Environmental Change, globalization and ICT


Models and our understanding the dynamics of the Earth system

Our understanding of climate change is due to thirty-odd years of research that combined empirical observations (ice-core analysis; monitoring of (ant)arctic ice sheets and glaciers, average annual temperatures, etc.) into models of the atmospheric dynamics, including incident radiation, CO2, NO2 and other gas concentrations in the atmosphere, etc. In that enterprise, modern computing plays an essential role – without it we would not have been able to combine the various sources of information into a dynamic theory that was able to explain what is happening. The results have been the basis for the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, and have thus drawn worldwide attention to the topic. An important aspect of this work is the modeling without which we would not have been able to gain a glimpse of what might be happening in the future.

From an ICT perspective, it is noteworthy that this research as in fact used some of the biggest computers on Earth, and has led to the development of very sophisticated mathematical and empirical modeling software in centers such as the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the USA and the Hadley center in the UK.

Worldwide, projects such as the AIMES component of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (and its predecessors) have over the last ten to twelve years begun an ambitious attempt to include other flows and dynamics of the Earth system in these models.

The relevance of this effort is attested in the prominence more recently accorded to the concept of ‘planetary boundaries’ – the idea that there are a number of other, interrelated, domains where human activity has pushed the natural dynamics of the Earth system to the point that equilibria that have persisted since the beginning of the Holocene are likely to be fundamentally undermined (Rockström et al, 2009). Some of these domains are ocean acidification and sea level rise, freshwater use, chemical pollution of the terrestrial ecosystem, biodiversity and ecosystem services, etc. The result could be that rapid changes in each of these domains would start interacting with each other, and tip the Earth system as a whole out of its current basin of attraction.

The models and data used to derive the understanding of these other planetary boundaries has thus far been developed in an ad-hoc and sectorial fashion, so that the potential interactions between these phenomena are far from clear. Efforts are needed to remedy this, by building models that can integrate the dynamics of the various sectors. This in itself will be a major challenge in the ICT domain, not so much concerning hardware as in developing the software to achieve this.

In the context of the restructured ‘Future Earth’ program, which will succeed the existing Global Environmental Change Programs of the International Scientific Union (ICSU), and is co-funded by a range of national and international funding agencies, scientists across the world are now beginning to set the next step: including human social dynamics in these models. This requires a change of scale. Whereas atmospheric and hydrospheric dynamics can in first approximation be modeled at the global scale, that is not the case for the societal dynamics. These differ economically, technologically, culturally and institutionally so much across the globe that the scale at which they are first explored is necessarily regional.

All this poses number of important challenges to ICT:

  • The downscaling of the atmospheric and hydrospheric models to the regional (or even sub-regional or local) scale,
  • The up-scaling of ecological and other environmental models to the regional scale
  • The development of models of societal dynamics in all their complexity in real space-time.
  • As these models cannot be built top-down, underpinning any such efforts will require massive data collection and monitoring, by a wide range of means, in different environments and among different societies.
  • Two kinds of data can be distinguished: behavioral data and perceptual data.
  • The former can generally be captured by a wide range of sensors
  • The latter can only be gathered by direct interaction with the people concerned, in experimental or other situations, or through crowdsourcing
    • Finally, this will require a massive intellectual effort to compatibly bring together information that has been assembled in different contexts, by different disciplines, and with approaches rooted in different epistemologies.  

Not only do we believe that these challenges can be met, we would argue that meeting them is a question of survival for our mode of life. If we do not meet them, the environment will change and find a new set of equilibria, but there is an important risk that our societies will not in time be able to achieve the resilience necessary to deal which these changes.


Transforming our culture to integrate the challenges

The potential consequences of climate and environmental change have been known for decades, whether due to human activity or not, but very little has been done about them thus far. This is a classic ‘collective action’ challenge – how do we mobilize sufficient interest, and create the necessary sense of urgency, to trigger collective action. It is complicated by the fact that the change in culture and mindset required is massive, and by the fact that there is no ‘fixed point’ outside our cultures to leverage against. Under this heading, we distinguish between action and the research needed to focus that action effectively.


