On a recent visit to Battery Ventures’ Boston office, BP’s Bob Flint sat down with me for a conversation on emerging technology. This is a space that Bob knows well, as he serves as the technology director in BP’s Digital Innovation Organization. He was kind enough to share thoughts across a wide range of topics from sourcing innovation to key interest areas for his team.
What is the role of the Digital Innovation Organization within BP?
The energy industry is changing faster than at any time in our lifetime, driven in part by technology innovation. With the increasing pace of change it is essential that we spot the next waves of opportunities and developments. In the Digital Innovation Organization (DIO) we focus on exactly that; we operate at the furthest possible edge of digital innovation, working with BP teams, academic institutions and start-up companies, among others, to scan the horizon for just such possibilities.
What has been the evolution of the DIO at BP?
We have proven out a model where we identify new digital innovations, run proof-of-concept and pilot projects with the business, and then help scale up the ones with the most potential. One evolution is that we also increasingly help shape business strategy, as digital innovation is becoming a core area of differentiation and is zooming up the priority list. It’s also a key component of BP’s lower carbon energy transition, which helps create new business opportunities, working alongside our colleagues in BP Ventures too.
How do you surface technologies and connect them to challenges in the business?
We maintain a “Horizons Chart” of the most disruptive digital innovations, and use this as our north star to guide our activities. We start with the far horizon, innovations which are still nascent but which are clearly capable of major impact, and we look to understand how they work, what they’re capable of (and what they’re not!) and how they’re likely to develop in future. All of our Technology Directors – I am one of five – own a different set of technologies where we provide expert leadership to these areas, as well as run experiments with our business and partners to help explore and adopt them.
What are BP’s biggest points of friction technology-wise?
Digital technologies are a key enabler and will transform the exploration and production of oil and gas, which is our core business. Digital is also creating wholesale change in vehicle technology in areas such as autonomy, changing the market and ecosystem for our fuels and lubricants. Overall, we’ve identified that digital technology is the most significant source of potential efficiency improvements across the whole energy system; it has the potential to deliver a more sustainable future.
What developments are you looking for over the horizon?
Our current focus areas include cognitive computing, advanced distributed ledger technologies (including blockchain) and robotics. We consider AI in levels of increasing sophistication, with cognitive intelligence at the top; that’s why BP recently invested in Beyond Limits, a company that is developing advanced cognitive systems that have been used in space exploration. We believe distributed ledgers could make all kinds of transaction much more efficient in terms of speed and verification. And in robotics, we are examining new technologies including autonomous machines, digital sensors and analytics to transform activities like inspection.
How are advances in data science transforming O&G?
Our operations produce vast amounts of “big data”. But by itself, data is pretty useless; it’s about having sophisticated algorithms to drive insight and actionable intelligence. AI can do this, and is therefore one of the most critical digital technologies to drive new levels of performance in our industry – for example, by identifying interventions or optimizing maintenance programs. We’ve seen examples where, if you get the right data in the right hands, there are significant cost efficiencies in terms of revamping our processes.
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