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Jeff Thurston — “People do better with clean water, they do better with clean air, they do better with healthy fish supplies and marine environments and they do better with a sense that they feel secure that their environments will support their continued healthiness and survival. To me, these are all forms of ROI.”

Matt Ball — “When problems with the environment occur, they beg immediate solutions that often don’t need an ROI analysis because the economic impacts are immediate.”

I think the ROI in the sustainable environment sector is very high. This is an interesting question and I would like to follow a few avenues of thought on this.

Sustainable environments come in different forms. It is, for example, possible to have a biological environment that is sustainable – conservation or preservation – without any consideration of economics. These forms of sustainability are largely biological in nature and pertain to natural sciences and the physical landscape.

There is little doubt in my mind, that while it is hard to attribute a monetary value to these environments, the intangible benefits and their contributions to sustainable communities and living is immense and ‘known’ to the wider population. It does not take a great amount of awareness to see and understand that all the development in China at the moment is destroying the environment. Be real – would you like to live in that polluted air for a long time? Do you see yourself eating fish from some of the streams which are being polluted in China, due to lack of proper environmental laws and their enforcement? Likely not.

People do better with clean water, they do better with clean air, they do better with healthy fish supplies and marine environments and they do better with a sense that they feel secure that their environments will support their continued healthiness and survival. To me, these are all forms of ROI. Witness the latest cases of foot and mouth in the UK. In my opinion, and I have heard Vanessa Lawrence, Director General of the Ordnance Survey, Great Britain, speak to this very point at this week’s AGI Conference in the UK; stating just how beneficial and helpful spatial information was in the recent outbreak. Consider how quickly this outbreak was contained, monitored and interpreted, spatially – a prime example of decreasing fear, solving the problem and ensuring safe food supplies. Is that not ROI?

Not wanting to feather these thoughts as fuzzy. Let me be clearer. People in communities are now demanding local planning policies include priorities to ensure air, water, land and their food supplies. They don’t want noisy, dirty transportation corridors and recognise that healthy food supplies are integral to their well being. People are slowly beginning to debate energy supplies in a new context and they are slowly beginning to see a need for higher quality data, more analysis and are asking for numbers on environmental performance. The ROI to the sustainable environment sector comes into play in many ways along the path to sustainable environments.

Land, air, water and food supplies will need to be managed more closely. This means both the physical environments, using the tools of GIS, CAD, GPS and remote sensing as well as the biological environments, which will include sensors and automated forms of information intelligence.

It will become more important to develop sustainable environments ‘economically’. This is sometimes called sustainable economic development. Within the framework of sustainable economic development, many of the ROI issues that the ‘geo’ industry has wrestled with over the years, will become much more defineable, clearer and easily recognised. This in itself will aid in determining ROI. The processes of planning, creating, building and operating communities, business as well as the air, land, water connections will weave together into one larger framework. Call it systems, call it processes. But the separate and disjointed geospatial tasks we often see, will become a thing of the past.

Surveyors had better learn where and how they fit into the sustainable development framework. CAD people had better learn how their design work forms part of a larger ‘design’ – of communities with infrastructure. GIS folks had better learn that location alone is not enough, but that how and why the data interacts and integrates is a goal.

As awareness grows and people come to depend upon each other in the geospatial community, for high quality data, design, GIS analyis, measurement and monitoring, then the ROI is going to rocket skyward. Sustainability is not a fuzzy concept, it has hard geo-data connected to it, definable processes, required designs and spatial modeling and measurement. All of these, collectively, will provide both tangible and intangible benefits.

The journey has just begun for geospatial sustainable environments.

Some ideas:

1) Build understanding in sustainable environments and the geo folks role

2) Define standard terms for community sustainable processes geo-technologies inter-connect with

3) Establish 5 communities around the world that are ‘pilot places’ – with whole new geo-approaches and put the wheels in motion

The geospatial community can take a leadership role on this…. hopefully it does.

  I’m impressed with any effort to quantify the return on investment for geospatial technology spending. The Geospatial Information Technology Association (GITA) has put together some excellent tools for this purpose. As the executive summary of the AwwaRF/GITA ROI Workbook states, “the costs of a proposed system are not terribly difficult to research, but the potential benefits are much harder to document.”

GITA has focused primarily on this very difficult piece, helping GIT project managers put together benefit estimates along with their financial impact, and pulling together a credible business case. The GITA workbook is an excellent step for those exploring an initial investment in GIS, but when we look at the larger geospatial sustainable environment sector we envision a broader tool set.

The holistic view that is sustainable development requires a convergence of tools and knowledge, and a breadth of information about an area that is much larger than a single project’s footprint. Big picture technology is needed in order to understand the economic, environmental and social impacts of development.

That larger system takes advantage of the collaborative function of GIS and includes a broad number of additional tools that are used by a number of disciplines that don’t use or need the full functionality of GIS. Getting buy-in on converging technologies and knowledge into a much larger system of systems approach is something that will largely be mandated by policy. As green building and sustainable development plans become mandated, the case for centralizing knowledge and technologies will largely be a matter of efficiency and an elimination of duplicate efforts.

When problems with the environment occur, they beg immediate solutions that often don’t need an ROI analysis because the economic impacts are immediate. A recent discussion with the Trust for Public Lands brought the problem of stream warming in the West to my attention. Locals feel an immediate impact when there’s a mass die-off of fish in local streams because they lose tourism dollars from fly fishermen.

Local policy makers know that they need a large-scale watershed analysis to help solve the problem. Political barriers dissolve quickly, and they don’t care if you call the solution conservation, because at that point they’re feeling too much economic pain.

Setting up the large system of systems approach requires a great deal of forethought. Such an approach can be justified when you start amalgamating the cost for environmental cleanup on individual sites. The technology is available to create central systems that alert to problems prior to large-scale environmental and economic impact. In my mind, it’s a case of how can we not afford to make this investment?

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