GeoDesign for Climate Change Adaptation

Designing a more sustainable future

The earth’s climate is changing, leading to serious problems for humanity in areas such as food security, health, and public safety.

As our environment changes around us, we need to adapt swiftly. But where do we start? Should we reinforce or rebuild existing structures? Or should we abandon existing settlements and relocate the population in some cases? And how can mass rebuilding/relocation efforts be best accomplished from human, environmental, and economic perspectives?

GeoDesign is a framework for understanding the complex relationships between human-designed settlements and the changing environment, for quickly planning ways to adapt existing communities and build new ones in a more sustainable manner. This methodology helps us assess risk, identify change, create synergies, develop strategies, adapt to change, and monitor the results. GeoDesign takes an interdisciplinary, synergistic approach to solving the critical problems of future design—to optimize location, orientation, and the features of projects at local and global scales.

By bringing social, environmental, agricultural, meteorological, and other sciences into a common geographic perspective, people can better see the optimal solutions needed for planning and building our future. Governments, NGOs, businesses, and communities already use the GeoDesign approach to minimize climate impacts, increase resiliency, predict cause and effect, calculate sustainability capacity, rank risk levels, allocate resources, and prioritize action.

By incorporating geographic technologies, such as visualization and modeling, into analysis of community development, people can intelligently answer far-reaching design questions such as these.

The GeoDesign framework lets us design and test various alternatives, thereby helping us make the most educated and informed decisions for adapting humankind to a rapidly changing environment and world. It acknowledges the inseparable relationship between humans and nature and lets us take an active role in designing where and how we live.

How can GeoDesign best be applied to climate adaptation in the next 15 years?

Jack Dangermond

About Jack Dangermond

Jack Dangermond founded Esri with a vision that computer-based mapping and analysis could make significant contributions in the areas of geographic planning and environmental science. The recipient of 10 honorary doctorate degrees, he has served on advisory committees for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.
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  1. Dr. Michael Goodchild says:

    GeoDesign proposes to support decisions about the surface of the Earth through a combination of two sets of tools: one to allow designers to sketch proposals as they appear in map form, and the other to provide scientifically sound assessments of proposals through the execution of computer-based models. For example, a designer should be able to sketch a design for a development near a coastline, and to evaluate it based on scientific models of sea-level rise, as well as pollution of air and water, impacts on traffic congestion, and other environmental and social dimensions. By including projections of the effects of climate change, this approach offers a coherent and scientifically based way of addressing key decisions about development and land-use change.

    One of the inescapable realities of decision-making in the face of climate change is that impacts and adaptability will both vary sharply across the Earth’s surface, at a range of scales. Some areas, such as coastal zones, will need to adopt radical adaptations, while others will be comparatively unaffected. Moreover the impacts of decisions will also be unevenly distributed; some decisions will create substantial impacts downstream or downwind, while others will ripple through the global economic system. GIS, as a spatially based technology, offers a powerful approach to both the sketch and assessment aspects of GeoDesign, allowing decisions and their impacts to be investigated at a full range of scales from the very local to the global.

  2. If we really want to feed 9 billion people by the middle of this century, we need spatial data systems with real-time monitoring capacity and a data dissemination capability that can reach all stakeholders directly. This goes beyond the current GIS and Remote Sensing systems.

    I consider GeoDesign as the future in GIS, as it will bring spatial data on environmental, agricultural, meteorological and hydrological into a common geographic perspective. These physical processes, however, have a strong dynamic component that – by no means – can be measured by ground observation networks. In the near future, earth observations from satellites will no longer complement existing sources of data, they will become the leading source of information on land surface processes and climate change.

    It is now technically feasible to technically to convert the classical remote sensing approaches into smart and reliable pixel information in the lower atmospheric boundary layer and the land surface conditions. It is a basic necessity to develop a global database on vegetation, water, and climate that forms the foundation for thousands of applications and billions of people. Without daily updates of intelligent, pixel-based data components, the great capacity of GeoDesign will not reach its full potential to support daily decisions in natural resources management – and become more climate resilient across the world.

