What do Artificial Intelligence & Sustainability Have in Common?
During the 2019 Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai, we caught up with Andrew Wales, Chief Digital Impact and Sustainability Officer at BT. Our latest Expert Q&A explores employers’ growing need for skills in technologies like AI, and why sustainability should be a core part of a company’s business strategy rather than an add-on. Here’s what he had to say:
What skills do companies require today?
“The UK faces a very big digital skills gap—more than 11 million adults do not even have the basic digital skills of being able to send an email or book insurance online and that is quite a big problem. For UK companies, probably three out of four face a significant digital skills gap and that costs the UK economy about £63 billion—the equivalent of half the budget of the National Health Service each year.”
“It is critical that we improve people’s skills for business now and business in the future and that is why we at BT are investing in the Barefoot programme at the primary school levels to shape young people’s thinking as they come into secondary school and consider whether to study computer science. The programme works with two million children through training 70,000 teachers across 60 percent of the UK’s primary schools and it’s about really improving their basic tech literacy—not just using technology but understanding how it works, how they can improve and disrupt it, and what it means for their future careers.”
What is the trend here?
“By 2022, the UK will need another half a million computer and digital experts. That’s the number we have trained in the last ten years and we need that amount again in just three years’ time so the training need is very significant.”
How is BT using AI?
“We look at it in different areas around the business. At this stage, it is essentially advanced machine learning. We use it being transparent and visible in something like chatbots on our website; we use it
in some of our vehicle planning for BT Fleet; and we are looking at how other tech companies are at different ways to use it in the future.”
How important is data to your operations?
“We have access to different types of data at BT. Obviously we have access to mobile data in terms of how people move around with their mobile phones and there are very clear restrictions about at what point you can identify that data, and so we are looking at how we can use that data in different ways for the good of society and the business.”
“I think data is an increasingly important part of our lives. We have got probably five devices on average internet-connected in our homes at the moment, we are going to have 20 in the next five or ten years, and so we are all going to need to think together about business models for data that gives value to customers and improvements in society.”
How does sustainability fit into the equation?
“Sustainability is a growing area and will become even more important. What we are moving away from is companies treating it as something on the side of the business—a bit detached like a charitable cause like Corporate Social Responsibility, and instead moving to a world where it is actually a more strategic opportunity for the business to tackle big problems in society like the big digital skills gap and also solve problems for business growth. So, BT is hiring a lot of people with tech skills and we need people to be coming through and that’s a good example I think of a company understanding its broad sustainability impact.”
“A different sustainability example would be what we do on climate change. BT buys 1 percent of UK power and we buy already at 100 percent renewable, so we are one of the biggest buyers of renewable power in the world. We have got a target to be net zero carbon by 2045, which is the leader in the Telco sector. So, I think because we are a big energy user, because of the impact of climate change on our business through the risk of flooding and things like that, sustainability is an issue that is strategic to us and that is why we are managing it.”
Sustainability has advantages for firms—are there also risks to ignoring it?
“I think the risk of not tackling sustainability properly is that you can get wrong-footed. If you don’t, for example, understand how climate can impact your business, you don’t understand how the energy market might change, you don’t understand the training needs for your workforce and get ahead of that, then of course that will be a challenge for your growth in the future.”
How important is purpose to a modern business?
“I think for graduates coming in today or apprentices that we are attracting in, the purpose of the business is absolutely fundamental. Obviously the business needs to be successful, it needs to make money, but it needs to do it in a way that is genuinely a win-win, so it’s tackling society’s problems, it’s helping to grow the economy whilst also providing those high-quality jobs and delivering profit for our shareholders.”
“We at BT are thinking about different ways to do that through our digital skills work, through the training of our people internally and through the range of products that we offer to our customers, including vulnerable customers. We launched a product last year with a big NGO called Action on Hearing Loss. Seventeen million people in the UK have some form of hearing disability and we have a
product with our EE mobile business that helps those people to get a better quality of service. It requires a lot of innovation and creative thinking and that’s what we need graduates and apprentices to really drive through.”
How important is senior buy-in to making it effective?
“I think buy-in from senior management is absolutely fundamental to purpose and sustainability. Our new CEO at BT is very committed to our activities in this space. We have a board committee called the Digital Impact and Sustainability Committee which looks at our performance on a quarterly basis—some of our challenges we might be facing and then how we can deliver on our significant commitments for the UK like our commitment to reach all five million primary school children with digital skills programmes like Barefoot.”