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Jeff Thurston — “Issues related to scale are centrally important in sustainability planning and associated technology toolsets and occurs both in time and space. People working in the geospatial industry need to be aware of scale at all times because it is defined uniquely and often applied with application and use in mind.”

Matt Ball — “While sustainability issues are a global problem, they can be better addressed and understood when parsed by scale. By taking a global, regional and local look at the problems, it’s easiest to assign responsibilities. And, the way that the issues of sustainability are assessed are distinctly different at these three different scales.”


Issues related to scale are centrally important in sustainability planning and associated technology toolsets and occurs both in time and space. People working in the geospatial industry need to be aware of scale at all times because it is defined uniquely and often applied with application and use in mind.

Depending upon how big (or small) we see the daily world we live in can be considered a reflection of the scale that we choose to live our lives. Most of us cross many scales each day.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of large-scale and small-scale at this time, and what they mean to different groups. For this article when I talk about large-scale I mean a large area. Alternatively, when I talk about small-scale I am referring to a small area.

Why scale?
Scale is not something a bunch of people got together to decide about. It is naturally occurring all around us. Buildings, trees, roads, oceans, air quality, climate change and parks and other objects and features exist on different scales. We can choose to classify the scale of these features according to their relative size and we often do without thinking about it too much. “The building on the left is bigger than the building beside it, which is smaller than the building down there on the right” or “the forest covers a large area, I think it might cover a larger territory than the city.”

We scale items both consciously and unconsciously. It helps us to identify them. It helps us to relate to them and it helps us to also locate them. By scaling features we are subjectively classing them into a reference system each of us understands. If we share a language and reference system between us, then we relate to them in similar ways and understand their unique attributes in similar ways.

“We are going to plan our neighborhood. We would like more trees than people, better bus service and fewer large trucks on the roads nearby.” Here we are identifying an area we call a neighborhood and assigning services we wish to enjoy and some we do not, by scale.”

But what does ‘nearby’ actually mean? We don’t really have a concept of this for understanding together, although we might quantify it more closely by assigning nearby to mean ‘3 kilometers’ or some other distance. If I put you in an airplane with a pencil and paper and fly you over your own neighborhood, could you draw it? Immediately you are faced with the reality of having to scale all that you know (on the ground) size wise and distance wise, to a piece of paper. It sounds simple to do, but I would bet 5 Euro of Matt Ball’s money that many of us would create some interesting abstract art.

This is why scale matters. You need a way to draw on that paper from far away, what you know to be true on the ground. The idea is to relate the air to the ground and reality to the paper.

Here is where interesting stuff starts to happen. Let’s say you don’t know where the ground is. That is, it is not accurately measured from the airplane or in relation to itself elevation wise. In all likelihood your drawing would be erroneous as well because scale is pretty straightforward on flat land, but what about when the terrain changes and goes up and down? I suppose this is where a good radar generated digital terrain model (DTM) comes in.

Let’s say you have a software package that can extract features from imagery. Then you can generate a map with all the buildings, roads and so on, without having to fly at all. The software will do it and probably draw something much more attractive than you could, and quicker – and to scale. Is this a good reason for buying a software that does this perhaps? Something to consider.

Scale is about representing the earth and reality to a map, paper, display screen or some other surface. Without scale we cannot locate features properly, understand them independently or collectively and we certainly cannot understand their relationship to each other.

Rule #1 – scale is a reality representation.

Processes and systems
Most of us understand that things connect to each other. Oil comes from the ground and is processed in refineries. It is shipped in trucks to stations and from there it is sold to each of us for our autos. We travel to the beach burning the petrol which causes gases to go into the air, warming the climate and creating environmental issues that impact the stock market. This in turn raises the price of oil and gas causing us to ask our employer’s for a raise in pay. That results in a firm – ‘No’ – which causes each of us to take the bus to work, meaning we wake up earlier and miss breakfast and forget to shave. I’m sure you get the point.

The same system of inter-relationships exists between biological systems or networked transport distribution systems. The quest and challenge is to balance the workflow and processes across the entire spectrum of relationships (remember relationships are part of scale as mentioned above). Consequently, the processes of any function, biological, networked, closed or open etc. – can all be optimised toward higher efficiency.

This saves energy. Saves time. Saves cost. And usually makes more customers smile. That is a good thing in most places.

Rule #2 – Processes, workflows and systems scale and can be optimised to gain greater efficiency.

Local to global
If we know processes cross scales then it is almost certain that they cross provinces, states, countries and oceans. “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone care?” Maybe in Brussels or Washington, but you can be pretty sure they will care if it falls on their car or house. What happens locally is where each of us witnesses impacts the greatest, they influence each of us personally and can sometimes be mitigated by our actions. Moving up the scale toward the state or nation though, our sense of personal impact may at times be strained and difficult to assess and see. Nevertheless, if our representations (going back to scale and understanding) are shared and accurate with others interpretations, then our sense of impact and sense of empowerment to work toward common goals is increased and likely more visible – and effective.

Rule #3 – Understanding reality and sharing it in the same context means more of us hear the trees falling together. (which leads to standardisation, quality etc.)

