Interview: Accenture

Continuing our interview series, ‘Changing the world one click at a time’, we chatted with a multi-disciplinary team at The Dock, Accenture who research, incubate, prototype and pilot digital and emerging technologies together with clients and partners to pioneer new ways to fulfill human needs using emerging technology.

The Dock is Accenture’s flagship R&D and Global Innovation Centre based in Dublin, Ireland where design, business, and technology come together under one roof. The Dock is home to a diverse team of 300 creative problem-solvers made up of highly talented experts in design, engineering, artificial intelligence, and IoT. I’m having a chat with Jess, Patrick, Christophe and Nick about their very privileged position of being able to positively influence clients in Ireland and globally. 

What unites you as a team?

We share a common purpose to pioneer conscientious innovation. It's an ambition, a vision. We are striving to make sure everything we do is at the edge of new business. It is not just about innovation, but innovation for good. 

Are all the projects you’re involved in designed to bring good?

Not every company that comes to us is making something to specifically better society. What we have to carefully consider is that the projects we work on do no harm to society. A lot of the time, whatever we're creating has never been done before. So we have to be especially aware of how our decisions may impact the process and the outcome. 

Of course, some projects we initiate are based on explicitly good intentions and that would purely fall under tech innovation for good (“Tech4Good”). 

It might not be part of our client’s initial agenda to positively impact society, but as soon as we discuss the use of AI with clients, be it related to automation, computer vision or any other new technology, the question of the overall impact to society almost always comes up.

What does ‘tech for good’ mean to you?

We organized a hackathon together back in December, where we analysed the concepts around conscientious innovation and tech for good. One of the outcomes we arrived at is that nobody ever sets out to do harm. The damage is usually caused by not considering the impact of certain decisions at the very beginning.

Tech for good is not just about the technology itself, but it is really in the application of technology. We are now at a point where a new tech innovation is hitting the market every couple of months. This creates a huge opportunity to solve multiple problems by combining these technologies in the right way. Take for example something like decentralized AI which combines blockchain, AI and new encryption technologies, enabling trusted AI across businesses, or the use of computer vision, data analytics and IoT (internet of things) for pollution and traffic monitoring in cities Then there are startups like 'Open Mined' who are focused purely on enabling people to develop applications and services that do good (https://www.openmined.org/).

What are the most prominent societal challenges that you are observing/ recognising currently?

What we are seeing at the moment are issues around data privacy, 'fake news' or data veracity. How do you prove or show that something is actually true, and hasn’t been manipulated? Most of these issues, however, didn't necessarily start with the technology but were enabled by technology. Their roots come from very complicated nuanced social interactions, geopolitics and manufacturing. 

It's quite interesting to see how we can now use technology, or think about technology differently, to counter these societal challenges. At the same time, we can now anticipate what are the next problems that are likely to crop up. As the algorithms evolve and get more sophisticated, ‘algorithmic fairness’ will become more and more of an issue. Is there a difference between accuracy and fairness? How do we start embodying ethics, moral values, corporate values or social values into algorithms? These kinds of applications will start to become a very big conversation for companies and governments.

What are you observing about the industry itself?

Employees are putting increasing pressure on companies to do better. The employees of some of the largest companies in the world are starting to use their power to make changes in their working conditions. Particularly in the field of data science where there is such a shortage of talent. The power now rests with the data scientists and they're starting to leverage that power. It'll be interesting to see how that evolves.

Increasingly, there are funds that are set up purely to be invested in ethical business ventures. On a consumer level, companies are expected to be more responsive, and to actively listen to people’s needs. Currently, the most valued brands have a purpose and stand for something. To be ethical is an ongoing commitment. You've got to be able to deliver on that and constantly evolve, change and self-invest.

Accenture projects that have inspired you?

We just recently started a collaboration with Unreasonable Group. The project is called Unreasonable FUTURE which looks at the future of work, particularly for youth. It's a collaboration between Accenture’s The Dock, Unreasonable Group, Pearson and Fossil Foundation. This partnership scoured the planet looking for social entrepreneurs who are trying to do good and make money. They identified a number of companies that are now part of this program and some of them are truly inspiring in terms of what they've done already, how many people they're reaching and how they collaborate. What we do here at The Dock, is use our global reach and our ability to scale in tandem with what our partners have already achieved. This has a massive potential to do a lot of good.

Another project here at The Dock we are excited about is aquaponics - a system for growing both plants and fish symbiotically in a mutually beneficial cycle. Fish waste is used to fertilize the plants, which in turn purifies the water for the fish. It is fascinating not only because of the technique itself but the community around it. People doing Aquaponics are very much in the "maker" community mindset - they share knowledge, tips, different setups, etc, and at the moment it's definitely a grassroots community without a huge amount of input from big companies.

The technique involves growing fish and plants together. This method has been known since the Aztecs, or at least that's the first documented evidence. Now with technology, it has become more accessible, more capable and there's plenty of people doing great things with that. What FAO (food and agriculture organisation for UN) is looking at currently is whether there is a potential to use this approach to deliver food to everybody on the planet in a sustainable way. It would need some changes around monitoring the system, scaling it and the appropriate knowledge on how to maintain it. We can tackle some of those challenges with AI. 

ID 2020 is a project that was designed to use blockchain to enable the identification of refugees and to give these people a certain level of security as they move between borders. This project was developed in collaboration with the UN.

How can companies contribute towards positive change?

We need leadership to encourage change by giving their teams permission and space to collectively initiate solutions. Otherwise, the people have to agitate for action and that causes more friction and frustration. At The Dock, the purpose that we set forward is to drive conscientious innovation. This approach was 100% supported by leadership and space was provided for it to develop and grow. We care about the impact of our work and we make sure we truly honor the opportunity. It is not just about leadership telling us to do it. It's ours. We asked for this. So we also have an obligation and a responsibility to make that happen.

 

To learn more follow @AccentureDock and visit accenture.com/thedock

A big thanks to:

  • Jess Majekodunmi, Conscientious innovation lead
  • Patrick Connolly, Research Manager 
  • Christophe Guéret, Research Scientist - Ireland Tech4Good lead
  • Nick McCarthy, Research Engineer 
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