Creating Change At Scale: Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft

Rob Bernard is the Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft. He’s is a featured Keynote Speaker at GoGreen ’10 Seattle on Wednesday, April 21st. Join us to hear more from Rob and over 60 other green business leaders on the cutting edge of sustainability in their company.

There’s no question that change is coming. In fact it’s happening right now. But change at broad scale has been more elusive for many. For Microsoft, with 80,000 employees in 100 different countries, affecting the kind of broad-based change is seen as both an opportunity and an obligation to society. With Rob Bernard at the helm of their sustainability efforts, they’re pushing for mass impact at breakneck speed.

GG: As an 80,000 person company, Microsoft has the potential to make a huge impact on the Earth’s systems—both positively or negatively. How do you handle that responsibility?
RB:
There are a couple of ways. One is what we hope is a clearly defined strategy and then secondly, making sure we put the right sort of governance model in place to execute that strategy. Then we try to use the appropriate level of communications so that people understand the strategy.

We look at several things when we develop strategy. The first is looking for energy efficiency gains for both ourselves and for society. We’re looking at how to leverage IT gains for all sectors. The second is looking at how we use technology tools to accelerate breakthroughs and scientific understanding of what future climate situations look like, and also working on modeling adaptation or mitigation strategies in the face of climate and environmental changes on our planet.

The third area is to make sure that we’re being responsible environmental leaders in the way we run our business. Here we’re looking beyond just energy efficiency to places like paper use, food services, transportation policies and travel policies.

Underpinning all that is this governance model that asks the question: How do we make sure that environmental sustainability becomes a core tenant in the way we do business, so that regardless of whether you’re a engineer writing software or a sales person, we’re providing the tools and support to make good decisions?

GG: What is Microsoft’s role in the broader sustainability movement? Is it to take care of your own business or go outside of the Microsoft campus and into the rest of the world?
RB:
We have a billion customers around the world, so we have an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that our customers are able to leverage our tools, services and technologies to drive sufficient energy and efficiency gains. For example, think about the role of sensors and sensor-based networks in building-based management. We also made an announcement last week with Ford where people who are looking to buy electric vehicles, and need infrastructure for charging, can use some of our software to enhance that experience. And then there’s the home products we’re developing that help people manage their home energy use.

We’re looking to build partnerships with other organizations for things like resource accounting and utilities efficiency. The goal is to make the impact that we make at Microsoft, but also in the IT industry, very positive so that more and more companies can provide more services to both enterprises, consumers and scientists to scale the solution up quickly. Because there’s one thing we all agree on and that’s that we don’t have much time.

GG: What are some of the specific ways that Microsoft reduces its impact? How does that translate into your product line?
RB:
Some things translate into what our clients buy. Some things are just physical behavior or thinking about our supply chain and how we run our business. For example, we can look at our food service. We’ve redesigned our entire food service and also our waste stream on our corporate campus—which is where approximately 50 percent of our workforce is located. By doing that we’ve reduced our waste stream by half in the first year of attacking this issue. That’s an example of how our focus on becoming more efficient and less wasteful, both in terms of what we purchase and what we dispose of, is making a huge impact.

An example of where our efforts touch our product lines is in using our own software tools and data to ensure that we’re having an impact on energy consumption for the clients. Specifically we’re ensuring that Windows and our other software are energy efficient in how they run and also we’re promoting more unified communications so that we’re reducing our air travel. In that area, we’ve been able to reduce the travel of the average Microsoft employee by 20 percent over the course of a year. That is a direct result of leveraging our technologies more effectively and others can do the same.

GG: When did this conversation start and when did Microsoft get serious about enacting broad scale sustainable policies?
RB:
It’s one of those things, like a lot of things, that has multiple source points. I’ve been in my role at Microsoft for two and half years, but we’ve been thinking about these things for well over a decade.

If you look at our road map for something like Windows, we’re transitioning from a world where energy efficiency and enhancements were options in the product line to a world where they’re default on both the client and the server end. Those things take up to a decade to really embed themselves into the technology and we’ve been working on sustainability in a lot of different places that are just now showing up with big impact.

The next question is: How do you take well-intentioned individual behaviors and put them together in a way that is strategic and adheres to a larger vision and strategy? That process and transition started about three years ago—but we want to accelerate and amplify the speed at which we’re doing things and the impact they have.

GG: What have been the biggest roadblocks you’ve come up against and how did you bust through them?
RB:
Internally, our biggest challenge is often keeping up with the pace at which things are changing. We’re in over one hundred countries and have dozens of product lines and services. Keeping track of and harnessing the incredible amount of work that’s done everyday has been an early-on challenge. I think as we get more involved in this and it becomes systemic, the next wave is using the right models to change our practices broadly and change how we talk about this with customers. Those aren’t really challenges necessarily, but something we have to work through.

The biggest challenge we face externally is actually changing behavior rather than pushing technology. There are incredible technologies that exist right now that will enable customers to significantly reduce the impact of their IT activity or allow IT to reduce the impact of their operations. These things exist because there are cutting edge companies doing incredible work and making radical changes in their energy consumption. The technology is there, so the issue is why it isn’t happening on a broader scale? It’s often because these are behavioral changes.

Let me mention a statistic that is interesting, illuminating and concerning all at the same time—fewer than 20 percent of IT professionals know how much energy their infrastructure consumes. Because historically those facilities figures showed up on the power bill, which they don’t see. As a result, many IT professionals can’t optimize their energy use because they don’t know what it is. That’s not a technology problem, it’s a business model, infrastructure and corporate governance issue.