The technologies of sustainability
I see geospatial technologies as integral components to understanding and representing our earth. Whether we look at problems and issues locally or through to a global context, geospatial technologies are the tools which we use to collect data for describing the earth’s processes and systems. They enable us to represent the features and all that we see and relate to in a common way of understanding. This provides the canvas against which we build neighborhoods, cities, homes and regions, balancing them and optimising them for greater efficiency.

To achieve this our tools must work in harmony, they do not have to do the same things but they do need to be able to integrate data and information in such a way that we can scale and classify it for use as we need to, in ways that help us to understand, interpret and decide better.

So how does all this relate to current technological directions?

The internet is the conduit through which sustainability data and information will flow. Data from all scales and times will be collected. Ideally people will be able to collate and integrate whatever pieces they wish to, to build and paint their own pictures of the earth, their own understanding. Some of the pictures will be more defined, pertaining to physical processes and science. Other pictures will be more sociological in nature, often including personal attributes and information for fun, entertainment or play. Conceptually, we need both kinds of data and both kinds of interactions, they are present and reality.

I don’t see the process as moving from local to global scale necessarily. The process is interactive, dynamic and continually flowing between scales, back and forth and dependent upon different interactions.

Sustainability is about using our tools to balance all these interactions so they, or others like them, can continue infinitely.

While sustainability issues are a global problem, they can be better addressed and understood when parsed by scale. By taking a global, regional and local look at the problems, it’s easiest to assign responsibilities. And, the way that the issues of sustainability are assessed are distinctly different at these three different scales.

Sustainability from a spatial process approach is a matter of function. If you’re assessing water quality issues, there are typically inputs and analysis at the global hydrosphere scale, at the regional watershed scale, and at the local drinking water scale. Each level of assessment and management requires different monitoring techniques, science and technology tools—yet it will be increasingly critical to weave together the observations at different scales to gain better insight into complex systems.

In order to illustrate the scale-based approaches and toolset, I’ll focus in on the monitoring and remediation of greenhouse gas emissions at the three different scales. While this is just one of many sustainability issues, the discussion of this problem at all three scales can be extrapolated to other issues.


Tackling greenhouse gas from the global perspective deals with large system science. The increasing levels of greenhouse gases are measured and monitored in the atmosphere through a large network of observations. Observations are fed into large-scale complex climate models to understand the global effects that global warming have on climate, weather and oceans.

While it’s been scientifically proven that the build-up of gases has raised the global temperature, and the feedback loop will compound temperature rise, it’s still not clear what the repercussions are on the biosphere. The effect on plants, trees and species needs to be assessed and aggregated on the global scale. Collaboration between scientists around the world is critical in order to get a handle on the large-scale picture.

The web of remote sensing satellites and other sensor networks provide the tools to give us big-picture measurements of how the changing atmosphere is affecting Earth’s surface. While computer models have come a long way, we have yet to adequately model the complex systems of our planet. There’s a growing need to pull together our knowledge and to share insights in order to prioritize our actions.

Carbon markets are one means for a global response to greenhouse gas emissions. This tool will require large-scale assessments of the world’s forests and other carbon sinks that can be traded to offset carbon emissions. The geospatial toolset is uniquely poised to measure and monitor the performance of the emerging carbon market.


When we get to the regional and local level, there’s greater opportunity for action through policy. Mandates are a likely necessity to change how we manage our impacts.

Regional monitoring and modeling allows us to understand the inefficiencies of our transportation and logistics networks, which are largely responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Through better monitoring and analysis of the emissions from our vehicles, we’ll see the need for greater efficiencies. We’ll also gain more appreciation for mass transportation and other means to curb the impact of our mobility on the atmosphere.

At the regional or country scale, action is underway to curb our use of fossil fuels and to regulate the emissions of industry. Energy and electric utilities generally operate at the regional scale, and it is in these industries that the need for efficiency gains is the greatest. Increasing pressure will be placed on industries to curb their impacts, and geospatial tools will play a large role toward increasing efficiencies at the regional scale.


The local perspective on greenhouse gas emissions gets down to the city, neighborhood and individual building level. There are a great number of interesting initiatives aimed at increasing the efficiencies of where we live and work—decreasing impacts while increasing quality of life.

The fact that buildings are the number one consumer of electricity, and that they produce a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, means that there’s a lot of work to be done on the individual building scale. Awareness of this problem is increasing, and green building has an increasingly high profile based on its potential to dramatically reduce the impacts of where we live.

Building information modeling (BIM) provides the means to create intelligent models to adequately measure the performance of our buildings. Weaving these intelligent models into a larger neighborhood or city-wide intelligent model will provide the tools necessary to envision and create a city with minimal environmental impacts, while maintaining a vibrant economy.

While there are distinct approaches at the different scales, there’s also the need to combine the outputs of our monitoring and management systems for cross-cutting exploration of sustainability topics at the different scales. The issues of sustainability play heavily on these individual scales, for inputs and actions, yet we could do a much better job of meshing our knowledge for a more holistic view if the tools and data analysis were better aligned. By combining these systems, we’ll gain a greater understanding of how global pressures affect individuals, and how local action can help alter the global picture.


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