The inside story of how the microchip maker prioritises teamwork to drive access to educational tools around the world
You may not have heard of it, but if you've ever used a smartphone or tablet you've almost certainly used a microchip designed by tech firm Arm.
The Cambridge-based company's processors are quietly ubiquitous around the world, commanding a 95 per cent share of the global smartphone market.
The firm's business model, which sees Arm license its products rather than manufacturing them directly, has propelled Arm to the top of the microprocessor pile and affords it unparalled influence in the global tech industry.
Alongside striking favourable business deals, this market muscle means Arm is in a unique position to agree partnerships with other firms to drive social, environmental, and ethical progress in the tech world, says Dominic Vergine, Arm's head of sustainability and corporate responsibility.
In December 2017 Arm and a number of organisations, including the British Council and the UN Global Compact, launched 2030 Vision, a project to drive the use of technology to deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and unlock their commercial opportunities - including the significant opportunities around education.
"I think we're creating a movement around technology for the goals, and we're now starting to see companies that haven't been looking at them before join with us," says Vergine of the project.
In his view, there is a social and moral imperative for action on the SDGs, but also a strong business case. For example, Urban Tech Bets, a project involving Arm and UNICEF, identifies markets in digital technologies which have positive social impacts for children and families in cities worth billions of dollars, and then highlights the crucial role global tech players can have in stimulating those markets and improving digital access and opportunities.
As well as its direct commercial opportunities, good quality education is essential for building a future pipeline of talent for businesses. To this end, Arm is one of several tech companies trying to help bridge the gap in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills that the tech industry relies on.
It was the first UK company to support Code Club, which provides free after-school coding lessons for 9 to 12 year olds, and was instrumental in the foundation of the cheap programmable computer Raspberry Pi. Its current efforts focus on the micro:bit, another tiny programmable computer suitable for even younger children, with a pilot project underway to see how it could be used to further the SDGs. In partnership with the BBC, the micro:bit is being rolled out to year 7 pupils across the UK to encourage them to experiment with live coding, including playing with lighting, Bluetooth communications, and motion detectors.
"Something we found consistently in our education for STEM work is that if you put the real world, the social impact, into advanced technology teaching then it engages the girls and more of the boys," Vergine explains.
The hope is these children could grow up to be the code creators of the future, driving progress in low-carbon technologies such as electric and driverless vehicles, smart home electronics, and sustainable material design.
Arm is trying to amplify these educational efforts through projects such as the World's Largest Lesson, which introduces children to the SDGs in the classroom. Because the scheme has relationships with education ministers and a partnership with UNICEF, Vergine believes it could be a valuable way to scale its impact. "Through them we can start bringing technology like the Microbit and some of our materials through the Arm education programme to a much wider audience," he says.
Another particular project where Arm has used its partnership approach is with US non-profit Amplio, which has developed a 'Talking Book' audio device to share skills and knowledge in communities where literacy and electricity are as scarce as money. It gives advice on topics such as hygiene, health, and agricultural practices, all of which can serve to support the SDGs.
"We have a responsibility as well as an opportunity in the private sector not to simply ape what is going on with traditional donors but to do something different," says Vergine. With Amplio that meant helping to scale the Talking Book project from eight villages to half a million people in northern Ghana.
Arm now wants to use its access to larger bodies to help Amplio grow further, for example by introducing the Talking Book concept to the World Health Organization (WHO).
For Vergine, the SDGs are a useful common language for seemingly disparate organisations to come together in pursuit of a shared purpose. "For example, I met with a large food beverage company and because we're both working towards the goals we have an immediate frame of reference," he says. "That's enormously helpful. We're coming from totally different sectors and operations but we can talk about the same thing. It's a global language to talk about development - and a language to talk about future business."
Arm may be busy working to expand educational opportunities through the power of technology, but it's only the beginning of the journey, according to Vergine. "The opportunity is so great that we've really just scratched the surface."