Smart Earth: How our planet gets digital

Digitising the planet can help mitigate some of the most pressing challenges, such as climate change. But it also raises some familiar questions.

As a reader of this blog, you’re probably familiar with smart cities. Applying digital technologies to the places where most of us live is an obvious and, well, smart idea. But what about the rest of planet Earth? Couldn’t there similarly be a smart Earth? Could digital technology help solve the most pressing problems of the Anthropocene, like climate change?

The Smart Earth Project thinks it can. The project is led by Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Colombia. Smart Earth, as a concept, follows an approach similar to smart cities: using sensors to generate data that can then be converted into information, processed and used to improve the status quo. The idea itself is not new, but the advent of cheap sensors, the cloud, AI and machine learning made it possible to realise it.

We can trace back its roots to a 1998 speech by Al Gore where he envisioned a Digital Earth: an interactive digital twin of the Earth which we could use for education and all kinds of knowledge access. Some parts of this vision have materialised in tools like Google Earth, launched in 2001. The vision later evolved, because it had to. In its early iterations, it suffered from the problem of map-territory relation.

Jorge Luis Borges famously captured this problem in a short story about a fictional map that becomes as large as the country it represents. This age-old problem reappeared in a new form with digital twins, or the metaverse. For digital representations of the Earth to be useful, some abstraction is required. Even a digital map as large as the Earth would be of limited use (and impossible to produce).

The Smart Earth project puts its focuses on three questions:

  • Could the tools of the Digital Age be mobilized to solve the critical socio-environmental challenges of the Anthropocene, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and water insecurity?
  • What are the potential benefits and pitfalls of Big Tech’s sustainability agenda?
  • And given the dangerous appeal of utopian technology-driven futures, how could we design more inclusive, equitable alternatives?

Our world becomes programmable

Let’s unpack this. Tackling challenges like climate change with digital tools means, inter alia, collecting loads of data. The spaceborne monitoring of carbon emissions is a good example. Data like this enables real-time regulation, which would greatly reduce response times if done well. Tracking carbon emissions in real-time could then help to fine-tune the trade of carbon emission certificates, as well as other measures.

The possibilities are manifold. In general, it’s about implementing the paradigm of computing in the physical world, especially the natural environment. Our world becomes programmable in new, unseen ways. We’re using new kinds of inputs, or data, to generate new kinds of outputs. And then we automate this process. It is, as it has been throughout the history of computing, about control.

Who controls the Smart Earth?

Inevitably, this poses the question of what’s on the agenda — and who sets it. Controlling and minimising carbon emissions is a good thing, but control always raises concerns about who is in control and who (as well as what) is controlled. There will be unintended consequences we need to deal with. The rise of Big Tech, toxic social media and surveillance capitalism should be warning signs here.

This brings us to the second question: Big Tech’s sustainability agenda. Among the big five, Google has one of the most ambitious sustainability goals. With its consumer-facing products, the company can influence consumer behaviour to become more sustainable. Not surprisingly, all Big Tech companies have set net-zero goals and started investing in climate tech.

Climate (and decarbonisation) tech looks promising not only as a market opportunity, but also as a matter of strengthening the brand and attracting talent. With benefits like these, where are the potential pitfalls? Over the past decades, tech itself has grown into an energy-intensive industry. And that’s without factoring in the amount of hardware used and replaced on both sides of the business, consumer and corporate, with short innovation cycles.

Risks of Smart Earth

The tech industry is not as green as it would like to be, and the Smart Earth concept may even make matters worse if the increased consumption of energy and resources outweighs the savings. In addition, what if Big Tech ends up owning the Earth’s environmental data? Here’s where the UN-backed Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES) comes in. Its goal is to embed sustainability in digitisation.

Finally, the dangers of tech utopia may return in a new guise. We tend to view the trajectory of technology and innovation as inevitable, but in reality, it’s we who steer their development – albeit often through inaction. We need to turn Smart Earth into a concept that advances humanity, improves our natural environment and avoids further exploitation.

That’s not so much a technological question as a political one. Who should own and control the systems? What do we want to achieve with these technologies? How should we structure their governance? Libertarian tech utopists tend to claim that technology itself will solve all those questions, no governance is needed, thank you.

Politics of Smart Earth

But technology isn’t an unstoppable force, and it isn’t self-directed. We need to answer the questions of who, what, and how. Smart Earth should imply, if we take the term verbatim, smarter use of the Earth’s resources. Perhaps we can borrow from Kate Raworth’s concept of the doughnut economy, which deals with social and planetary boundaries.

Nothing is won if we restrict the use of resources too much, so that people fall below minimum social standards, as defined in the Sustainable Development Goals. And the same is true if we continue to overuse resources, so that we step beyond planetary boundaries. Smart technology could and should help us to stay on the middle ground.

Not surprisingly, digitising the Earth poses the same bunch of questions that the digital revolution has posed in general. These are inherently political questions that we cannot leave to the technologists or the markets. Technology alone will not give us the answer, nor will markets solve everything. People will disagree for valid reasons, and that is why we need politics and political debates.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash