With the sound of New York traffic raging noisily in the background, former pro-baseball player John Paul Farmer tells me he’s intent on finding new ways in which technology can make a difference to people’s lives. Lucky for him, he has the weight of Microsoft behind him.
Farmer, an ex-shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers, joined the tech giant last year, having spent four years working as a senior advisor for innovation at the White House.
Joining a large company wasn’t really on his agenda – he considered joining a startup or even setting up his own company – but this all changed after he met with Microsoft’s general counsel Brad Smith and corporate vice president Dan’l Lewin.
“Dan’l and Brad had this vision for how Microsoft – obviously a gigantic global company with billions of users – could engage in a really local way on civic issues. So, how could we use technology to address social problems?” he explained.
Farmer said it struck him as a really important mission, especially for such a big company with a colossal reach.
“The more I talked to them, the more I really came to believe that they had the right approach in mind.”
He became the company’s director of technology and civic innovation, and now heads up a team of 10 people in New York.
Blockchain and societal improvement
Farmer doesn’t have much time for bitcoin, the currency. “I find that to be the least interesting part of what bitcoin and the blockchain can do,” he explained.
He concedes cryptocurrency must be given some praise for bringing blockchain tech into the limelight, but he doesn’t spend much time thinking about that particular application of the technology.
“I actually spend most of my time thinking about what it means when you can have an identity that can be controlled and shared in a granular way, when you have titles and deeds that can be stored and shared easily and without middlemen.”
Farmer said, while blockchain technology has the potential to make a real difference in the developing world – helping the unbanked become banked for the first time – his interests lie closer to home.
He explained that, recently, he heard 25% of African-Americans – around 10 million people – don’t have a government-issued identification card.
“That is amazing, and there are states here that require you to show your identification card in order to vote. So the ability for these technologies to empower and enfranchise the disenfranchised here in the US and in the UK and in other developed countries, I think is also really really powerful.”
Farmer and his team work with a wide variety of sectors, including governments, academics, startups, for-profits, nonprofits and simply “anyone who wants to solve problems”.
He described the team’s work as being threefold: to participate, partner and produce.
Firstly, they utilise their presence in New York, making sure they’re involved in and aware of the goings-on in the community so they can identify ongoing issues and work on solutions.
In terms of developing partnerships to work on these solutions, Farmer said his team has been reaching out to other organisations, groups and individuals that are working on “interesting applications of technology”. Microsoft seeks to work with these people to bring their ideas to fruition.
Farmer has been in talks with the team over at MIT Media Labs’ Digital Currency Initiative, which is headed by his former White House colleague Brian Forde. For the time being, they’re still just engaging in early talks, but Farmer believes it’s “highly likely” the two groups will work together on projects.
He’s keen not to rushing into anything, taking his time to make sure his team forms partnerships with the right groups and projects within the blockchain space.
“Obviously there are a lot of people doing a lot of things to do with the blockchain, but we’re trying to find the ones where there’s a good fit and it makes sense, both for them and for us,” he explained.
In terms of what the team is producing, it’s very much still in the R&D stage when it comes to solutions based on blockchain technology. But any promising ideas will be trialled both within the company and within communities.
“We produce prototypes of what could exist and then we share those with the community externally, but also internally to the various product groups of Microsoft, to help those product groups imagine what could happen and what could really benefit end users,” Farmer said.
Regardless of how much, or little, progress Farmer’s team has made in the blockchain space, he knows his counterparts on other teams within Microsoft have made some real headway.
“They’re all further along than we are in terms of how they are using blockchain and how they’re thinking about integrating it. But our mission as a team within the company is very different. We’re specifically focused on how to use it for social good,” he added.
The company director said he’s been highly impressed by the innovation that has taken place in the blockchain arena so far and the calibre of people involved.
There are people in the space that he knows from the traditional finance world (Farmer previously held roles at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse) as well as highly accomplished academics, developers and “hardcore technologists”.
“It’s not one-sided, it’s not just one-dimensional, it actually bringing together people with a variety of perspectives and experiences, and that’s going to drive us all forward that much faster,” he concluded.