We argue that in this domain our next step is to identify the core themes that can energize the transition to a sustainable society and the role ICT can play in that project. Though much Global Environmental Change research to date has been focused on understanding the dynamics that drove our world to the present predicament, much less effort has been devoted to thinking about ways to get us out of it. Moreover, the social sciences have thus far insufficiently been involved because the challenges defined by the research community were not formulated as social science challenges. Preparing and guiding the sustainability transition, however, is essentially a social science challenge, even though many other disciplines are involved in determining the context for that transition.

The core question we must ask is: ‘Why is it that so much knowledge and publicity about sustainability at so many levels has led to so little action?’ That question has a number of different components at various levels, going from the cognitive to the cultural, to the institutional, which we will not elaborate here:

  • The path-dependency of our societies
  • The difficulties of preparing for and dealing with major catastrophes,
  • The difficulty of anticipating unintended consequences,  
  • The role of technology in our society and our (over-) confidence in it,
  • The difficulty of anticipating how societal dynamics will impact on our life, etc.

We are not arguing that there are immediate answers to these challenges; nor that we see a clear path for an ICT contribution to them. There is certainly the space and the opportunity for such a contribution, but implementing it must go hand in hand with some important developments in theory development, and the exact implementation will depend on how this shapes up.

Next we must ask a series of questions about the nature of the transition that we wish to effectuate:

  • Should we aim for a rapid ‘quantum jump’ transition or for a slow and incremental one?
  • Should this be driven ‘bottom up’ or ‘top down’ or maybe ‘sandwiched’ between the two?
  • How do we upscale the ‘bottom up’ elements and downscale the ‘top down’ approaches so that they are adapted to local circumstances?

Once we have done this, we must raise the issue of how to instantiate this transition? That, again, gives rise to a host of questions:

  • How would we frame normative goals? There is a troika around values, economics and institutions, but is that enough?
  • How would we “create an ethic of stewardship” or a “feeling of community”?
  • How would we confront cultural and social value differences? One cannot impose any cross-cultural specific practice because of such differences.
  • Would one use tools integrating persuasion, dialogue, policy debate, culture and custom?
  • How can we identify innovative and exciting accelerators of change?
  • Could we build positive, plausible scenarios for transition to a sustainable society that could provide a framework for future research.
  • Would we need to explore how to deconstruct institutions?
  • What strategies for avoidance, adaptation, and transformation are effective at large scales?

All of these questions involve studying the structure and dynamics of alternative futures, and therefore involve a much more systematic exploration of models and scenarios, in which ICT will play an essential role. We have thus far not systematically harnessed the power of computing to the exploration of multiple societal futures. As a result, most of our reactions to potential societal futures are underdetermined by our observations, and over-determined by responses derived from past situations, which are in- and of themselves path-dependent and inadequate. That needs to change, and that requires re-thinking how we use ICT with respect to global environmental change, moving from learning from the past to learning for the future (van der Leeuw et al., 2011).

Action issues

Action needs to happen at all levels of society, and in the following few lines, we can only highlight a few areas. All of them can hugely profit from ICT developments, because these will enable better data-driven decision-making, but such developments have to go hand in hand with a study of their potential impact on society, including their unintended consequences.

We need to improve how governments, at all levels, create and manage different policies and other tools that promote sustainability. The difficulty is in combining the ethical and environmental dimensions with the economic and social ones, and in identifying the tradeoffs and making the correct decisions about them. Clearly, this cannot happen in a uniform way across the globe – but ICT tools can be developed that look at trade-offs scientifically and rationally, and thus facilitate decision-making, and these can be propagated as ‘best practices’. An approach that may further this goal is to improve the connection between government and civil society using ICT to effectuate “emergence by design”, combining data mining of movements and ideas emerging in civil society with a top-down selection process that moves us in the right direction.

