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How is digital transformation changing industry—and what impact does it have on energy and the environment? Dawn James, director, global IoT industry strategy – energy & environmental science, Microsoft, sits down with Peggy Smedley to talk about her experience, the importance of data insights, and her vision for the future of energy and environmental sciences. This is a shortened excerpt from James’ interview on The Peggy Smedley Show.

Connected World (CW): Dawn, you have done some amazing things and have a very, very impressive background. Can you share a little bit with me? I would love for you to tell our listeners how you actually got where you are today and where you see this whole world right now that we’re living in?

Dawn James: So, I started out just as far as education, I’m a geoscientist. By education experience, I consider myself still a geoscientist, even though I’m not in the field anymore. But I started my career out in the field in geotechnical engineering and I was onsite geologists. So, I worked in geotechnical engineering. I worked a lot with hillside grading and construction. It’s part of the architecture engineering construction sector, a lot of infrastructure. So, I got dirty every day, and was out there working with contractors and earth moving equipment. So, that’s where I started my journey. I wanted to be a physics major in college. All of the labs were indoors. And I took geoscience my…a geology class my second semester of my freshman year. And I fell in love because it was physics outside.

And I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of person and being able to do science outside was just my dream. So, I went into geotechnical engineering after college. …

From there, I took a little hiatus when I had my daughter. I moved to West Africa for a few years and taught at a university there. I taught sedimentology. And then I came back to the states, moved to Houston, and that’s when I started getting heavily into the energy sector. And I started in the energy sector because of my modeling experience within water resources and water resources management. One of the geoscientists that I worked with within an E & P company, they said, well, if you can model water systems, you can model oil and gas systems. And they were right. I was very good at the software, and I understood the algorithms. It was just fluid moving through earth layers. So, I was able, through the subsurface, and I was able to make that transition pretty simple, pretty easily.

And so that’s when I started getting into energy, and that was probably about 12 years ago. And working in geologic modeling, static modeling, understanding the algorithms that we mostly use within earth science within the oil and gas industry. And then I started, well, the industry started to shift, right? So, then the energy industry started to shift into this energy transition. And that’s also where the buzzword digital transformation started to really start hearing it. Energy industry has a big data challenge. Modeling these…the large seismic volumes. There’s just a plethora of data within the energy sector. And so that’s where I started trying to understand digital systems so that we can start to transition the energy sector.

And then that’s where I made my transition into Microsoft. So, Microsoft was making a pivot at the same time that the energy industry was making a pivot. They were making a pivot towards really focusing on industry and digital solutions geared toward industry. And they started hiring industry people. …

So, we have a need to bring technology, industry, government systems, geopolitical systems, all in the effort of mitigating climate change and helping all of us on this planet to be…and I take this very seriously and I mean this, to be able to survive. This is a real fierce urgency of now. And so, what I find now that I’m leveraging every single solitary aspect that I’ve described in my career into the present moment so that we can start helping our collective humanity survive the changes that we’re seeing to our climate.

CW: How are data insights transforming an industry?

Dawn James: Right. And that’s a really good question because when I was in the field in construction, it was almost 30 years ago. So, there are a lot of advancements that have taken place in that time. And when I work with companies today, from the AEC sectors, the advancements using digital from a human health and safety standpoint, and also from a decisionmaking standpoint, the way that we’re digitizing grading plans and able to anticipate angle of reprose, how we’re building on hillside is night and day. The way we… When I was in the field, I was doing all my mapping by hand. I was doing all my cross sections with my drafting table and everything. And pasting everything on the wall so we could see all the sections across. Now when I go into these offices, everything’s on the computer. It’s all beautiful.

And the way that we’re able to anticipate the things that, like I said, that were extremely dangerous, have changed. And that absolutely comes from the ability to digitize. And not just the digitalization though, but it’s that enhanced human decision making. Being able to run a number of different scenarios that the human brain isn’t able to compute by itself, and then having a human on top of that, those run scenarios, be able to say, oh, okay, this makes sense. …

CW: Would you say looking at all of this right now, when we look at how Microsoft is helping just in general, in a company like Microsoft and others that are bringing energy and sustainability through digital transformation. It’s the idea of being able to resolve problems who are sharing of documents as you’re just describing, completing transactions, the negotiating of terms, the visibility. All of this data sharing is changing then the way because of that, we’re reducing things. We’re improving things that you almost couldn’t even imagine a decade or two decades ago that we could even have thought that was possible.

Dawn James: Yeah, no. The whole idea of digital industrial innovation, when we start looking…and I really do focus on the industrial space. And when we start talking about AEC, this infrastructure space, energy manufacturing to me, when we start talking about climate change mitigation and sustainability, these are the sectors that are going to turn the wheel. This is the thing that is going… When we start really focusing on that area, in which we are, and we start really leveraging that data, minimizing the silos, actually being able… Because right now we still have a data problem, right? We are better, but we still have a data problem. Being able to minimize the silos, being able to have these transparent work streams so that we can apply AI and ML. We start talking about asset maintenance then starting to move into the predictive capabilities. And then we can start talking really about these future innovations, being able to reduce and remove, talking about circular economy, reducing waste, infusing renewable energy into how we’re powering these sectors. And there’s a whole gamut of smart factories and refineries. When we’re talking about chemical processing plants, that sort of thing. All of this hinges on data. The acquisition and processing of that data.

CW: So, looking at it, your vision then for the future of energy and environmental science, how does it come together then?

Dawn James: Well, I think that what I’m seeing from an organizational standpoint, from the way that the markets are shifting, also from a geopolitical space, I think that in the near term, we’re seeing this race towards net zero by 2050. I’m seeing this kind of almost complete transition from coal. Now my desire, my hope, and my drumbeat is that as we’re making these transitions, as we’re having this race towards net zero, that we keep energy equity top of mind. That we are smarter about how we’re leveraging our resources, like I said before. That we’re cognizant. We’re listening to the geoscientists. We’re listening to the data that we’re creating a transparency around. Because data really isn’t political. Data is the data. So that we’re making this transparent system that breeds equity. And, I see also just as far as how organizations are changing and looking towards their shareholders, that promotion of clean energy, specifically around hydrogen green and blue, battery storage, CCS, CCUS. I see this whole desire.

Dawn James

Well, and I see this not just within the U.S., but across the world, this upgrade of the energy infrastructure that’s happening globally. And, we must…there is, again, this fierce urgency of, now we must get smarter about how we bring that together, how we bring this all together. Whether we’re talking about a universal grid from east to west coast, the coming together of government and private sector, with keeping top of mind those who have the least among us. If we don’t all get better, then none of us get better. And that’s also very key to some of Microsoft’s mission. We have our three P’s: people, planet, and profits. Leveraging the idea of profits so that we change behavior. But keeping in mind, number one, it’s about people. And number two, it’s about our planet. And so that we can start using those economic levers to scale. We have to keep in mind the reason why we’re here, the reason why we’re transitioning. And it’s not just about marketshare and that type of thing and satisfying our shareholders. But it’s leveraging those economic systems so that we can change behavior so that we can have the outcome for the betterment of all people.

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