Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are centrally connected to sustainability issues. They are integrator’s of spatial information which originates from technologies and systems used to monitor, measure, map and model environments and systems related to sustainability issues.
Sustainability issues are increasingly in the public awareness today. This means that they are also higher on the business and political agenda. The trend is toward defining sustainable systems more closely within a framework of sustainable development, business processes and returns on investment – not just in terms of financial investment, but also the social impacts and health of the environments around us. We can call this sustainable living and we need to be active participants, not passive nomads.
Can you imagine trying to pull all the inter-connected pieces of information about our roads, land use, population demographics, rivers, buildings and oceans and so on into a few books or spreadsheets? It would be impossible, and this is before we even begin to analyse all that information and start the planning and communication processes necessary for investment and building toward the future.
GIS are particularly useful for integrating data about all of these features, and comparing them to help us understand what is around us. But that is not enough. A GIS cannot develop the strategy or plan on where we need to go sustainability wise, and they certainly cannot decide who must do what to make the hard decisions necessary to set us on the correct course. These decisions will become easier with higher quality and more accurate information.
The connection of GIS to sustainability today is of strategic value. Human beings are central to any sustainability strategy. People need more information about structures, environments and the situation around them – so they can make better decisions. It is not prudent to make sustainability decisions on business calculations alone. There is a growing need to understand why we are making particular decisions.
Correspondingly, we need to measure and monitor our neighbourhoods and land use better. We need more continuous and accurate estimates about the condition of infrastructure. And we need to understand how budgets connect to sustainable infrastructure and quality of life, more closely.
We know how to build roads, we know how to farm land, we know how to fish the oceans and we know how many buses its takes to move people. But how many bus departments know what the fish or agriculture department is doing? Does the railway stop at the local administrative boundary – and its funding too? If we need coal energy, how does it impact regional groundwater? Are the forest fires here this year, due to lack of snow 300 kilometers away? If there is no snow, how does that impact tourism anyhow – what are the repercussions of that? What is all this talk about climate change and how does it really translate into the numbers of roads and cars we are trying to support, and would greater investment in high-speed transit make more sense?
What is our responsibility for non-sustainable development in distant lands? Are we like ostrich and burying our heads, or are we adhering to similar practices in a global sense?
When we begin to look at and address issues in these kinds of ways, then we can leverage GIS to help in our understanding, management and decision making processes – more effectively – toward sustainability in a strategic way. These are tough questions. We need the best tools to help us.
I want to end this with one point which has been on my mind a long time. I firmly believe that if we get the infrastructure part right, meaning that we invest in a core set of needed infrastructure, then we will be solving a large part of the environmental and sustainability issues. In other words, investment and development will equate to solution - if done right. GIS will be part of defining that core.
In a previous Perspectives post Jeff and I tackled the question, “How are spatial tools integrated into the process of sustainable development?”
This week’s question singles out GIS and its connection with
sustainability. While earlier we were talking about the spatial tools
suite, it’s a necessary exercise to single out GIS because of its
GIS has a huge role to play in the stewardship of our planet. GIS
projects have already contributed a great deal toward understanding and
quantifying what is meant by sustainability, and will continue to
contribute to our understanding of Earth systems interaction. But to
date there hasn’t been much geospatial community or GIS vendor action
to create multidisciplinary workflows or toolsets that specifically
Sustainable development is at the confluence of economic vitality,
healthy communities and sustaining the environment. Sustainable
development also must relate to meeting present needs with a great deal
of forethought to future needs. There are a lot of metrics to follow
and quantify at all scales of sustainable development, and there’s a
need to integrate information from disparate systems and sensors in
order to understand the large picture. A robust data handling and
visual communication system is the most efficient means to arrive at a
consensus, and this is where GIS shines.