Let’s say you came to me and said, “Hey Microsoft, I want to find out how I can reduce the amount of energy I use in my data center.” I would first ask you how much energy you’re using in your data center. A lot of people aren’t really sure, but they still want to reduce it. So then I’d ask, “Why aren’t you sure?” Usually the answer is that facilities has the answers because they pay the bills—but you have to go get those bills.

It’s great to have web tools and services in place that monitor and control real time energy use, but you won’t get to that level of operational sophistication unless you begin with the fundamental behavioral issue which includes proactively tackling the issue by going out and finding the data you need to get started.

GG: Are there any sustainable initiatives or policies that you haven’t been able to implement yet, but would like to?
RB:
The challenge right now is building things up to scale. We have incredible amounts of support across the whole company, but we’re still pushing hard to make this happen faster and make things more beneficial for our customers.

GG: How can smarter software help other companies be more sustainable?
RB:
It depends on what industry they operate in, but taking an example, let’s say you’re in the IT department and you monitor your energy use. You can probably save 25-30 percent right off the bat by following some of our efficiency best practices. If you think about air travel or train travel—a behavior that almost every business person has to engage in—and invest in telecommuting technologies like we did, you can reduce travel substantially. That has a massive financial impact on a company and also drastically reduces their carbon footprint.

If you can actually change the way in which people work and travel by substituting technology for physical transport—that’s huge. You can also look at the difference between sending data and sending physical paper. We look at this in terms of how we distribute our own materials and software. We’re encouraging our customers to move further away from using disks, printed materials and packaging that has to be shipped and closer to getting things digitally. The dematerialization concept is quite powerful and we’re just starting to see it take hold.

GG: What do we need to do to push change at a rate that will let us avoid some of the most unpleasant environmental consequences that are looming?
RB:
It’s really a combination of pushing and pulling. What we need to do as an industry, not just as Microsoft, is to provide more examples and case studies of breakthrough technology and behavioral changes. We need to showcase those achievements so that more people are aware and can emulate them. That’s more on the push side.

On the pull side, what we need to see happen is a more universal focus on making things more efficient and making things happen faster. I go back to this example I’ve been using in our discussion of the IT department and ask why more CIOs aren’t accountable for their company’s energy bill?

If we had a scenario where more CFOs, CEOs and people who do my job are driving CIOs to think about and become accountable for energy consumption, those professionals will start to develop and employ technologies to help them reduce their impact.

You could argue the same thing for line managers. If line managers become accountable for a manufacturing plant’s energy costs or carbon output—or both—they would go seek out the technology to drive efficiency.

GG: Are there any case studies on these groundbreaking behavior changes that particularly inspire you?
RB:
I’ll tell you about one that isn’t happening in the energy arena, because there is a lot of talk around that sector already. There are some pretty interesting things happening in places where people are using sensor networks to drive down the amount of water consumption in agricultural use.

Just to put this in context, about 70 percent of the water we use is for agricultural and manufacturing purposes, and estimates are that up to 50 percent of that water is wasted because we use the blanket approach rather than a targeted one. Now, imagine a world where you put in censors into the fields and can get incredibly specific about when and where you water.

Now you can do things like predicting water need. Since you know each seed, what its growing cycle should be and the optimal amount of moisture it needs, you can be really targeted with your behavior based on what the censor readings are. You’ll know if one row needs to be watered, but the other doesn’t. Or if there’s a 60 percent chance of rain in the next five days, so therefore you don’t need to water at this time at your current soil moisture levels. Getting down to that level of singularity will help save mass amounts of water—which is an increasingly scarce resource.

GG: When did this passion for sustainability begin for you?
RB:
It’s been a lifelong thing for me. I grew up doing a lot of hiking and I always spent my summers outside. I also spent a great deal of time in the mountain ranges over on the East Coast and overseas in areas that were being rapidly deforested and that stuck with me.

I did an MBA and took all the environmental science classes I could take—which at the time was one—and I also took a lot of interest in natural resources in biology classes. It’s just always been a big part of my lifestyle and who I am.
When I got the opportunity to help our company focus our efforts in this area, I was really thrilled that Microsoft decided that I could be the person to take charge of this area and lead the company in this arena.

GG: Are there any areas of sustainability that are particularly interesting to you?
RB:
I think a discussion that’s really interesting and growing in relevance is the intersection between human health and healthcare issues, and environmental issues. There’s been an incredible focus on the debate around climate change, energy use and security—but what about the fact that some of the byproducts from the way we produce energy today are also very likely key contributors to things like asthma or tumor and cancer rates? For many people I speak with, green chemistry is becoming more of a top-of-mind issue, with human health as a primary motivator for people who aren’t necessarily motivated by climate change arguments.

GG: Is there anything else going on with your work that you’d like to share with our readers?
RB:
Even though I spend most of my time trying to improve the advantages technology can bring to the discussion, sustainability relies first on attitudes and behavioral change. That’s what spurs the market to achieve at scale. Once behavior starts to change at scale, good advancements will start to happen much more rapidly.

I think one issue is that a great deal of society is hyper-focused on the energy aspect of the overall problem. But they haven’t quite yet internalized that this is much bigger than just energy. It’s also about human and environmental health and the ways in which we live. We need to look at our individual longevity as well as the planetary impact of what we’re doing.

Rob Bernard is the Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft and a keynote speaker at the GoGreen ‘10 Conference on April 21, 2010 in Seattle, WA. To register for the GoGreen Conference ‘10, please visit: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration. GoGreen ‘09 sold out, so make sure to sign up soon!

To learn more about Rob Bernard and the Microsoft’s sustainable strategy, visit: http://www.microsoft.com/environment/

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