Computing advances vital to sustainability efforts: National Research Council
July 2, 2012
Innovation in computing will be essential to finding real-world solutions to sustainability challenges in such areas as electricity production and delivery, global food production, and climate change, says a new report from the National Research Council
The immense scale, numerous interconnected effects of actions over time, and diverse scope of these challenges require the ability to collect, structure, and analyze vast amounts of data.
“These problems are as complex as they are important; we need to engage deeply across disciplines to have any hope of meeting global sustainability challenges,” said Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and chair of the committee that wrote the report.
“The urgency of these problems means that we must begin to deploy our ‘best-of-breed’ approaches immediately to put our critical societal infrastructures on a digital plane. This will give us a chance to start creating opportunities for transformative efficiency gains, deep scientific understanding, and informed evolution of the associated political and economic systems.”
The report uses smart energy grids, sustainable agriculture, and resilient infrastructure as examples to illustrate the potential impact of advances in computing. In each example, the report shows how information, data management, and computational approaches can be used to weigh costs and benefits of alternative approaches, minimize the risks of failures and disaster, and cut waste and unnecessary redundancy.
For instance, in the case of a smarter energy grid, better data management will enhance understanding of the energy supply and demand chain in ways that could foster substantial reductions in overall demand and more use of renewable energy sources.
Past efforts in computer science research, such as Internet protocols, machine learning, and databases are successful examples of this problem-focused, iterative approach that can stimulate dramatic change.
An ultimate goal of applying computer science to sustainability is to inform, support, facilitate, and even automate decision making, the report says. Four broad research areas in computer science are crucial to attaining this goal: measurement and instrumentation; information-intensive systems; modeling, simulation, and optimization; and human-centered systems.
The report stresses that computer science research in sustainability must be an interdisciplinary effort, with experts in the various fields of sustainability being equal partners in research. Programs should include tracks that offer course work in areas such as life-cycle analysis, agriculture, ecology, natural resource management, economics, and urban planning.
The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.