    A data-enriched GeoDesign system supports authorities, policy makers, water managers and individual farmers to make firm decisions. Esri has embarked on an exciting next step in natural resources management and climate change. GeoDesign principles fed with quantified crop, water, and climate data components must become one click away for everybody.

  3. Dr. Elena Bennett says:

    Climate adaptation is going to require not only an understanding of our changing climate, but also an understanding of how local context influences the potential methods available to us and the likelihood of success of these methods, biophysically and culturally. GeoDesign, as a technique that brings geospatial technology together with local participation and the knowledge of multiple academic disciplines, is a new and exciting way to think about the complex relationships between human communities and the environment.

    GeoDesign brings together the many important factors that affect adaptation potential while focusing on GIS technologies and spatial mapping. The outcome is new ways to visualize outcomes of management decisions, including climate adaptations, increasing the potential to think about sustainable design. I am especially interested in the role GeoDesign might play in environmental scenario development. Scenarios, sets of stories about the future, can be a useful technique for thinking about a range of potential futures. In the environment, scenarios are often used to understand situations of uncontrollable or unpredictable futures, of which climate change is a classic example. Environmental scenarios can be qualitative or quantitative, and are often associated with images, but rarely with maps. I am interested in the potential for mapping scenarios, and for using GeoDesign as a way to bring together multiple disciplines to improve development and understanding of environmental scenarios in situations of climate change.

  4. As a citizen of the world, of ASEAN, and of my home country Vietnam, and as an environmental scientist, I believe the tools of geographic information systems and GeoDesign are profoundly important for understanding and responding to the challenges of climate change. All efforts will be needed to meet these challenges in the areas of environment, transportation, water, sanitation, health, agriculture, forestry, and especially energy, as the needs of humanity are growing.

    Geographic information systems, and GeoDesign in particular, are essential tools in understanding and responding to the variabilities of climate change. The time for implementation of strategic and tactical projects based upon this understanding is now. Making wise decisions to accommodate emerging changes will have major positive impacts on the health, security, and prosperity of populations in high risk areas around the globe.

    An emphasis upon renewable energy is a top priority for the transformation of our human settlements and our energy grids worldwide over the next 15 years. The time to begin the process of a massive scaling up of distributed smart grids with wind, solar, and other emerging technologies is now. GeoDesign is an essential tool for our future. Not just in Vietnam – a country most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – but everywhere.

    Over the past few years, we have established the foundations for this kind of sustainable development in Vietnam through the Vietnam Resilience System and related projects in my country, following the simulation of a devastating climate change-related event hitting the Mekong Delta. It was clear in that Resilience Summit that one climate change event could threaten the lives of millions and lead to cascading problems throughout the ASEAN region. We are now focused on engaging the Vietnam Resilience System within the Global Resilience System and implication of Exercise 24 organized by the San Diego State University in Vietnam to reduce our specific geospatially-distributed risks associated with climate change by engaging positive, scaleable, sustainable solutions including GIS and GeoDesign.

  5. Andrea Feunekes says:

    We are reminded on a daily basis of global warming and the direct impact it has on each of our immediate environments. Sustainability is a big idea. Therefore, it is imperative that we break down the idea into actionable steps in order to get a handle on the implications of climate change. To begin this process, we need to ask some important questions:

    • What are the implications of a changing climate?
    • In what circumstances is sustainability possible?
    • What is the timeline for the various initiatives?
    • And of course, where do we start and how will this get mapped out (pun intended)?

