Rob Bernard on sustainability, smart cities and Microsoft CityNext

As Microsoft’s first chief environmental strategist, Rob Bernard has helped his company become a more sustainable business. Now, he’s taking on a new challenge, which involves bringing together Microsoft’s corporate sustainability practice with its CityNext efforts

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 02 January 2015
Rob Bernard on sustainability, smart cities and Microsoft CityNext

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 issue of OnWindows

For the last few years, Rob Bernard has been responsible for defining and implementing the global strategy for ­Microsoft’s environmental efforts. Under his leadership, the company has succeeded in establishing a ­carbon-neutral goal and the first-of-its-kind ­internal carbon fee – a model that places a price on carbon and makes the company’s business divisions responsible for the cost of offsetting the carbon emissions associated with their electricity use and air travel. Bernard was also involved in a project which saw the company build its very own ‘city of the future’ at its Puget Sound Campus, helping Microsoft to improve energy efficiency across its real estate portfolio. But this is just the start. Now, he is turning his attention to an even greater cause: cities.

In October 2014, Bernard’s sustainability team joined forces with the Microsoft CityNext initiative. In his new role as chief environmental and cities strategist, Bernard’s task is not only to continue helping Microsoft manage its own business responsibly, but to build on the success of CityNext and consider the role that the company can play in reducing society’s resource use across cities and urban areas worldwide.

“Cities generate around 80% of global economic output, and around 70% of global ­energy use and energy-related GHG emissions,” he explains. “That is the current picture, but if you add the UN forecast that by 2050 70% of the world’s population will live in cities/urban areas – an additional 2.3 billion more people than live in cities today – it becomes very clear that the future of environmental sustainability is inextricably linked to the process of urbanisation. How the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities develop will be critical to the future of sustainability and managing climate change.”

The question Bernard and his team are asking is “How can we reconcile the anticipated growth of urban areas and our dependency on natural resources, with the need to create more efficient, prosperous and economically competitive cities?”

Faced with the mounting pressures of population growth and resource depletion, Bernard says that it is the cities that find ways to manage their resources more efficiently, and bridge their disparate systems to optimise performance and value creation that will lead the way. “We believe that cities who invest in information and data as a resource will be able to service increasing populations more efficiently and with less waste,” he explains. “Leveraging data to better manage cities’ infrastructures will assist in providing more, higher quality services while at the same time offering greater cost certainty.”

Microsoft CityNext is in large part a response to trying to help customers address unmet needs, and has already identified over 40 solution scenarios that tackle challenges faced by cities in areas such as energy and water; buildings; infrastructure and planning; transportation; public safety and justice; tourism, recreation, and culture; education; health and social services; and government administration.

“City leaders worldwide are absolutely addressing challenges that include sustainable energy, water and transport,” says Bernard. “The work we and our partners are doing in these areas will continue, and the learnings and solutions that arise from these efforts will indeed strengthen and extend relevant solutions.”

While Microsoft CityNext takes advantage of technology to help cities tackle their most pressing issues, Bernard explains that the strategy is not solely about technology; it is about enabling cities and citizens to be more productive while simultaneously using fewer resources. “Many of today’s high-profile city innovation projects focus primarily on making infrastructure ‘smart’ by embedding sensors, upgrading networking capabilities, and creating intelligence from data,” he says. “While this is a critical foundational step, limiting the conversation to infrastructure and analytics misses an enormous opportunity to unlock the human potential within a city.” When Microsoft launched Microsoft CityNext over a year ago, it extended the conversation around smart cities beyond infrastructure to engage cities’ most important resource – its citizens. “True transformation will only be achieved if cities take a people-first approach, enabling cross-collaboration and citizen engagement,” explains Bernard.

Microsoft CityNext is also about enabling an ecosystem of new software development to address the most pressing city and environmental challenges. “With the combination of cloud, big data, mobile and social technologies, our partners are delivering amazing solutions that touch lives in many ways,” says Bernard. Together, we are helping students achieve more through one-on-one learning experiences; giving isolated populations access to ­much-needed government services; providing the elderly with high-quality healthcare from the comfort of their own homes; supporting entrepreneurs to see their ideas come to fruition faster; getting commuters home sooner; ensuring reliable and cost-effective energy supplies to power a growing economy; and giving city employees a real-time, one-city view so they can do their jobs better.”

Working with its partner ecosystem, Bernard believes that Microsoft is uniquely equipped to help cities make a real impact in their communities and address challenges with whatever infrastructure they have now. “The advances in technology that enable new solutions which can extract and analyse data from various sources and formats is driving a revolution in resource efficiency and doesn’t require a ‘rip-and-replace’ approach to infrastructure and existing technology,” he says. “That is super exciting and will help cities make progress within the economic constraints they face.”

According to Bernard, we are in a very ­exciting time in terms of what technology can enable. “The power of cloud, big data, mobile and social technologies – when combined – are enabling new solutions that make it easier than ever before to capture relevant data, to unlock its power, to engage citizens and harness collective collaboration,” he says. “With the power of computing now available in ways previously not possible, I expect to see a lot of creative problem solving in the near future.”

Even in this era of urbanisation, budget cuts, economic austerity, cybersecurity threats and growing regulatory requirements, Bernard does not believes that the vision of a vibrant city should seem out of reach – nor should a move to sustainability be seen as a constraint. “Sustainability is too often portrayed as a sacrifice and lifestyle minimisation issue, when the ability to innovate to transform resource use and improve quality of life remains one of the great opportunities for cities and society,” he says.

Building on the previous successes he has achieved with Microsoft, Bernard has a positive outlook about where he can take his new role and what he and his team can do through Microsoft CityNext. “I’m still working for Microsoft after 17 years because I am convinced technology can enable positive change,” he says. “I have a personal passion and conviction to help address the issues of environmental sustainability in the hope of making the future a better place for all of us to live, work and play. If we can help cities today realise their goals and ambitions, we are also setting the groundwork for future generations to experience healthy, efficient, clean and fun environments.”

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