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Mishcon Academy: Purpose Matters - How technology can turn the challenge of sustainability into a business opportunity

Posted on 30 March 2021

Earlier this month, as part of our Purpose Matters series, Alexander Rhodes, Head of Mishcon Purpose was in conversation with Tazz Parker Marketing Director at Digital Detox, along with our Head of MDRxTECH Tom Grogan, discussing how technology can turn the challenge of sustainability into a business opportunity.

Today, responsible businesses need to understand and manage their social and environmental impacts. To drive value, management needs to be able to identify, measure and report against key non-financial metrics alongside their accounts. For complex businesses in a developing landscape, technology is the key.

In this session, our panel discussed specific technologies used by businesses to address Environmental, Social and Governance considerations; how these are used to unlock value and drive growth; and key legal and design issues – including discrimination and data processing – which underpin the integrity of the development and use of such systems.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Alex Rhodes

Welcome everyone, I’m Alex Rhodes, Head of Mishcon Purpose and I’ll be your host for today.  Thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Digital Session, which is a series of online events, podcasts and videos looking at the biggest issues for people and businesses today.  This is the third of our 2021 sessions, in a collection of conversations called Purpose Matters.  In each conversation, I bring together a lawyer from our firm, together with a specialist in sustainability and responsibility in sustainable business. 

Today, we’re going to talk about the role of technology in achieving sustainability.  The pandemic has forced an unprecedented crisis response globally.  This has been led and enabled by technology from the fast-track development of new vaccines and Track and Trace to homeworking and the expansion of the virtual realm and big data.  The pandemic has also highlighted the fragilities of the systems we have created; of inequalities in society and of ecosystem boundaries that we’re running right up against.  The policy narrative of Build Back Better as we look to emerge from the lockdowns and into a new reality, is converging with the ever-growing obligations on businesses to address these ESG factors that they haven’t had to consider before and to meet this transformation, businesses need to be able to measure, monitor, adapt, create and find new ways of doing things; ways which enable accountability - the accountability that is being asked of them – to build value and to minimise the externalities and make much smarter use of the limited precious resources that we have.  I’m really excited to be joined today by Tazz Parker, who is the Marketing Director at Digital Detox and Head of MDRxTECH, Tom Grogan.  Tazz, Digital Detox, and I’ve been practising this, is a humanity-led digital product agency. 

Tazz Parker

Yes. 

Alex Rhodes

And you say that you create future proofed products with the right technology, in the most digitally-sustainable way. 

Tazz Parker

We are a purpose and humanity-led organisation and we use a three pillar approach at Digital Detox, to make all of our decisions.  That’s both internally and externally from how we build the technology, to how we talk to our clients or even one another in the team and those three pillars are people, planet and technology.  And so, as an organisation that our main focus is to use tech to build solutions for our clients, it’s so important to us to ensure that our understanding of purpose and of planet, is a collective responsibility in order to empower our team as well as our customers.  And so to make that work, we break that down into three key areas: creating awareness, taking responsibility and providing choice.  It’s around a shared understanding of that accountability and knowing that in every step of the process to creating a digital product whether that’s a website, whether that’s an app or something a little bit more precise and complicated we’re able to track and trace exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  So, I think that concept around technology with purpose comes in there but then it’s also having the accountability that you’ve made the right decision on what tech you are going to use because it’s solving a problem and then that means you take the accountability of the carbon emissions that come from that. 

Alex Rhodes

Tom, it takes us to you of course.  Last year, you launched MDRxTECH, which is a technology business owned by our firm, which of course is a law firm.  This point around accountability’s quite…  it’s sort of beautifully pertinent.  I mean, I wanted to ask you, in the context of the ESG regulatory environment which is developing so quickly, whether you could tell us a little bit more about MDRxTECH but particularly where the proposition comes from it being housed in a law firm?   And perhaps you could reach across in that and touch on the accountability point that Tazz has just been making?  

Tom Grogan

MDRxTECH as you’ve just said is our… the Mishcon de Reya group’s technology, engineering and consulting businesses.  So, we are helping clients to navigate their problems and pursue their technology initiatives and programmes in a way and we talk about compliance by design underpinning everything that we do.  You’re absolutely right, it exists within a law firm and was borne from having a really strong technology practice.  We’ve got a great group of technology lawyers within the Mishcon family but especially on the emerging technology side of things we increasingly found ourselves advising clients on things that were quasi-legal.  That’s not to say that the lawyers don’t have a crucially important role to play; I think that our position is very much that as the world moves online, the digital space, the technology space, isn’t some absent vacuum within which you can operate with impunity and without regard to the law and regulation at the most obvious, but more ambiguously perhaps but just as importantly, morals and ethics and all of the things that we’ve got to think about. 

