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The Digital Nervous System of The Planet

Jack Dangermond and his wife, Laura, founded Esri (the Environmental Systems Research Institute) in 1969 on the idea that computer-based mapping and analysis could make significant contributions to geographic planning and environmental science. Since then, Esri has become the global market leader in GIS and location intelligence. He has received many acknowledgements and awards for his contributions to the fields of geography, environmental science, planning, and GIS, including 13 honorary degrees.

Throughout human history, our relationship with the Earth has largely involved extracting its materials and harvesting its energy. In the process, we dramatically propelled our standard of living, fueled global economic growth, and increased human lifespan. But we also created an economy and society that are not sustainable. They are dangerously vulnerable to global warming, loss of biodiversity, sea-level rise, and cities and regions racing to resist the forces of climate change.

Without a change in mind-set, we cannot prosper in the long term. In addition to working urgently to address the current pandemic, we must work to cut back on carbon emissions; to create more efficient lifestyles; and, over time, to reduce the human impact on nature itself. Critically, we need to consider nature in the way we run our businesses, and view business as a steward of a healthier future.

Our world desperately needs a change in consciousness. In small neighbourhoods, national and international communities and across business, leaders must understand our impact on the health of the places we occupy. Connectivity isn't enough to deliver that understanding. Data isn't enough. Neither are business intelligence and even artificial intelligence, as powerful as the latter can be.

Only when we anchor these technologies in geospatial thinking—incorporating the context of time and place—can we clearly see the impacts of our actions, manage those actions so as to preserve the health of the complex systems that make up their context, and design a future that’s sustainable. The emerging geospatial mind-set can help us intervene in our world not only to extract from it but to add to it; not to bleed it but to feed it. Geographic information systems technology provides visualization, analytics, and management capabilities that can help us understand and manage natural and human-made systems and, as a result, create sustainability as well as prosperity. We can use this knowledge to learn to live within the constraints of nature as well as continue to be prosperous in our businesses, cities, and countries.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, we have been witnessing a geospatial awakening—and it comes not a moment too soon. Indeed, geography, the science of our world, is emerging as a canvas for our daily lives—facilitating mobility, holistic science, and human connections—and as a metascience that contextualizes discoveries in fields ranging from biology and sociology to urban planning, transportation, education, health care, and public safety. Geographic thinking is becoming interesting not just to professional geographers but to designers and business decision-makers, who can integrate this kind of location intelligence into what they design and how they operate.

They are doing this through a radical new iteration of one of humanity's oldest and most innovative information technologies: the map. A new generation of digital cartography of geographic data is unleashing a whole new understanding of our world, made possible by pervasive instrumentation of our environments through real-time mapping, remote sensing, and the Internet of Things. These web-based maps are being used to create operational control panels and dashboards that enable us not only to see the world much more quickly and accurately but also to intervene in real time.

I like to call this emerging system the nervous system of the planet, measuring the ebb and flow of rivers, the quality of the air we breathe, and the movement of commerce – and microbes – around the globe. The location intelligence that helps business leaders and others read this nervous system is more than a piece of software. It is built on information systems that integrate all types of geographic data about the physical and social world into map layers that reveal the character and patterns of a place. And just as the cloud gathers the world's streaming big data and hosts the machine learning that analyzes it, the Geospatial Cloud translates geographic data and analysis into real-world management systems and transformational interventions.

Geographic information and location intelligence are already transforming field after field—from infrastructure and health care, to emergency response and retail, from manufacturing and city planning to organizations combating climate change.

The new applications of location intelligence go far beyond GPS, traffic apps, and the like. That first wave of location services is focused on what is happening where we are at any given moment. The next phase will go deeper. It encompasses what some call "digital twins" and "mirror worlds." It promises to transform our understanding of the land, the oceans, and the human activities that take place on them, giving us a systemic understanding of place.

The new age of digital geography and location intelligence is being pioneered by a new generation of applied scientists who are builders, architects, and business leaders. These women and men are guided by a deep appreciation of science in all they do. They look at the world holistically through a geospatial lens that illuminates patterns and relationships. Rather than seeking ownership and control, they practice stewardship and sharing, leading them to collaborative frameworks for regulation, governance, and the workplace. Their work and the organizations they support will continue to lead the way, showing how we can prosper well into the future.

In the end, we can only prosper both locally and globally by bringing our planet, the crucial missing stakeholder, to the table in all decisions. Only in that way can we understand both the complexity and specificity of a local context—whether a forest or a river or a building or a city—and also its place in the dynamic systems of the world, from flora and fauna to currency, information, food, water, epidemiology, transportation, and migration. We can work literally close to the ground to see and act in ways that are both rooted and holistic. We can see the world in this new way, map our place in it, and engage intimately and constructively with it as never before.

Indeed, we are seeing this in real time, with observable reductions in pollution and carbon footprints due to measures taken worldwide to fight this pandemic that have impacted the broader global economy. The reduction in pollution and emissions is a temporary phenomenon due to the economic slowdown – but our ability to achieve sustainable prosperity will depend on our capacity to understand and manage economic and natural systems in harmony.

Geography, the science of our world, offers the best way to organize information that can support conservation, global health and economic development, enabling us to understand the relationships, patterns, and processes of nature as well as our built environment. This digital nervous system for the planet gives us the key tool to tackle the grand challenges of our time, from climate change to financial volatility, from confronting pandemics to achieving progressive globalization. As business leaders, designers, students, and ordinary citizens embrace an attitude of stewardship and shared purpose, I am deeply optimistic, even as we collectively respond to the challenges of the current crisis, about the ability of humans to come together and build a future of sustainable prosperity.

This blog was adapted from Forbes (20th April 2021) Our Planet As The Missing Stakeholder.



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