USCIB member since 1996, Microsoft has recently established a New York office to liaise with the United Nations. Norine Kennedy, who leads USCIB work on strategic international engagement, energy and environment, conducted a (virtual) interview with the head of this new office—Vice President for UN Affairs John Frank. Kennedy welcomed Frank to NY and posed some questions about Microsoft’s strategic vision for an enhanced presence at the UN, and invited his perspective on what American innovation, engagement and sustainability leadership can bring to the international community.
Microsoft’s decision to establish a New York office to connect directly with the UN is unique among our members. Could you talk about the process that led to this decision?
Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it’s public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we have found that multilateral cooperation is essential. And we need inclusive governance that brings in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. At Microsoft, we have taken active roles to encourage and support multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and the Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.
As we have deepened our engagements on global and multi-stakeholder initiatives, we find ourselves interacting with the UN system and other multilateral institutions more deeply. The UN General Assembly High Level Week brings many people, including companies, to New York. But the work does not stop there. The people and processes that aim to solve these collective challenges continue after High Level Week concludes, so we decided we should be here all year long.
Establishing our representation office with people based in New York and Geneva is the next natural step for a company that values multilateralism and multi-stakeholder solutions to global challenges.
What do you see as the role of tech companies such as Microsoft in a post COVID-19 world?
The COVID-19 experience has greatly accelerated the adoption of technology across many organizations. Whether one uses Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, or another video conferencing solution, we have all moved our meetings and conferences online. Outside of the workplace, technology is helping us educate our children, engage with friends and family, and make our voices heard during the pandemic. In a post COVID-19 world, we expect some best practices will persist, allowing for more flexible workplaces, next generation classrooms, and other technology-enabled advances to improve how we work, communicate, and learn.
We believe this digital transformation will continue to accelerate. We see greater urgency to harness data science, especially for public health. Software, computers and data science are becoming core to every organization. Every company is becoming either a tech company, or a tech-enabled company. We will continue to see growth in the number of tech companies and the number of technology skilled workers.
COVID-19 has also sharpened the digital divide. As schooling moves online, students without affordable broadband access and laptops are at risk of being left behind. Telemedicine has seen great adoption and social benefits, but communities without broadband access cannot benefit. Billions of people around the world are still not connected. The pandemic has drawn into stark focus the need to narrow the digital divide between and within countries. And we need to enable institutions and individuals to develop the digital skills to flourish in a technology-enabled future.
Some technology companies have enjoyed great success but have not always earned the trust and respect of political leaders. It’s no surprise that our industry is facing greater calls for corporate responsibility and regulation in several jurisdictions globally. And so we have important work on both transformations – contributing to our customers’ digital transformations, and to new regulatory frameworks that will support innovation and greater corporate responsibility.
What is your vision for your team regarding UN engagement, particularly on over-arching UN-wide efforts to respond to COVID-19 and a sustainable and resilient recovery?
Across Microsoft, we have several engagements with the UN that are intended to help the UN amplify its efforts in a wide range of areas. Our representation office focuses on how we can help those initiatives be more impactful and help our Microsoft colleagues engage the many parts of the UN system in a way that best meets the UN’s needs.
Our initial focus will be on supporting and promoting cooperation with the UN to advance progress in six key areas: climate action; human rights; strong institutions; decent work and economic growth; quality education; and broadband availability and accessibility.
Our partnerships support the Secretary-General’s plan for a comprehensive UN response to COVID-19 to save lives, protect societies, and recover better. We will continue our projects that contribute to a sustainable and inclusive economic recovery.
Since March 2020, our senior leaders have been working with the leaders at WHO to develop big data solutions that will greatly increase the scientific capacity of WHO to address COVID-19 and future health challenges. This work has implications for all nations that are dealing with the effects of the pandemic.
We also focus on digital inclusion initiatives. Our colleagues have promoted innovative, lower-cost solutions to bring broadband access to rural Africa because getting the world online will help build sustainable and inclusive societies. Five years ago, I visited a demonstration project in Mawingu, Kenya, for a low-cost broadband solution using unused spectrum allocated to broadcast television. That technology is now proven, and there is a group of local companies ready to deploy scale solutions in Africa. Our team is focused on their last mile: how we can help those projects get financing so they can bring broadband to millions of people at affordable prices.
Microsoft colleagues have been working for years on education opportunities for refugees and internally displaced people. The Learning Passport began as a partnership among UNICEF, Microsoft and the University of Cambridge. The program was designed to provide education for internally displaced and refugee children through a digital remote learning platform. It has now undergone rapid expansion to help countries roll out their online curricula for children and youth whose schools were forced to close due to COVID-19. The platform will also provide key resources to teachers and educators who need to adapt to online learning quickly.
Protecting human rights remains essential across everything we do. We have an important partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to support their work with a technology tool, Rights View, that enables them to monitor human rights developments around the world.
The vision for our UN Affairs team is to engage with the UN community, build relationships and learn, and help make Microsoft’s partnerships more impactful.
COVID-19 delays within UN processes on climate change and biodiversity notwithstanding, Microsoft has announced impressive leadership initiatives in the sustainability space. Could you talk about those and the synergies you hope to see in bringing those into and partnering with the UN?
