosystem commitment around that.


James: And do you find that also helps incentivise throughout the entire team? Is everyone working with that approach and mindset now?

Richard: Yeah, I mean I think this probably goes more to the values that we all have as employees. Within Microsoft, we’re very committed to being a purposeful organisation and that purposefulness expresses itself in sustainability, but it equally expresses itself in terms of some of the responsibilities we have through using the higher-performing bits of our technology. But yes, I mean, as employees, we are very, very aware of the potential harm that large data centres and large machinery can do associated with our products. And we’re always looking to innovate and to make our own commitments to reducing the impact that we have on the planet. And that’s not just from a carbon point of view, but it’s also from a waste point of view. It’s also from a water point of view. So the sustainability commitment that we have as employees extends much broader than just the carbon commitment that gets most of the headlines in terms of our conversation.

“Within Microsoft, we’re very committed to being a purposeful organisation and that purposefulness expresses itself in sustainability, but it equally expresses itself in terms of some of the responsibilities we have through using the higher-performing bits of our technology.”


James: And I believe it also kind of links in a bit to your AI For Good movement as well, is that right? Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of that and how the AI For Good kind of leads into sustainability work as well?

Richard: We have a very clear view within Microsoft on what AI is there for. So AI from a Microsoft point of view is there to augment humanity. And we’re very keen on emphasising that in everything that we do, and that keeps us very focused on why we are doing AI. AI isn’t about supplanting human beings. It isn’t about trying to do things instead of human beings. It’s trying to do things to augment the power of human beings. So that’s our start point with artificial intelligence as a technology. And it’s a natural extension of that editorial, if you like, for us to think about what does AI mean in terms of its role as doing good for the planet? As a company, we have very clear goals to enable every person and every organisation to achieve more. And therefore, when we’re looking at technologies like AI, we want to have a positive impact with that.

“As a company, we have very clear goals to enable every person and every organisation to achieve more. And therefore, when we’re looking at technologies like AI, we want to have a positive impact with that.”

AI For Good plays out in terms of four broad areas: there is an AI for earth element, which is where most of the sustainability narrative that we’ve just been talking about exists, but we’ve also got programs within AI For Good associated with health, with accessibility, and also for humanitarian action; so assisting refugees and enabling people to have better representation wherever they are, in whatever circumstances they are. So it’s a very programmatic representation of how we can deliver positive impacts from a really, really important technology.


James: I believe it also links in a little bit towards some of your values regarding inclusivity and equality. Is that right?

Richard: I mean, again, there’s a continuing extension of Microsoft’s values, and that’s, I think, about my position inside the company, that’s something that I probably I experienced through the 50 or so communities that have representation across the company, and Microsoft has always been very invested in trying to enable all diverse communities to have strong representation across the organisation. And you’ll see much of that externally, but it’s something that we very much live internally. 

It’s all underpinned with humility, a humility that sits at the heart of what Microsoft employees would probably call a growth mindset, which is about our desire to make sure that we’re always humble and learning rather than having any notion of hubris about success and the fact that we’ve achieved things. So it’s about recognising our desire to continue to improve, to recognise that we can always get better at things through strong programs like allyship, to be aware of the support that we can provide others and the development journeys that we have as individuals.

So it’s about recognising our desire to continue to improve, to recognise that we can always get better at things through strong programs like allyship, to be aware of the support that we can provide others and the development journeys that we have as individuals.”

James: And I suppose one of the overarching questions that I have that always comes around whenever discussing these non-profitable activities is how do you attach a return on investment to these kinds of projects and programs?

Richard: It is really important, at the end of the day, the ability for Microsoft to pursue its broader purposeful ambitions is ultimately going to be enabled by an increase in its share price and profitability within the organisation that can enable it to invest in these kinds of ventures going forward, and clearly activities like sustainability, can have a direct bottom line impact by making processes more efficient, by reducing costs and enabling greater profits that can be reinvested to do good. Equally, Microsoft makes great use of some of the more inclusivity focuses associated with that bigger CSR agenda that organisations can have in this space. And if you look at some of the innovations that now exist in some of the common Microsoft products like Outlook or PowerPoints or Microsoft Teams for conferencing, a lot of the features that we are now using to differentiate those products and clearly make money out of selling, those had their origins in terms of inclusive design from the outset.

“A lot of the features that we are now using to differentiate those products and clearly make money out of selling, those had their origins in terms of inclusive design from the outset.”

So if I give you a specific example, when you’re doing a presentation with PowerPoint, you can now open up the microphone on your device as you’re making that presentation – whether that’s in a physical room, or as it’s more typically nowadays, by a remote platform – and you can caption that PowerPoint in real-time doing a real-time speech to text transcription of what you’re saying. So at the bottom of the screen, you can caption your voiceover on top of your slides, and equally, that can be in real-time translated multilingually. So if you’ve got a multilingual audience, they can follow along, not just in one language, but in whatever language they choose. That’s a great feature. And ultimately it’s a differentiator in terms of the product that Microsoft sells. But the origins of that particular feature actually came from an accessibility challenge that we ran many years ago to try and think about how we could provide captioning in some of our tools, for people with hearing disabilities. So a focus on these more CSR type activities can also very directly be embraced and absorbed within some of the commercial models of an organisation in the long run.

“So a focus on these more CSR type activities can also very directly be embraced and absorbed within some of the commercial models of an organisation in the long run.”

James: Exactly. That’s certainly a fantastic example of when everything works out more wonderfully than anyone initially imagined, but I’m sure there have also been times where you’ve had the opposite impact when other stakeholders have been slightly conflicted in wanting to look the best as always, but maybe not perhaps walking the walk quite as much. Are there any examples you’ve had of that happening?