The most likely response from the business community would be to commandeer the sustainability movement so that it may be at worst controlled, and at best turned to a profit. This is clearly evident in “green-washing”, and is one reason for the wide, and biased, publicity regarding the term sustainability. Business “brands” the movement as its own, takes charge of it, takes the wind out of it, makes it harmless, and if possible even makes some money off of it. Can this tendency be transformed into a serious attempt at promoting sustainability? There is reluctance to pursue this thread because it is admittedly cynical, but it is also the way of the real world. If we are to move in the right direction, involving business as best we can is an urgent task.

The economics of “rational behavior” are a problem within each culture, but particularly within our own. Standard economic definitions of rationality pose individuals as self-interested utility maximizers. There is nothing irrational about ignoring a call to sustainability if it leads to a reduction in utility (i.e. well-being, wealth, etc.). The rational choice is to carry on with business as usual, thus the social dilemma and collective action problem embodied by the prisoners’ dilemma. It is clear from behavioral economics that the standard neo-classical definition of rationality is inadequate. Its major inadequacy is its failure to consider relative standing and interdependent preferences.

We must engage our societies’ full innovative capacity in the task at hand. We must find ways to both focus that capacity and to accelerate it. The unbridled innovation of the last few centuries, driven by the desire to create value for our economies, is to an important extent responsible for our current predicament. We need to re-focus innovation by always taking its potential environmental consequences into account, and we need to develop pathways to accelerate such sustainability-focused innovation, removing bottlenecks and barriers. We are not very good at either of these, and have to rapidly develop the know-how to improve that situation.

Action tools

What might be some of the avenues by which we could approach these challenges? An important tool is, of course, education. We teach in general along principles that date back at least half a century, if not more (in certain disciplines). One important innovation would be the systematic introduction of ICT-based models in education from a very early age, as this trains people to think in alternative solutions, and therefore stimulates both critical thinking, and searching for multiple solutions. The tools are available in the gaming industry, but the teaching profession has so far not made adequate use of them.

Another important tool would be the systematic introduction of art and creativity in schooling throughout life, as this favors multi-dimensional and intuitive thinking as opposed to current linear, rational thinking. Here, the ICT multimedia industry has wonderful tools to help this kind of development. Moreover, by combining such tools into a kind of interactive and personalized online teaching that is very different from the kind that most schools and universities in the US practice today, it will be possible to reach a vastly larger population with these ideas and tools at low cost, and that kind of leverage would in itself be an important positive factor in achieving a transition to a sustainability culture.

One could argue that a major factor in the non-emergence of a collective movement towards a sustainability culture has been the failure of the scientific community to adopt effective communication strategies. The messaging has been in terms of a more or less uniform ‘scientific truth’, and people who did not understand that message in the form presented were not addressed. This opened the way for powerful lobbies to sow doubt in many people’s minds about the veracity of the scientific message, whereas in other cases, the message was simply ignored because of a fundamental disbelief in science.

Network ICT, coupled with ‘big’ social data availability about the population of North America, for example, now offers the possibility to craft messages that address the core issues for a multitude of subsets of the population, and thus adapting the message to many different world views beyond the rationalist scientific one. In order to exploit those possibilities, it would be interesting to combine the ‘big data’ social databases – some of which characterize each individual according to up to 500 traits – with extensive data mining among the discussions going on in the social media. That should enable us at low cost to gather the information necessary to craft appropriate messages to all sectors of the population.

Crafting these narratives will be an activity in its own right, using all means of communication but also extensive creativity. It will have to be based on substantive knowledge of how sustainability issues are perceived, and how that perception changes under the impact of education and communication. For this purpose, one could develop other kinds of ICT tools, which dynamically integrate environmental change scenarios with regional economic and societal dynamics in order to help stakeholders understand how environmental change is going to impact their businesses and themselves personally. From the interaction between such tools and the stakeholders consulting them one can learn the latter’s perception of the issues concerned, and monitor how that changes over time.

The third major topic in this series is that of engagement in the transition to sustainability. Without such engagement, the desired mindset change will be much slower to emerge.Hence, the crucial issue is: how do we optimally engage our societies in this transformation?

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