Around the time the US Administration announced its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, our company leadership decided that we needed to do more directly not only to reduce, but to reverse our environmental impact. We have chosen four focus areas: carbon, water, biodiversity, and waste. We have set bold goals for ourselves, based on rigorous environmental standards and business planning. For example, we have pledged to be carbon negative on Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions by 2030 and to achieve net zero carbon emissions for our Scope 1 and 2 emissions for the 75 years of the company’s existence by 2050.
Companies need to share and learn from each other how we to make progress towards these kinds of goals. The NetZero Coalition is a forum we helped form for this purpose. We want to share aspirations and operational experiences so that eventually, small, medium and large size organizations can learn how to implement programs that are economically sound, and ambitiously reduce carbon emissions.
The UN and its agencies have been on a similar journey, researching and learning more about how to tackle climate change collectively. With our engagements with the UN, we hope that we can expand the reach and amplify the learnings on how organizations, large and small, can move from aspiration to achieving measurable and ambitious operational goals.
Let’s switch gears to the digital economy. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has issued a Digital Cooperation Roadmap. Through USCIB, Microsoft actively contributed to advocating for an Internet Governance architecture that would build upon the current Internet Governance Forum. The UN Roadmap also addresses connectivity, privacy protections and human rights, and cybersecurity. Overall, how would Microsoft like to see this Roadmap carried forward in the UN – recognizing that many member states still may lack a strong digital infrastructure?
The Roadmap for Digital Cooperation embraces a multi-stakeholder approach that Microsoft, USCIB and others have been advocating over a number of years. It is important for USCIB and our fellow members to remain engaged. We hope that the progress we made together to shape the vision for the eight areas for action can be advanced to make ambitious progress in implementation, engaging multi-stakeholder processes. The appointment of a UN Technology Envoy will be a welcome step.
Microsoft has embraced the opportunity to contribute to the Roundtable process this year, including as co-champion of the section on Digital Trust and Security. Our company had an opportunity to participate in important discussions to advance broader understanding of the strong linkage between digital trust and security, and how essential they are to protecting the digital environment that enables progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.
As you note in your question, many member states are still building their digital infrastructure and so we believe it is important to devote significant energy to helping them build their digital capacities. Affordable broadband connectivity, guaranteeing human rights, and commitment to keeping the Internet free, open and secure, and building capacity for digital trust and security are important priorities.
And in all countries, there is important work to be done promoting inclusive economic recovery, addressing the digital divides with affordable broadband access, skilling workers for greater economic rewards, and remotely teaching students.
Microsoft has been an active contributor to the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Cybersecurity, a multi-stakeholder group. This has enabled business to provide critical technical expertise to security-related discussions. USCIB members are concerned about the efforts of Russia, China, and others to press for a binding UN cybersecurity treaty or other legal instrument. How can we leverage groups like the Open-Ended Working Group to build broader support for our view that a UN binding cybersecurity instrument risks doing more harm than good?
We can all benefit from the expanding number of nations that make cybersecurity a priority. Perhaps the clearest message from the OEWG process is that nations want to build their capacity, both to keep themselves more secure and to deepen their understanding of cybersecurity practices, norms and international protections.
Cybersecurity is also being addressed in other international fora. The Paris Call now has 78 nations as signatories (as well as nearly 1000 local government, civil society and private sector endorsers). We have all pledged to support nine widely accepted principles, and to work together to help elaborate and implement the principles. Siemens is leading a group of companies to improve supply chain security, called the Charter of Trust. Microsoft helped launch the Cybersecurity Tech Accord to collaborate on making products more secure over their lifetimes. At the OECD, a group has been working to elaborate how a “no hacking back” principle could be applied in practice. These represent just a fraction of the initiatives that have emerged in recent years to promote a safer cyberspace.
Most significantly, we need to make progress expanding the number of nations that can engage fully on cybersecurity practices and policy, and we need to work inclusively to build from principles that have already been agreed to more concrete norms and practices. And then, we can evaluate how to approach new legal instruments.
As you know, USCIB has worked with UN agencies on behalf of its members for decades and is conscious of the opportunities, even under the current circumstances, to support and advance the effectiveness of UN efforts by crowding in U.S. private sector innovation and hands-on engagement. As a valued member of USCIB, where would Microsoft like to see USCIB focus to pursue opportunities to co-create practical shared value with UN partners looking ahead towards rebuilding better and more sustainably?
We need USCIB’s leadership to help advance inclusive global governance innovations. USCIB members can help create new opportunities by sharing and learning from each other on how we can collectively address the big challenges, like strengthening our global capacity and cooperation for public health and pandemic response.
We are all experiencing together the COVID-19 pandemic and the breakdowns and gaps in our global economy that have prevented us from better containment and care. Governments will address these issues – including rethinking some critical supply chains – and private sector actors should be deeply engaged in contributing to the new solutions. Along with civil society, which plays an especially important role in global health, we can all engage to help build an improved system for global cooperation and national preparedness to better manage public health challenges.
Climate change can seem such an overwhelming challenge that it can be difficult to know where private sector actors should start. Across the full range of our economy, one can see innovations and experimentation that hold promise for reducing our climate impact. USCIB can be a valuable convener for how we can learn from each other and how we can strengthen the UN’s efforts through broader cooperation and commitment.
Finally, we should also devote time and effort together to share views and try and build consensus on how our global institutions should be reformed and strengthened. We seem to be at an inflection point where the weaknesses of our global governance systems have been highlighted, but the reforms have not been elaborated and agreed. The missions of many global institutions are important to the USCIB members, and it’s an opportune time to reimagine how global governance can become more inclusive and effective.