    GeoDesign, and data-driven spatial and temporal models, allow us to debate, refine, question, and understand the scenarios related to these seemingly daunting questions and can help us explore subsets of additional questions that we may not have started thinking about – or even knew to ask. The starting point will be to develop a fully integrated view of the use, consumption, depletion, and especially the interactions, between people and the world’s resources. By modeling the states, transitions, and interrelationships of these macro-variables across extended time periods and with precise reference to spatial factors, we can begin to provide a basis for understanding holistically, and against a common yardstick, what sustainability might really mean for industry, policy, and consumption. From there, we will have the ability to take action on the steps necessary within our own unique environment and situation to apply what we have learned, and ultimately create a more sustainable earth.

  6. Societies are already experiencing stress from climate change; given the current alarming rate of greenhouse gas emissions, the next fifteen years will be critical for adaptation. We are seeing changes in the number and strength of extreme weather events, in the trends and patterns of rainfall and temperature, in the extent of ice in glaciers and polar regions, in sea level rise, and in the complex impacts aggregated across multiple biophysical systems. The resulting stresses are already beginning to generate societal consequences of significant importance ranging from the disastrous effects of droughts on already marginal agriculture in Africa and rising sea level on coastal cities to new sea routes and potential economic growth in the nations that border the Arctic. The magnitude and locations of such consequences will depend on the pattern of climate stress that emerges, the pattern of underlying socioeconomic sensitivity to such stress, and the nature of the adaptive responses undertaken.

    A critical question is what combination of socioeconomic conditions and climate stress could generate the most serious consequences? This is a multi-variable problem of high complexity. GeoDesign, by bringing multiple disciplines into a common geographic perspective, is the ideal integrator – helping societies identify those regions and policies where the interactions between climate stress and differing socioeconomic conditions are likely to make the most difference. The resultant visualization and modeling will give guidance on the most efficient and effective ways to adapt both in the short and the long term. The long-term impact of climate change looms large – the sooner we can begin to adapt with tools like GeoDesign, the more resilient our societies will be in the future.

  7. Dr. Don Reimer says:

    As we work to adapt to the realities of climate change, our decisions will ultimately be based upon our knowledge of geospatial relationships and landscape capabilities (environmental capabilities) linked to our cultural values and objectives. GIS technology enables us to query and analyze complex spatial relationships at multiple scales. It has been our experience that it is essential to utilize GIS technology together with sophisticated scenario-based planning models in order to successfully address landscape, environmental, and social objectives over time.

    Planning models, which can utilize site-specific, high-resolution, multi-resource attribute data in combination with spatial interaction algorithms, enables the generation of spatially-explicit scenarios with known levels of precision throughout the decision space. This combination of sophisticated spatial planning models, GIS technology, and site-specific data, allows managers and decision-making groups to fully utilize GeoDesign concepts in weighing the risks and costs associated with each scenario, and provides them with the level of detail they need to justify costly and long-term commitments.

    Successful use of the GeoDesign framework requires all three component—GIS technology, planning models, and the underlying attribute and geospatial data— to be equally sophisticated and precise. Tackling long-term challenges such as climate change requires close attention to all three components in order to derive feasible solutions which will also provide for future flexibility if our current solutions and assumptions turn out to be in error.

  8. Khadir Bangarakunnu says:

    GeoDesign is an invaluable tool to address changes in climate arising from global warming and other natural disasters. Geodesign will be best applied if implemented on a global scale. I have just returned to Canada from my native India after a short vacation. As a result my mind is still preoccupied with India and the nascent GIS at the government level. In my native state of Kerala, affected by rising sea levels, a burgeoning population and limited resources for land management, Town planners adopt decisions on a day to day basis. After implementing GIS for a Township here in Canada, the lack of GIS tools in Kerala was a rude shock. I realize the matter is even worse in other parts of the world. The lack of GIS and information is scary. For one of the fastest growing economies and one of the highest densities of population in the world, the after effects of climate change or a natural disaster could be enormous, both economically and socially.

