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ICT and Big Data
Big Data + Smart Tech:
An Elixir for a Sustainable Future?

The global population is projected to top nine billion by 2050, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

And it’s no secret that with our already-assaultive consumption of the planet’s natural resources, the food, water and energy required to feed that population — two billion more than today’s — will be unsustainable unless current patterns are changed.

Fortunately, emerging technologies and disruptive business models are playing a key role in helping companies and consumers operate more efficiently.

Case in point: the Internet of Things (IoT) — a growing plethora of digitally connected data and devices. A handful of startups — including Skybox (recently acquired by Google), Planet Labs and Satellogic — are manufacturing and launching hundreds of breadbox-sized satellites into space. The data they are mining and returning are potentially game-changing, offering a new perspective on the planet.

Satellogic has put three prototype satellites into space, each costing under $1 million. The satellites, which have just a one-meter image resolution, can track atmospheric patterns, precipitation and ocean currents. Combined with weather data, the satellites aid in forecasting, which helps farmers worldwide make better decisions.

"Our vision is to be able to monitor every acre of arable land in the world every day,” Emiliano Kargieman, founder and CEO of Satellogic, recently told Fast CoExist. “We can look at different things that might be interesting to precision farmers, like the nitrogen uptake of plants, water stress of plants, and spread of diseases in the crops. It’s information that will be useful for increasing crop yields and understanding where fertilizer will be needed."

Kargieman said Satellogic plans to launch a "constellation of satellites that can see anywhere on the planet in a couple of hours," and eventually their satellite imagery will be available to the general public.

"We will see things going on in different parts of the planet on a day-by-day basis, from monitoring social conflict to gaming based on space data. It will change the way we relate to the planet," he said.

While Jeff Raikes, former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of the Raikes Foundation, says agriculture is slow to the starting gate in the ongoing data revolution, the former Microsoft executive believes Big Data can greatly aid a more water- and food-secure future. In his recent keynote at the 2014 Water for Food Global Conference in Seattle, he articulated some of the uses:

  • Precision agriculture: A host of technologies including GPS-equipped tractors and remote-controlled or automated irrigation systems are turning farming into a high-tech business with data “paying it forward” to improve productivity each year.
  • Leapfrogging technology: In poor, rural areas, isolated by insufficient phone service and roads, cell phones can now provide smaller farmers with weather forecasting and market information to better manage money and develop a wider support network.
  • Mapping: Regional mapping, supported by organizations such as the Africa Soil Information Service, is developing continent-wide digital soil and flood maps using historic and new data and analyses.
  • Groundwater monitoring: As agriculture consumes 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally, primarily for irrigation, data about aquifer conditions and groundwater withdrawals is critical for water management.

"The world is changing very fast,” Emma Price-Thomas, head of sustainability strategy at charity Business in the Community, told the BBC. “Global megatrends are markedly affecting the business environment. If firms don't address these and think longer-term, they may end up putting themselves out of business."

Justin Keeble, managing director of Accenture's sustainability services division, concurred: "The business imperative is about mitigating risk and making your business more resilient against resource scarcity and energy insecurity."

While a recent survey of 1,000 CEOs worldwide by United Nations Global Compact and Accenture found that nearly two-fifths believe the failure to link sustainability with business value was slowing progress, mobile tech could be a light on the horizon.

"Mobile is having a profound impact," Keeble said. "It is enabling data transparency and giving far more information to consumers who are beginning to think about the provenance of materials and products a lot more. This, in turn, is encouraging businesses to believe it is worthwhile developing more sustainable products."

Another positive portent: the growth of the sharing economy, with the rise of brands such as Airbnb, Zipcar and B&Q’s Streetclub.

As Keeble pointed out: "Why does everyone need to buy an electric hand drill when the average use is about six minutes? An embedded SIM card would allow people to use it on a pay-per-use basis."

While smart tech and Big Data increasingly equip mankind with information and tools to deal with agricultural and water management, without the conscious commitment to integrate those findings into daily life for business and consumers, the potential remains nascent at best.

As Derrick Jensen said in Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization: “We cannot hope to create a sustainable culture with any but sustainable souls.”

How do we make sustainable souls? There’s no smart tech or Big Data fix for that.


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