The Geoscape: A New Canvas for Understanding

For many years, Bill Miller directed the development of Esri’s training and support infrastructure. Later as an engineer/architect, he was intimately involved in the design of Esri’s state-of-the-art corporate headquarters and conference center. Perhaps his best-known contribution to the GIS community was development of the ModelBuilder environment released as part of the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst extension. More recently, he came out of retirement to rejoin Esri and head up a new Geodesign Services effort.

Miller’s vision for the integration of geospatial technologies with the design process was long shared by a group of people that included UC Santa Barbara’s Michael Goodchild, Esri President Jack Dangermond, Harvard University’s Carl Steinitz, and a handful of others. Miller took the first step towards making this vision a reality when he assembled a small team to develop ArcSketch, a free sample extension that allowed users to quickly sketch features in ArcGIS. ArcSketch was Esri’s first small step toward what is now commonly referred to as “geodesign.”


Beyond Landscape

While identifying the technology hurdles the geospatial industry needed to overcome in order to advance the concept of geodesign, Miller noted a fundamental contextual obstacle as well: our traditional approach to abstracting the landscape severely limited our ability to move forward with geodesign.  We couldn’t fully realize the vision of geodesign without a framework for a more holistic, comprehensive understanding of the world around us.


Bill Miller shares his vision at the 2012 Geodesign Summit.

Different levels of understanding often require different levels of abstraction, and it’s clear that’s what was happening with geodesign.   As TED founder Richard Saul Wurman has so succinctly stated, “Understanding precedes action.”  Design is action.  Before we can design, we must understand.  Geodesign—the act of thoughtfully creating the future for the mutual benefit of humans and the natural environment—requires a heightened level of understanding.

Understanding the world for the purpose of geodesign necessitated extending our view of geographic space.  “This meant moving from 2D to 3D and to 4D, coupled with the idea that most data, at some level, is spatial and that all types of spatial data (physical, biological, social, cultural, economic, urban, etc.) can be geo-referenced,” states Miller.  “This ultimately led to an expanded view of what is typically envisioned, or imagined, when referring to the geo portion of geodesign.” He likes to call this new context for understanding our world “the geoscape.”

A New Context

Extending our traditional methods of abstracting the landscape to include 3D “provides us with the ability to geo-reference what lies below, on and above the surface of the earth, including what exists inside and outside buildings, as well as 4D geographic space, or how things change through time,” Miller notes.  “This gives us the added ability to geo-reference time-dependent information such as population growth or the migration of a toxic plume through a building.”

Miller defines the geoscape as the planet’s “life zone,” including everything that lies below, on, and above the surface of the earth that supports life. The geoscape expands the view of what constitutes the content of geography as well as the dimensional extent of the geographic space used to reference that content. It gives us the context we need to actually do geodesign, “ensuring that our designs consider everything that supports or inhibits life.”

Designing a Better World

The concept of the geoscape gives us the framework to extend our thinking and understanding of the world around us.  As we move from thinking about only the surface of the earth to now including what’s below and above the surface, we take into consideration the full spectrum of the earth’s life support system.  This represents a significant transformation in the way people think about geography, geodesign, and the application of geospatial technologies.

The geoscape gives us a new canvas for understanding, moving beyond traditional mapping for navigation and location, towards using our maps for active designing and decision making. Moving from the landscape to the geoscape gives us the canvas we need for designing a better world.  After all, as Miller is fond of saying, “The purpose of design is to facilitate life.”

Read Miller’s new paper, “Introducing Geodesign: The Concept

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies, manages the GIS and Science blog, and is the editor of GIS.com. Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
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