Alex Rhodes

Tazz, I wonder whether… can I ask you maybe to sort of get… give us some real examples?   Have you got an example you could walk us through in terms of implementing a technology project to solve a problem like that?  

Tazz Parker

One of the things that we regularly see with our clients, is that they’re looking to cull their digital pollution, rely on technology less or just in general become more sustainable.  In order for them to understand that, they often first ask us, “How can we use technology to understand the personal impact of individuals within teams?   How do you manage this?” At Digital Detox, off the back of that, we developed something called Winsome which is a carbon data engine.  It automatically monitors travel data and this is something we think is going to be really useful for post-pandemic and going back into the office.  And it then converts that data to provide near real-time carbon visibility for companies.  And I think that’s again another issue we see quite regularly that the analysis on your carbon usage from your business kind of comes a year after it’s happened and you’re not able to implement change quickly.  So, Winsome, it integrates both technological and behavioural mindsets to address barriers to especially Scope 3 Measurement but your sustainability in general.  And it services emissions data from data already within companies’ existing systems and that then allows them to link to productivity, profitability and also environmental policies. 

Alex Rhodes

So, is that a shared experience on your side?  

Tom Grogan

Change for change’s sake or adopting a… it can be the best piece of technology in the world, but if people don’t use it and if it doesn’t fit with the company’s or organisation’s core values or culture or ethos, then what’s the point to some extent?   It’s got to be consistent and it’s got to have that connection.  Generally the way that... we tend not to try and come in with a top down approach to solving clients’ problems.  We’ve got all sorts of approaches that we use to map out what their issues are and try and come to solutions but we are very cognisant that each organisation’s very different and that being too dogmatic with a structure and a framework as you come in can sometimes be detrimental.  I think the one thing that we can, I think I can say definitively is that every problem we seek to solve and the way we seek to solve it, is driven by data because if it’s not driven by the data, then it’s sort of guesswork. 

Alex Rhodes

Tazz, I wanted to ask you, you know, again it’s sort of in the application of technology; in the context of companies looking to… for solutions to these sustainability type problems, I mean, do you see clients coming to you mainly looking at this agenda through the lens of risk management?  

Tazz Parker

The way that we approach anything that we look to build, is at first looking at a discovery phase, understanding of the fact that sometimes you don’t know what the problem is and that you might think you do.  But going on that discovery together and looking at what that could look like as a prototype or an NVP or something actually pretty low fidelity that you can then build up to a clickable prototype even.  We’re not even talking about necessarily having anything that looks like the final product.  But then that enables you to risk mitigate and work on that; What does the data mean?   How do I find it?   How can I use it to create sustainable change?   And that can require spending money on discovering rather than building and jumping in straightaway because you find out stuff you might have not known.  In turn, that means that you save money by making sure that what you build is actually truly needed. 

Alex Rhodes

Tom, I wanted to go back to sort of the technology itself.  If you’re a business and you’ve got a sustainability challenge or an ESG challenge that you’re trying to address and you think that technology’s going to be helpful, what are the most important factors that you think you need to… that you should be, you know, to have on your tick list as you think about commissioning some?  

Tom Grogan

Assuming we’ve got the, we’ve got comfortable and happy that the problem we’re solving, or the opportunity we’re going after is settled and is done and is a, a informed by data position.  I was having an interesting conversation actually Alex with a client of both of ours last week around how to think about their system.  They’ve got a phenomenally exciting system that aspirationally will do all sorts of amazing things and then they’ve got a system that is still quite a beautiful solution and is still quite an elegant service, but that is a lot more streamlined and low-tech.  So, I tend to think about everything in terms of MVP system – Minimal Viable Product system – and aspirational system and provided you know that by building your MVP you can scale that and build it out in pursuit of your aspirational system, that’s fine.  What you don’t want to do, is build something that works, is up and running and is fine, in order to build it out to reach the aspirational system you have to undergo some sort of fundamental change that will either cost you money, will almost certainly cost you money.  The reason and almost coming back full circle and moving things back into the first question which is the benefit of having it as part of a law firm is that, well, there are a number of benefits.  One of the big ones is that lawyers have been trained over about a thousand years to have a bloodhound sense for risk and swamps as you go along.  So, if there is that level of threat mitigation built into the entire design thinking, the entire development process, then that can really save you some headache and heartache later on down the line. 

