Reinventing the Sustainability Wheel, by Nina Lam

Professors Luc Anselin and Jerome Dobson have written two excellent, thought-provoking columns, which set a standard that is hard for me to reach here. Their columns post poignant remarks on “space skepticism” and “clerks of science” and seem to paint a more pessimistic view about GIScience, geography, and/or spatial science (hereafter called GIScience). I agree wholeheartedly with the issues raised in their columns and that our field deserves much better recognition. In this column, however, I would like to inject a more optimistic perspective. I think that GIScience has indeed progressed enormously over the last 30-some years, thanks to the movers and shakers in the field. But to continue the effort in moving GIScience into mainstream science, we need to address significant societal issues using the best organizing principles and methods in GIScience.

In searching for the value of GIScience and how our field of knowledge and techniques can be used to address critical societal problems, I found what I suggested in Year 2000 is still very much valid. What I suggested was to have “sustainability” as a key theme that GIScience should embrace in working on. I argued that GIScience principles and methods are necessary in order to address sustainability effectively. GIScience is not only an “enabling” discipline, its unique ability in integrating various theories and methods into studying complex societal problems such as sustainability will and should position GIScience as a leader in this theme. I find my current research on risk, vulnerability, resilience, and hence sustainability falling into this realm. I am enjoying my research and yet am anxiously hoping that my research would yield meaningful theoretical and practical outcomes that would ultimately benefit the people and society. So I am here reinventing the Sustainability wheel.

A little background on how the sustainability wheel was first spun may be helpful. During 1999-2001, I had a brief two-year stint at the National Science Foundation as a program director of the then Geography and Regional Science Program (The program is now renamed as Geography and Spatial Sciences). There was a call for a new agency-wide social science initiative, and program officers were asked to provide input. The criteria for the initiative include that: (1) it spans the interests of most or all of the NSF directorates; (2) it challenges the scientific communities productively; (3) it is based on a broad foundation of preparation in the communities, (4) its concept resonates well in the body politic; (5) it has the capacity to spend money wisely in the range of $50-150 millions annually; (6) it includes most of the programs in the social and behavioral sciences; and (7) its home would clearly be in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Directorate.

Most importantly, the initiative should be able to energize the imagination of the research community so that it responds with exciting, high-quality proposals. The initiative should have depth and breath, and is integrative and interdisciplinary. The initiative should apply new technology and modern analytical methods. Finally, the initiative should appeal to the Administration, Congress, and the public. A number of themes were suggested by other program officers, including for example “innovation and adaptation”, “technological transformation”, “human capital”, “human origins”, “globalization”, “extreme events”, and “human dimension of global change”. I suggested “sustainability.”. I wrote the following in an internal report in support of my argument (03/03/2000), and it remains to be in agreement with what I propose today. 

"Although the term has been used and defined in many contexts, sustainability here encompasses a broad spectrum of fields: natural-environmental, urban, economic, social, educational, psychological, and health; it is not just conventionally perceived as resource or management oriented. Sustainability cuts across ranges of scales, and as such it could imply "sustainable development" at a broader scale to "sustainable livelihoods" at a local scale.  Sustainability is by itself a process and is evolving: it requires innovation, mitigation, and adaptation among all the role players.  ...... It is important to understand and "practice" sustainability, because resources are limited, technology is changing, and people, places, and environment are interacting.  We need to position ourselves not only to maintain or adapt, but also to improve or advance to better places, better economies, better health, and overall better lives as we begin the 21st century. The key question is not whether sustainability should be achieved but how. What are the related science and societal issues?  How would sustainable development or sustainable livelihoods be like in the future?"

To achieve sustainability, we need to be able to understand or "assess" the present conditions.  Basic data must be collected and made available online and basic research must be performed, so that assessment can be made at global, regional, and local or community scales. The linkages between existing initiatives, such as information technology and biocomplexity, and other directorates are apparent.  For example, we need the physical layers of information such as geological zones (earthquakes), extreme weather, flood, biodiversity, urban infrastructure such as transportation networks, and urban design to reduce pollution and energy use. We need to understand the natural-environmental processes so that we can develop new technologies and make better use of existing resources. Many conventional as well as new research questions can be generated along these lines.

Ultimately it is the people to decide on how to develop new technology, allocate resources, and set priorities.  For example, how do we develop industry while maintaining environmental health?  Whether there are true effects between pollution and health will depend on people's perception, the politics, the economics, and the social interaction. In this information-rich society, how would decision-making processes change? And how would sustainable practices be sustained? ..... The key to success in researching the different issues of sustainability is the development and application of rigorous spatial analysis and modeling, so that our findings can be generalized, trusted, and respected as the core of science.”

In short, to establish a firm position in mainstream science for GIScience, our research should be oriented such that it is problem-driven, hypothesis-driven, data-driven, and analysis-driven with scientific methodology. Our research should be re-packaged, re-invigorated, and re-invented so that they respond to societal needs and have policy implications. Partnerships with government, industry, and community will help us ask better questions. But all these will not happen if there are no research skills and techniques. Good research topics do not lead to credible results if there is no good methodology. We need to sharpen our skills, advance our methodology and principles, and forget the skepticism. Let’s move forward.

Nina Lam is E.L. Abraham Distinguished Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University. She was Chair of the Department (2007-2010), Program Director of the U. S. National Science Foundation Geography and Spatial Sciences Program (1999-2001), and President of the University Consortium on Geographic Information Science (UCGIS, 2004). Professor Lam received the Andrew McNally Best Paper Award in 1983 for her article on spatial interpolation methods, the Outstanding Contributions in Remote Sensing award from the American Association of Geographers Remote Sensing Specialty Group in 2004, and the Inaugural Carolyn Merry Mentoring award and UCGIS Fellow award in 2016. 


Each quarter, UCGIS invites one of its Fellows to share his or her opinions and ideas on the status of scholarship, education, outreach, and impact of GIScience. Please read, enjoy, and comment on this article and return to our website for future issues.

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of or positions by UCGIS. 

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