Microsoft President Brad Smith
“I think it was really the optimism that we feel about the Greek economy as we look ahead to this decade. We were persuaded by the case the prime minister made about the importance of Greece,” notes Smith, describing the talks with Premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the government to reach the deal.
Smith also expresses certainty that Microsoft’s investment – the biggest it has ever made in Greece – will serve as an “enabler for the next generation of economic growth and job creation.”
Could you tell us a bit more about the investment you announced and how long it is going to take to be fully developed?
Let me start with the narrow point and then go to the broader implications. What we announced is that we are going to be building data centers in Greece. This will, in the first instance, involve large construction projects, because modern data centers involve getting the land, building, getting leading server technology and batteries and generators and fiber-optic cables. It is typically a two- to three-year project from the announcement on a day like today to completion, where you turn on the switch and the cloud is working within Greece.
I think what’s more interesting is the impacts, the implications. It’s obviously a big investment, by far the largest investment that Microsoft has ever made in Greece. Just the capital expenditure alone is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and there’s more on top of that. Far more important than the construction project or the investment level, I think, is the role this plays as 21st century infrastructure for Greece’s growth as a digital economy. It means that businesses, the government and consumers in Greece will be able to access cloud services at almost instantaneous speed. Right now, the country is served by data centers in Amsterdam or Dublin, so people are going to see that services are available at the blink of an eye, if not faster. Cloud services are going to be much more accessible to people across Greece, the data created by people and businesses in Greece is going to be stored in Greece and people are going to be protected by privacy that is part of Greek law. I think more than anything it should be thought of as an enabler for the next generation of economic growth and job creation.
Can you give us a sense of how it all started? It was partly at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, right?
That’s really where the conversation began. I met with the prime minister in Davos as I had some ideas that I wanted to share with him. One of them was trying to pursue something around artificial intelligence and cultural heritage. That led to a project in Olympia. But he very much put on the table the idea of having Microsoft build data centers in Greece.
I think in some ways we were fortunate to meet before Covid; I think it’s a harder topic to begin by video, because it’s such a big investment and the issues are so complex, you really have to think about how you work together. It involves so many parts of Microsoft and so many parts of the Greek government. I think we were fortunate that five weeks later I had a trip to Greece. We were going to Olympia and then went to Athens and met with the prime minister again in person. That’s when we began on the different aspects of the data center project, on what it would mean for us to find the right land, get the right permits and the right access to fiber-optic cables and capacity. That was a very good conversation, so I left in February thinking, “let’s see if we can do more.” Then we met twice by video and that was good because if we hadn’t experienced Covid, we wouldn’t have been as quick to turn to video meetings. We met in May and July and said, “let’s see if we can get this advanced so that it can be announced at the time of the Athens Democracy Forum.” I was so resolute that I wanted to come, at least if there were going to be speakers in person.
There’s nothing better than a good deadline to force people to act, at least at Microsoft. So, we kept at it as there was a large number of people across the Greek government involved, and we had a final meeting two weeks ago to make sure all the hurdles had been cleared. So, it’s a big day today. It culminates a lot of work to get to this point, but it’s also the first day of the rest of our lives – now we have to actually get to work and build these.
Did Greece have to compete with other countries?
Definitely yes. There are 190 countries and there might be a day in the distant future where most countries will have a data center, but that’s many decades away. This is our first data center in Southeast Europe, in this part of the Mediterranean, so we thought about different places.
I think it was really the optimism that we feel about the Greek economy as we look ahead to this decade. We were also persuaded by the case the prime minister made about the importance of Greece, the Greek government and how policy is now put into place. I think the very strong success of Greece so far even in managing Covid-19 was not lost on us. Greece went through a difficult decade but has emerged from those difficult years with new strength. From our perspective, this gives rise to new optimism and that was vital for an investment so large.
Let me ask about the Olympia project. How is it going to work?
Imagine going to visit the site in Olympia, taking out your phone and running this app that is being developed by Microsoft and gifted to Greece, in partnership with the Ministry of Culture. What you’ll see is the way Olympia looks now, as if you were using your camera, but also superimposed holographic augmented reality that will show you what the buildings looked like in ancient times, what the interiors, the statues, looked like. It’s really designed to allow people to walk through the present and see the past. In addition, there’ll be information to help people learn about what they are seeing. So, in a very real but virtual way, this artificial intelligence will bring the past to life in a way people haven’t experienced before. We see it as something very exciting and important for Olympia. I think you can also see what the future of tourism may look like across Greece.
We have the opportunity, with these data centers and all these new investments, to create a new ecosystem of software developers. Imagine going from site to site in Athens with the phones we all use and seeing Athens in a new way. Or going to the Pnyx and seeing not only what it looked like in the 5th but also in the 4th century, because it looked different. It’ll help us all learn more, it will create local jobs in technology but also create added opportunities in local tourism. We’re focused on the phone, but we are also focused on the web, to make this accessible to more people. Especially as we get to the next Olympics in Japan, it’s an opportunity to use the Olympics to showcase this project, to showcase Olympia and the Olympic spirit that was born in Greece.