    The next step in the evolution of GeoDesign has to be a consensus between nations to share information and work coherently for the benefit of mankind. Geospatial data has to be made available or developed from scratch if required. GIS infrastructure and expertise has to be put in place. A framework for GeoDesign should be made available for all nations. A universal framework has to be adopted at the UN level. GIS leaders like ESRI, and Jack Dangermond should take an active interest in developing GIS at the grassroots of the world. In the case of India, a country filled with technology nerds, the problem lie not in resources, but in a government which is slow to adopt change due to red tape and bureaucracy.

    I feel globalization of GeoDesign is the logical next step in the application of GeoDesign.

  9. Sensible, informed, timely design and planning of our environment should be the ultimate goal for most of us, especially within the spatial and environmental industries.

    But until recently we have only been able to conceive of technologies able to do this, not necessarily implement them. With the relatively recent emergence of cloud computing (not just for storage but for processing) as well as fast communication infrastructure (mobile and fixed line), combined with GIS technologies are now allowing for some of these ideas to become a reality.

    Not wishing to plug specific technologies, but the recent acquisition of CityEngine by ESRI, shows a new exciting path for GIS and the way forward for GeoDesign. Where design can be instantly (or near instantly) informed by not just rule sets but other underlying data, environmental or otherwise.

    I’ve written before about “the Instant City” in regards to city master planning as a result of tools like CityEngine. Whereby many aspects of city design could now in theory take place all at the same time. Or you can work on detailed multiple designs of a city for a client and only at the end with all the information (BIM level information for cities, energy, cost, environment etc..) do they choose what they deem to be the most appropriate plan.

    The application of tools like CityEngine does not need to be for cities or urban areas alone. You can use it for pretty much anything agriculture, rural areas, national parks, forestry, as long as you put the appropriate data in (still an area for debate amongst the experts!). It also doesn’t matter what level of detail or physical area you are working on as it works at all levels.

    GeoDesign in this context is about making quicker informed design decisions and being able to formulate new plans quickly as new data arrives without having to rewrite all your work. Of course the speed of analysis comes down to how much cloud computing power do you want to buy?

    The answer to the question about how GeoDesign can be applied to climate change adaptation in the next 15 years should be relatively straight forward and surely we already know the answer?

    Our professional disciplines related to the environment and planning have been working on this in separate silos for many years, only bringing things together, often in an adhoc way, via GIS, to make decisions. Our problem has been in the timely analysis of data and making decisions before things change and we have to start again.

    We’ve got the tools, and access to the computing power if we want and of course the experts! The application of GeoDesign in the next 15 years should be about getting the workflows right and making sure that the process of GeoDesign by whichever technology you use is almost transparent so we can get on with the important business of design and decision making.

  10. Dr. Joseph Berry says:

    The potential of geotechnology to better understand spatial patterns and relationships of climate change and achieve viable solutions is vast. The GeoDesign framework, concepts and tools have set a supporting stage for GIS solutions that are in harmony with natural systems. However there are two conditions that seem to be holding it back—one technical and one human. On the technical front, the persistent perspective and characterization of geographic space as collections of discrete spatial objects is misaligned with the continuous nature of most natural systems and the spatial specificity needed for effective solutions.

    On the human front, too many of the researchers, specialists and decision-makers addressing climate change rely on qualitative visualizations and spatially aggregated tables that generalize characteristics, conditions and temporal trajectories. What is needed is a concerted effort to redirect education in general, and GIS education in particular, to the quantitative aspects of “maps as data” and the wealth of map-ematical tools in grid-based systems—sort of a cross-cutting spatialSTEM approach to infuse spatial reasoning skills into science, technology, engineering and math.

  11. Dr. Fred Stolle says:

    There is an increasing demand on land that can produce food, fuel and fiber which is contributing to tropical deforestation. Deforestation is a major contributor to climate change ( 12% of world’s greenhouse gas emissions ). Incentive programs to sustain forests, like the United Nation’s reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation program, or REDD, can therefore only be effective long-term if the drivers of deforestation are addressed, or the link between driving forces and deforestation is broken. Therefore, for the sake of sustainability it is imperative to find ways to break the link between food production (fuel and fiber) and tropical deforestation. One way to ensure the demand for food is met, is by bringing areas under cultivation that currently have low ecosystem values and have not been used optimally (e.g. degraded areas). Or in other words, find ways to optimizing current land use.