At the building level there is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
standard for what constitutes a green building from the U.S. Green
Building Council (USGBC). It’s a nationally accepted benchmark of
standards for the design, construction and operation of highly
efficient green buildings. The metrics for LEED are easily quantifiable
and are being incorporated into Building Information Modeling tools so
that designers gain instant feedback on the efficiency of their designs
before anything is constructed.
There are also LEED metrics for what constitutes a sustainable site,
with guidelines on site selection and connection to community. Such
elements as community connectivity, brownfield redevelopment and
connections to alternative transportation factor into a site’s rating.
There are also provisions for pollution prevention during construction,
protection and restoration of habitat and maximizing open space.
Stormawater design, the heat island effect and light pollution also
factor in. The American Society for Landscape Architects is working to
expand the USGBC site metrics for its practitioners so that the
standards go well beyond sites where buildings are the critical
ASLA is looking to apply site-rating tools at a larger scale such as
recreation areas, leisure parks, cultural landscapes, ecological
restorations, and utility and transportation corridors. There’s a draft
tool for rating sites that’s currently under consideration, with time
for comment (see the Sustainable Sites Initiative
website for details). There’s also a LEED for Neighborhood Development
standard that has been released in draft form by USGBC that will create
new standards for community-scale projects.
Why not expand these metrics to even larger scales of community,
region, ecosystem, watershed, etc.? These standards are an effective
way to foster cross-disciplinary consensus on metrics that can be
easily measured by software systems. The fostering of standards
provides motivation and guidance to achieve the best possible outcomes.
The process of developing and maintaining standards instills
collaboration by inclusion of multiple stakeholders throughout.
The inclusion of benchmarks such as the LEED standards within our
systems serves to check and compare our progress against established
and measurable metrics. The scoring system lends itself well to
establishing system architectures that would allow us to easily gauge
our progress on multiple scales.
Autodesk recently showcased a Green Design Dashboard to continually
calculate the factors that affect the overall LEED score throughout the
building design process. This tool will monitor such things as energy
use, water use, storm water runoff, carbon footprint and daylighting on
a real-time basis in order to inform designers of the overall impact of
their structure as they design it. The underlying BIM modeling tool
A sustainability dashboard for sites makes good sense, and GIS is
the natural tool to fill this space. It wouldn’t take much to
incorporate LEED standards for sites into GIS tools for sites. This
could be administered at the individual site level or could be
incorporated into a city oversight for a collaborative toolset that
serves a broader region.
System of Systems Approach
At the larger scale of state/province or country levels a system of
systems approach comes into play. Canada has been a thought leader on
this from the inception of GIS through to today with the implementation
of the National Land and Water Information Service. This Internet-based
geospatial service provides online access to water and
agri-environmental information to help citizens make responsible
From its inception, NLWIS took a collaborative approach tat
established multiple partnerships with federal players, non-government
organizations, industry groups and academic institutions. The GIS
technology framework that conforms to national standards and
specifications ensures that the service scales effectively to meet its
Large system of system frameworks can effectively scale the idea of
dashboard metrics to much broader areas. NLWIS provides geospatial
information and decision-support tools to stakeholders at local and
regional scales while improving national data collection standards,
analysis capabilities and reporting. By establishing this standardized
framework across the country, the system can then be leveraged to
support much broader environmental goals in subsequent iterations.
In a recent blog post
I highlighted the ‘Human-Centric’ map that recognizes that we’re the
ultimate ecosystem engineers, given that more than 80% of the Earth’s
surface has been fundamentally altered by our actions. I find this
approach to be a healthy adjustment to prior ecosystem-centric thinking.
It’s time to quantify our actions and our impacts on a global scale.
GIS provides the toolsets and framework for organizing
multi-disciplinary information at all scales. GIS also provides the
collaborative framework for data collection and analysis in order to
quantify any remediary actions.
While GIS has made inroads in multiple disciplines that are all
concerned with sustainability, the true test and power of the tools
will be in combining these various views into a collective and holistic
approach at ever-broadening scales.