Richard: I think there is always a big challenge to make sure that you are being guided by strong principles in what you do. We work in a, or I, in particular, work in a very global organisation that works in different cultures and different cultures have different interpretations of various morals and values associated in each of those countries. And quite often you can work in different countries that have different interpretations, but provided you’re guided by a consistent set of principles that enable you to show you’re working to explain why you’ve made decisions and why a particular direction has been pursued, it enables you to act responsibly wherever you go, to not just post rationalise and justify why you’re taking a particular line of action, but more importantly, when you’ve taken an action to perhaps learn from what the impact of that action was so that those missteps that sometimes happen when people perhaps don’t apparently walk the walk, people can go back and reflect on, well, what was the principle that I was following at the time? Why did it have that dysfunctional outcome? What would I do next time? If you can have those principles and that growth mindset that’s then associated with that, then you can make sure that you’re not repeatedly causing problems for yourself and for society more broadly.


James: And I imagine that’s something you probably take into your work? I understand you’ve done a bit of charity work with a Malawian charity called Temwa, is that right?

Richard: Yes. And Temwa is a big, big part of my life outside of work. I was brought up in Africa. I spent the first 20 odd years of my life in Africa. And as I developed in my career, I got more and more involved in social projects associated with Africa. I think probably nine, 10 years ago now, I got involved in a charity based in Bristol where I live, that work in a very remote part of Northern Malawi, and that charity is called Temwa, and now I’m delighted to say that I’m the chair of the board of trustees and work with wonderful people, both in the UK and also on the ground, serving some very hard to reach communities in significant need out in a very beautiful part of the world.

James: Fantastic. And for those people who are listening and won’t quite know what Temwa does, can you just give us a little introduction to the charity’s work?

“We pull together the right interventions for that community to help them become more sustainable and able to develop as thriving communities in the future.”

Richard: Yeah. Temwa is primarily defined by the region that it serves, a region that is very hard to reach. The particular communities that we work with are poorly served by roads, by infrastructure, there are times of the year in the rainy seasons where it is almost inaccessible. We work with the communities to provide them with a package of development activities that are very distinctively community-led; everything that we do from a fundraising point of view from a programmatic delivery point of view, and then from a monitoring and evaluation point of view, is led by the needs of the community as they’re able to express them to us. And we pull together the right interventions for that community to help them become more sustainable and able to develop as thriving communities in the future.


James: And I think that’s one of the very exciting things that Temwa seem to be doing is that kind of carbon balancing approach. How do you find this changes the dynamic, potentially, by instead asking them to pay to offset their emissions?

Richard: The two sides of that are really interesting for Temwa, actually, is that we’ve been planting trees, as part of Temwa for years – many years now – primarily as a kind of afforestation or reforestation activity that sustains the welfare of the soil and the ability to sustain communities and crops in that area. So we are incredibly skilled from a delivery point of view at planting trees, and we know which species of tree work really well in which environments, we know which forms of husbandry and care are necessary to enable those forests to not just be planted correctly, but also to thrive and to ultimately, take carbon dioxide out of the air. That’s something that we’ve been doing for many years now. The difference now, really, is primarily on the fundraising side of things.

“In the past, our fundraising activity would have been going out primarily for that afforestation, the forestry and husbandry type of programs. Now it’s much more explicitly associated with providing organisations and individuals the opportunity to offset and balance their carbon.”

In the past, our fundraising activity would have been going out primarily for that afforestation, the forestry and husbandry type of programs. Now it’s much more explicitly associated with providing organisations and individuals the opportunity to offset and balance their carbon. So we’re changing the way that we describe those impacts, how we represent the packages that we currently do. And very importantly, it changes the way that we report and we account for it in terms of the CO2 consequences of what we’re doing, rather than necessarily the slightly indirect forms of impact on wellbeing and communities.


James: And I know carbon markets are something that most people find somewhat challenging, but how do you find that relates? I mean, have you gone down the sort of carbon accreditation route that’s verified by some very fancy agencies, or is it something that you’re able to do on a more local level?

Richard: Our goal historically has really been associated with the impact that it can have on the community. So in that context, we haven’t found felt it necessary to have formal accreditation from bodies like Gold Standard or elsewhere, but as we’ve grown our Temwa carbon balance offer and it’s become more impactful and more significant, and as demand has grown and grown, we’re going to begin the journey towards formal accreditation of that, but we’re very careful as we do that, that doesn’t deflect from the primary purpose of why we’re doing Temwa carbon balance. It is a program that sits within the broader package of development that we’re doing in the region. So we don’t want it to be a tail that’s wagging the dog, it is a component that benefits from a broader, developing community, as much as it feeds back into the livelihoods of the communities that do the husbandry and do the great work that ensures that carbon continues to be taken out of the atmosphere by these trees.

James: And I think a bit of a personal aside, which you’ll have to forgive me for, but I believe you’ve done some work with IT in community libraries. Is that right?

Richard: The region that we serve is not graced with incredibly strong connectivity. Let me put it that way. I think the last time that I was out there, I was very much struggling to try and get a 2G mobile phone signal for most of my trip while I was there. So we have to sort of calibrate what we’re able to do with technologies in these communities, but amongst other things, we have built a community library, we’ve provided some technology to support the community in those areas and we’ve also contributed to buildings in some of the schools in the region as well. 

We’d love to do much, much more with technology and James, you and I would have a great conversation about how we can support each other and help these communities with their technology needs in the future.

James: Yes, absolutely. That is exactly the vision, I think, certainly for The Turing Trust, we’re sort of built on that belief that technology is something that can truly empower communities to do for themselves just given the opportunity.

Brilliant. So I think that’s everything that we wanted to cover today, Richard, so thank you very much.