    How can we do this ? One of the main factors is to integrate map-based data and identify lands that are physically suitable and economically viable for specific crops. In addition to these parameters, optimal land use planning also needs data to identify the locations of sensitive areas are (erosion sensitive, or water quantity and quality determining areas, biodiversity), where under-used areas are located (depending on crop type, current yield), (un)employment in particular areas, rural poverty rates, spread of small-holder crops. By integrating and analyzing these data layers, we will gain new insights and open new possibilities for food production.

  12. Matt Ball says:

    With today’s geovisualization capabilities and digital data stores, improved modeling is raising awareness of the significant impacts of climate change to both the natural and built environments. From this initial phase of heightened awareness will come policy and management objectives to combat the risks and repercussions of these changes, and to ensure that we bounce back quickly from any challenges that we face. With continued feedback, and more real-time inputs, the monitoring function of geospatial technology will provide the means to adapt and confront change. Within the next 15 years, we can expect far more active and multidisciplinary approaches to adaptation.

  13. As climate continues to change the use of GIS will continue to become more mainstream and increasingly critical for decision makers for the simple reason that GIS allows us to spatially assess, analyze and present a vast range of attributes across a changing landscape. The key is change and the rate of change across the myriad of attributes being tracked and the ability of GIS to respond to change in a timely manner. The second key consideration is scalability. Climate change, is a global issue, and the models tend to operate at a global scale. However, planning decisions must consider meso-scale influences, while implementation generally takes place at a regional or local scale.
    GeoDesign should strive to provide a systematic and consistently applied methodology for assessing risk and potential outcomes. The current state of the science of climate change is such that new information is coming to light on a regular basis and yesterday’s accepted fact is tomorrow’s fallacy. GeoDesign should provide a dynamically responsive framework that can accommodate the ongoing shifts in the climate change model.
    When it comes to planning in response to climate change, the future will belong to the speedy and the integrated.

  14. Tonya Graham says:

    Successfully adapting to climate change that radically impacts diverse cultures and the ecological systems that support them will involve reaching a new level of integration, cooperation, and transparency. GeoDesign can help weave this future together by providing tools that encourage comprehensive, integrated climate change planning and cooperative response. As GeoDesign is further developed, we encourage the community to consider the following factors that we have discovered in the process of helping communities adapt to climate change.

    GeoDesign must:

    • Be accessible and easy to use by people with a variety of educational backgrounds. Those who may have the fewest resources to bring to bear on the task of reducing their risk are likely to also be the least educated.
    • Integrate climate change projections and scenario building within existing planning processes at multiple scales.
    • Include not only the interactions between the human community and the natural world, but also the natural world’s response to climate change.
    • Incorporate both climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. GeoDesign can help us to see how various projects will impact the effort to reduce emissions as well as the effort to adapt.
    • Focus on high quality scenario visualization. Seeing a scenario in a geographically specific fashion is the best way for people to understand the implications of various decisions.
    • Provide information for planning purposes as well as emergency management decision-making. The more we can protect lives and property, the more we can protect our ability to make reasoned, responsible choices in the face of rapid change.

    At the Geos Institute, we have learned that the ability to visually depict a range of potential futures for a specific geography based on scientifically credible modeling data is critical to the community’s ability to grapple with the magnitude of changes likely to be wrought by climate change. We are excited by what is developing at Esri and are eager to see what the future holds in this critically important arena.

