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Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business' second annual conference, Thursday 5 December 2019.

Thursday 5th December saw business leaders, decision makers and academics come together for the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business’ second annual conference.

The Actions and Decisions for Responsible Business Conference was host to a myriad of interesting and involved conversations around creating and maintaining a responsible future in business. Speakers shared their expertise on a variety of topics from Artificial Intelligence (AI) to responsible purpose mapping, all geared towards helping businesses reach greater levels of responsibility.

Actor, writer, researcher and conference chair, Nicholas Bailey, kicked off the day by stressing the urgency for action and the importance of connecting and collaborating, respecting and sharing knowledge in how to align people, planet and profit with responsible business purposes. His introductory remarks established the purpose of this conference as an opportunity to learn from each other, share new (and old) ideas, talk about successes and failures, discuss what we know and what we don’t know in order to design possible ways forward.  

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The opening speech, delivered by Lord Victor Adebowale, Chair of Social Enterprise UK, CEO of Turning Point, businessman and much much more, challenged the assumption that any business should be irresponsible. His powerful argument was that all enterprises must now embed responsibility from the ground up and provided examples of how this could be done. In an inspiring, provocative and impassioned address that covered many aspects of what it means to be socially responsible, Lord Adebowale commented our future responsibilities for our actions today. He commented on his interest in the future, especially in a version where he doesn’t have to apologise to his children. “99% of the world’s scientists consider that we have roughly 12 years to do something about climate change. This platform we are standing on is burning. The more it burns, the more fire there is to put out, the less platform we have to stand on”.

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Torrin Stafford, Group Head of Data Privacy and Ethics, Lloyds Banking Group, challenged many of the negative perceptions of Artificial Intelligence in business. He presented an example of the responsible use of AI, which incorporated key lessons learned from other less successful applications. Lloyds Virtual Assistant integrated human and machine learning to create an improved  model of customer communication. One which provides 24/7 support, accessible from different devices, easy to use, more inclusive and adaptable to different customer physical and information needs. Design features include automatic recognition of emotions, bereavement, anger, which when detected diverts the call to dedicated customer support teams. This easy to use communication channel is valued by customers and invaluable for those who find it difficult to get to a branch.

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“Working human elements into virtual reality is an important design element. We have customers who have disabilities, are hard of hearing, who find it difficult to communicate over the phone or in branch. Our virtual assistant eliminates that problem”.

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Professor Richard Black, Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Birmingham and Head of the College of Social Sciences, commented on the many different ways universities have and can continue to support responsible business transformation. He provided examples of how research at the University of Birmingham is impacting on all parts of the responsible business value chain. He spoke about the capacity of universities to undertake ‘blue sky’ thinking research and mutual benefits associated with academic-business  partnerships to share knowledge and create more responsible business solutions. However, he stressed the importance of universities as places of learning and how Birmingham Business School has adopted responsible business as a core value, recognising that:

“we are educating the workforce of the future. We are interested in creating engaged, well-rounded citizens”.

Building on Professor Black’s presentation, Professor Ian Thomson picked out some key findings from the “whirlwind of interdisciplinary research over the last two years which is now starting to bear fruit”, stressing the importance of talking to businesses to test our ideas in a way that can make things happen. Professor Thomson explained how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could be integrated into responsible business decision making. He argued that translating the SDGs into business strategy would allow decision makers to redefine their responsible relationships with natural and social systems. This mapping should then trigger new thinking about these relationships. Professor Thomson suggested four responsible business principles:

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  • If a businessdepends on a SDG,  then protect or regenerate this system
  • If a business has control over aspects of a SDG,  then at least do no harm
  • If a business contributes positively towards a SDG, then value and enhance it
  • If a business impacts negatively on a SDG, then mitigate or reverse it.

He continued his presentation with examples of business tools that may prove useful for responsible business decision making.

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“We need to understand the shoulders we stand on. Responsible Business has always been, and still is, evolving. Companies fail, learn, and try harder”.

Amanda spoke about the Responsible Business Tracker, developed in partnership with the Centre, which allows businesses to measure how and where they are, or aren’t, responsible. This tool translates all the SDGs into key business practices, facilitates new business thinking and is an innovative way to measure performance. Even though the Tracker has only completed one cycle, the first round of results have revealed a number of critical insights, such as the need for greater focus on our healthy environment and a need for the business leader’s strategic commitment to permeate deep into the organisation down to operational levels.

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Laura Paterson, Client Principal at ThoughtWorks, reminded us of the rapid evolution of digital technology, old risks that have been overcome and new risks that remain. Her core message was that technology has become an intrinsic part of business and society, and they rely on technology now more than ever. This shift has been fast and furious, evolving from a smart way to save money to creating new markets to radically redefining what it means to do business. This rapid rise in tech has taken most of us by surprise, leading to the neglect of responsible implementation, outstripping society’s ability to judge and leaving legislation lagging far behind. There is a real danger that rather than AI benefiting all, it could polarise social inequity, creating more problems than it solves. However, she also outlined ways these risks can be minimised allowing the responsible potential of digital technology to be achieved. “The biggest impact of our reliance on technology is not necessarily the decisions we made but the ones we didn’t make. The Government are now planning to develop legislation to potentially fine companies if they fail to explain decisions made by AI”.

Laura also spoke about the importance of diversity in decision making, a subject that all speakers also emphasised: “we need to create a value driven culture of responsibility that everyone can buy into. Diversity means richer perspectives, and therefore richer, more responsible decision making”.

The panel discussion allowed the audience to share their views, provide insights and challenge the speakers. This led to an animated and informed discussion. Questions from the floor included what would a shared ethical future in business look like; what is your priority for action and the role of leaders. Some themes emerged among the discussions which followed, including:

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  • Accountability, the importance of which was stressed by Torrin as “imperative in an ethical future”;
  • Diversity and culture. Laura challenged everyone to reflect on “what culture do you have? And how can you make it more diverse?”;
  • Climate change. Ian urged the audience to “look at their business relationship with climate change and align it with other business plans”;
  • Balancing a healthy society and healthy environment. Amanda commented on the value of balancing priorities, expressing that business ought to “think about healthy communities and healthy environment in equal measure”.
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The day finished with an audience discussion focussing on what had been learned, what needs to be done and next steps. This session was infused with a sense of promise and enthusiasm. There was a genuine sense that great ideas had been shared for the benefit of all. The last words fell to a member of the audience pledging to share her reflections of responsible business with ten people and urge them to share with ten more people, thus spreading the responsible business message as far as possible. This was greeted with an encouraging round of applause. 

The conference enabled thought provoking and inspiring conversations and new connections to be made, all based on a common purpose of working towards responsible business goals. This conference provided a platform to share our findings, help businesses make more responsible decisions, learn from business regarding their priorities for responsible action and create new research and engagement opportunities.

*Lloyds Banking Group and Birmingham Business School established the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business together, basing the Centre on the shared values of the University’s civic mission and the Lloyds Banking Group Helping Britain Prosper plan. This five year partnership, now in its second year, creates research which is innovative, bold and world leading. The Centre works closely with businesses and policy makers to assess what is needed and necessary to address barriers to responsible business, and build tools and processes which benefit both the business and the wider world. Using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as guidelines, the Centre's mission is to help create a more responsible world for businesses and society through education, research and partnerships.

For more information, go to our website www.birmingham.ac.uk/crb

Connect with us on twitter @UoBResponsible

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