Alex Rhodes

On a climate change side, technology’s not without it’s own sort of impacts and emissions.  Can you tell us a little bit about the well, maybe first what digital pollution is and then a little bit about the report and how you came to do it and why you came to do it?   And then I think what would be great is, I think you came up with a sort of four step analysis to thinking about it and if you could unpack that.   

Tazz Parker

Digital pollution is essentially the carbon emissions required in order to create or action digital process.  So, in the same way as our physical movements and behaviours impact the environment, what we do online such as sending emails or saving to the cloud does as well.  You might have seen some of the pretty impressive but shocking stats out there which help us to realise our reliance on technology and you know that has only become greater during the pandemic.  And I do think that could be a threat in terms of sustainability if it’s not addressed.  So, a couple off the top of my head, for instance if the internet was a country, it would be the sixth largest polluter in the world and in 2019, the internet actually polluted the planet more than the entire aviation industry combined.  There was another really good study done which said that if the UK, everybody in the UK sent one less thank you email, as we all know we like to be overly polite and send these, it would be the combination of the amount of emissions that would produce would be the same as 81,000 return flights to Madrid from the UK.  So our view on that is not around building less.  I mean we’re a technology company; we build tech but it’s around building smart.  As a company that builds digital products, we believe that it’s therefore our responsibility to stand up and to make digitally smart, sustainable decisions to create less digital pollution when creating quality products.  So, you mentioned we created the Green Report.  This was borne from all of this thought and understanding around digital pollution and what can we do and what’s our role in this?   And so the Green Report is a tool to track, cut and control your business’ digital pollution.  It was designed to help to educate and propose tangible solutions to the business leaders or department leaders looking to improve their products or services or behaviours to try and make them more sustainable. 

Alex Rhodes

If one just moved to 100% renewable energy, for example, so if one has… so all of our electricity is then decarbonised, then does that fix the digital pollution problem by itself?  

Tazz Parker

My answer to that is no, because it needs to be aligned with societal change, environmental change, behavioural change in the company as well in order to actually sustain that change.  So, really what we could all do is change our internet browsers.  We could sign up to a green host for our website.  You know, some of these pretty quick fixes.  I’m sure we’ve all also seen the number of companies that will plant trees to try and make up for some of the actions.  But what we look in the Green Report is to actually take a step back and evaluate, “Okay, that’s great.  But where can we make sustainable change and how we measure and work on a day-to-day basis?” and then what we build.  That actually, if we can change from the top in that sense, that everything we’re using and interacting with becomes more sustainable, then the impact is greater. 

Alex Rhodes

Tom, I wanted to come across to you to other harms of technology. 

Tom Grogan

The specific issues that run with any project that people should be cognisant of and be aware of in addition to the ones Tazz mentioned a moment ago, I mean they very much vary from use case to use case but data is always there and data is both opportunity and threat.  You can derive great insight from data and take real actionable points from the insights you derive from data.  But a data breach is a disaster.  A data breach nowadays is the corporate equivalent of an environmental disaster.  It can absolutely destroy your business.  The moment after a data breach happens, the litigation begins and so you really need to make sure that your data practices aren’t just exciting and informative but they are compliant and compliant in not just as the law is today but as the law is likely to be tomorrow. 

Alex Rhodes

We’ve had a question come in around, “I see Mishcon de Reya is going to be launching an app to help its employees with sustainability.”  This is one that I can answer because I’ve been really involved in this and it’s a real privilege to be doing so.  We, as a firm, as part of our commitment to delivering positive social and environmental impact, are following a model where we look at how we deliver that impact in the way that we run our business; in the advice that we give to our clients and in how we can use the law as a tool in the wider world to drive for positive change.  But we’re also working to enable our people to do their bit and so at the end of this month we’ll be launching a wonderful app called ‘Geeky Zero’ which has been developed to help people understand their environmental footprint and in particular their carbon footprint from the choices they make and the way that they decide to live their lives and making that available on a common platform for all of our people.  So, hopefully that will enable people, particularly as we’re all locked down at home, to engage with this in our day-to-day lives.  Tazz, thank you very, very much for giving up the time to join us.  Tom, as always it’s an absolute pleasure to chat.  Thank you everybody else for joining us and we look forward to seeing you next time. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  For access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com. 

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