Microsoft Aspires to Innovate for Good: Akhtar Badshah

Esha Chhabra

June 4th, 2012

Originally appeared in

Akhtar Badshah has transitioned from his days as an architect and  the founder of a nonprofit to the Senior Director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft – it’s a natural fit given his roots in design and development.  Badshah is one of the participants and speakers at the UN Social Summit this week in NYC.  We caught up with him to learn about Microsoft’s efforts in social innovation.

Dowser: Microsoft has launched a new initiative, Innovate4Good– can you tell us more about it?
Innovate4Good@Microsoft is a way for Microsoft to connect with the youth of the world and give them the resources to do what they’re passionate about, what’s important to them.  We have created an effort where we’re engaging youth from all over the world – it started March 30 and the summits have taken place in North America, China, Europe, Egypt, Singapore, and in June, there will be an event in Latin America.

This portal lets youth come interact with each other, exchange ideas.  The idea is to think about how to do we engage with the youth in an effective way and how can we support them in a way that makes sense and is sustainable.

Innovate4Good, for example, can be made into a marketplace down the road.

The challenge now is that we see so many ideas, but how do we get them to scale, how do we get them to be more than just ideas?

Just last year we launched the Imagine Cup grant system.  So, it’s for those who wanted to take their idea and turn it into a business, social business.  We got 50 applications and we selected 4 individuals and gave them $75K in investment.  We want to help them establish themselves as an entity with a product that will get them funding from other sources.  We will do another one this year; the finals are being held in Sydney.

We have some amazing judges- Debra Dunn from HP, Jeff Raikes from the Gates Foundation, etc.  We’re really hoping to take this further.

We hear a lot about social innovation and enterprise in India but what about China?  You recently went there – what did you find?
There’s some amazing work being done in China. I visited a social innovation center in Shanghai that’s been set up by a former entrepreneur.  It’s a massive social innovation park that’s got young innovators working on all kinds of issues – how to help the blind transport themselves, how to help autistic children, some are income generating and others are more from the traditional philanthropic side.   The park is now expanding and has been supported by the government.  The aim is now to create a bigger space for these individuals.  Clearly it’s a new movement but it’s gaining traction.  There’s FDI (Fuping Development Institute), which is another great example of an entity set up by entrepreneurs to support social entrepreneurs.  It’ll be interesting to see when my colleague comes back from the Social Innovation Summit in Beijing that’s taking place currently and get her perceptions.

Does technology have a limit?  It’s sometimes sold as an easy solution, one-fit-for-all…
People see technology as this whole separate entity.  But technology has to be used in the context.  A lot of this innovation is going to come because nonprofits are going to take the technology platform and innovate on it.   Companies are going to build the platform, like Microsoft built the gaming device Kinect.  Nonprofits will use that platform for their social cause.  People are writing new software for the Kinect  – these are not things that we had envisioned for it.  Some are using it to provide eyesight to blind, some are using it to connect doctors across the country, or as a training program for autistic kids. This is all contextual innovation that’s coming about.

The mobile revolution has been huge in technology.  What do you see as the next development in tech for development?
One of the things that I’m very excited about is a convergence between devices.  You’ve got a device in your lap, your pocket, your ear.  These devices are becoming seamless; so you can move data from one to the other which is very effective and efficient.  So, you’re seeing a disruption that’s happening because of this convergence.

We will have in five years, or more, voice recognition.  We can communicate with people in multiple languages easily then.  I should be able to give a talk in English and a kid in Kenya should be able to hear it in Swahili.  That will change how we transfer knowledge.  That might happen also because of “Big Data.”

Devices are also becoming more powerful, more portable, and cheaper – more people can have access to it.

How is Microsoft going beyond just Corporate Social Responsibility?  Is it more than just corporate philanthropy?
Corporate philanthropy is going to evolve.  Part of it is technology is allowing us to do things that we couldn’t do before.  There’s much more access to info today.  Young people today who are trying to create sustainable enterprises, they’re doing it as a business, not as a charity.  They’re very concerned about supply chains, how profits are shared, etc.  And we’re getting employees that have been educated in a different way – more kids are coming out with a socially responsible lens.  They’re getting into companies, leadership positions.  That has an effect.  So, there are a number of factors that are leading to this change.  Other changes are coming from the market and shifts in the market.

What is exciting you going forward as you travel the world and see this innovation first hand?
I have attended some of the global summits for Innovate4Good: Cairo, Tunis, Europe, China. The energy in the youth from 14- 25 is incredible.  There is this enormous amount of talent that’s coming out and they’re not waiting for us.   They’re transforming things.  How you support it, how you put in resources to get it flourish more – those are the kind of things that are interesting for me.


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