  15. Like its innumerable predecessors, Geodesign is also an innovative step towards sustainability. The text available for discussion states “GeoDesign is a framework for understanding the complex relationships between human-designed settlements and the changing environment, for quickly planning ways to adapt existing communities and … “ .
    It is evident from this text that Geodesign too is searching in darkness, as far as the issue of its contribution to sustainability is concerned. This assertion stems from the phrase ways to adopt, which is rather amorphous and is taken for granted.
    Ironically such broadcast statements have occupied the center stage of all global discussions on sustainability. They are like vision without wings. Multiple wingless visions have emanated from Rio to Copenhagen. The challenge towards sustainability is to engineer societies into acceptable trajectories. Sustainable life styles has to be engineered.
    Perhaps the forum should consider how Geodesigns can contribute to engineer societies into sustainable trajectories? A technical dissection of this challenge raises more questions than answers. A hypothetical geodesign proxel (process element) will need to depict additionally the state of society, social inertia and dominant cultural elements too.

  16. Samuel Lammie says:

    Why not apply Jack’s ‘Geodesign’ to global change (as opposed or in concert with climate change). Focus on the bookends of scale in systematically constructing a digital earth while innovating in communities across the globe. This bookend approach also holds true for a socio-economic context. Political leaders must have buy-in to the critical nature of the problems at hand and commit significant resources. At a second scale in schools across the world classrooms lack ‘spatial thinking’ let alone the idea of their tapping into and attacking real-world problems. Finally, strategies are not in place (i.e., energy is one example) for rightfully addressing sustainable issues and priorities. As we know tools are at hand for accepting real-time data and making the analytical connection to change and correlated impacts with various ecological systems – I’m just not sure we have the wherewithall to make things happen.

  17. Vijay Kumar says:

    Human interaction with nature is always an active area of exploration. Human being is trying to understand nature’s behavior and reaction pattern for many centuries. We can see a continuous success as well in this process but in absolute terms, we have understood very little about it. But whatever little we have understood about nature, we should utilize that knowledge to plan our interaction with nature. We should analyze likes and dislikes of nature and evolve a sustainable approach.

    Natural phenomenon is very much spatial in nature, hence usage of spatial tools is very relevant to visualize and analyze it. Another important and critical aspect in analyzing nature is to model various parameters, their dependencies and evolve mathematical spatial models. The mathematical models integrated with spatial dimension are proved to be very useful in this process.

    There are many international institutions doing great work in this direction. But there is a scope to experiment and establish suitable mechanism and approach towards nature interaction in all aspects of the life. This can be further drilled down to use of specific technology and tools to achieve the objectives. These efforts can lead us towards a better sustainable approach. While thinking all these, there is a need to believe in one old saying that nature is our mother. We will not over exploit it for our short term benefits.

    GeoDesign is a nice concept which can be used by all people in any interaction with nature..There is a vast potential and scope to evolve various models and tools around this. Luckily we have got a large set of data which can be used to evolve these. Thanks to all individuals thinking and working in this direction. Happy Journey!

  18. Gernot Brodnig says:

    The GeoDesign framework is to be welcomed as another powerful arrow in the quiver of approaches and tools that will help us to plan and implement climate-smart development measures. Its emphasis on cross-scalar integration make it an ideal instrument to deal with the “variable geometry” of the adaptation challenge.

    The framework seems particularly useful in the context of vulnerability assessments, which form the basis for resource allocation and policy interventions at national, regional or local levels. Climate change often acts as a multiplier of existing socio-economic vulnerabilities that are rooted in geographical features such as land or market access, and GeoDesign can help to disentangle these different layers and identify entry points for more resilient pathways.

  19. Peter Urich says:

    Dear All,

    A wonderful initiative and one that we are working on in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank. In fact, we will have our beta version of the software known as Global Environment and National Information Evaluation System (GENIES) for Urban Impact Analysis ready for limited release very soon. We have used ArcGIS Map Control functionality within the software for high quality visualisation. You can download a poster describing the system from the news section of our website. We will be in San Diego at the Education and Users Conferences later this month if you would like to talk to us about GENIES and other spatial climate modeling tools. All the best. Peter