Crowdsourcing for food security

By Myroslava Lesiv, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program.

The public can contribute considerably to science by filling the gaps of missing information in many research areas, for example, monitoring land use, biodiversity, or forest degradation. Crowdsourcing campaigns organized by research institutions bring together citizens interested in science and help solving research questions to the benefit of the whole world.

This June, the IIASA Geo-Wiki team ran the Global Field Size campaign, encouraging citizen scientists to classify field sizes on satellite images. Its aim was to develop a global field sizes dataset, which will be used as input to create an improved global cropland field size map for agricultural monitoring and food security assessments. The field sizes dataset can also help us determine what types of satellite data are needed for agricultural monitoring in different parts of the world.

Geo-Wiki interface for collecting field size data. Background layer: Google Maps.

Why are field sizes so important? They provide us with valuable information to tackle challenges of food security. A recent study showed that more than a half the food calories produced globally comes from smallholder farmers, who often make up the most vulnerable parts of population, living in poverty. Within this scope, the field size dataset fills the gaps of missing information, especially for countries that have a limited food supply and lack a well-developed agricultural monitoring system.

The Global Field Size campaign has been one of the most successful crowdsourcing campaigns run through the Geo-Wiki engagement platform. Within one month, 130 participants completed 390,000 tasks – that is, they classified the field sizes in 130,000 locations around the globe!

So we can see that crowdsourcing is powerful, but can we trust the data? Is it accurate enough to be used in different applications? I think it is! The Geo-Wiki team has significant experience in running crowdsourcing campaigns; one of the key lessons we have learned from previous Geo-Wiki campaigns is the importance of training the public to increase the quality of the crowdsourced data.

This campaign was designed so that the participants learned over time how to delineate fields in different regions of the world, and, at the same time, pay special attention to the quality of their submissions. At the end of the campaign, the majority of participants gave us a feedback that, to them, this campaign was indeed a learning exercise. From our end, I have to add, this was also a challenging campaign, as fields are so diverse in shape, continuity of coverage, crop type, irrigation, etc.

Global distribution of dominant field sizes. Cartography by Myroslava Lesiv. Country boundaries: GAUL. Software: ArcMap 10.1.

During the campaign, the crowd was asked to identify whether there were fields in a certain location, and determine the relevant field sizes by the visual interpretation of very high-resolution Google and Bing imagery. A “field” was defined as an agricultural area that included annual or perennial croplands, fallow, shifting cultivation, pastures or hayfields. The collected data can also be used to identify areas falsely mapped as cropland.

Now the team is focused on summarizing the results of the campaign, processing the collected field size data, and preparing them for scientific publication. We will ensure that the published dataset is of high quality and can be used by others with confidence!

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Unleashing innovation for sustainability

By Verena Rauchenwald, IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

“This is just the beginning…” were the visionary words of Henrik Skovby, one of the founders of the global innovation lab UNLEASH, at the UNLEASH Award show in Aarhus, Denmark, on 21 August 2017. Honorary guests, such as the Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, the Danish Crown Princess Mary, and Ashton Kutcher, US actor and investor, came to Aarhus to deliver awards to UNLEASH’s top teams with the best ideas on how to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

The UNLEASH innovation lab invited 1000 international ‘talents’, aged 18-35, to Denmark for 10 days, to undergo a unique innovation creation procedure facilitated by Deloitte, one of UNLEASH’s partners. As one of the selected talents, I had the privilege of spending a few days at one of Denmark’s Højskole (a Danish community college) where the concept of lifelong learning really comes to life. These community colleges’ principles go back to the Danish philosopher Grundtvig, who believed that education should be available to everyone. Nowadays, many young adults choose to live and learn at Højskole for four to five months at a time, to learn about themselves and various themes. Tests do not exist, instead participants are encouraged to go to their classes and are given a certificate in the end.

Our team in Copenhagen. Left to right: Jerry Zhu, Nazly Abdel Azim, Verena Rauchenwald, Tiffany Yu, Raymond Besiga © Jerry Zhu

For the innovation process, I was grouped together with brilliant minds from Shanghai, Cairo, Kampala and San Francisco. Our team worked on the SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Among other sub goals, the SDG 11a further aims to “support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.” After many hours of brainstorming and discussions, our group agreed on the following problem statement: Small-scale farmers in Eastern Africa have difficulties selling their produce to urban businesses.

From there on, we interviewed Eastern African farmers, intermediaries and urban businesses via phone to understand their needs. We found that efforts to cut out intermediaries are often not beneficial as they hold many connections on both sides and take care of the logistics. Furthermore, farmers often do not know what to produce and therefore plant a variety of crops of smaller quantities. As a solution, we came up with a digital platform that supports the overall information flow between the actors. It communicates via text message between farmers and intermediaries and through online forms between intermediaries and urban businesses. This way, all actors win through increased business based on a better match between supply and demand, and less produce is wasted.

The many hours of work and pitching of our ideas to UNLEASH’s facilitators, experts and investors were accompanied by daily sessions of singing in the morning (a Højskole tradition), immense cooperative efforts to help each other, and a shared drive to make the world a better place for all. As a result, a strong, collaborative, global community was born.

Our welcome to Copenhagen © Jerry Zhu

Following Henrik Skovby’s vision, the UNLEASH organization announced that they would continue to support the UNLEASH community and their ideas for at least one more year, both financially and through advisory services. From now on the UNLEASH innovation lab will take place once a year until the year 2030, when the 17 SDGs need to be fulfilled. My hope is that more initiatives such as UNLEASH will arise, and young people will become empowered to act upon their beliefs and consequently guide our world into a sustainable future.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview from Alpbach: Stop praising innovation

Johanna Mair is a professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance, Academic Editor of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Co-Director of the Global Innovation for Impact Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, and Academic Co-Director Social Innovation and Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mair is also a member of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which holds its annual retreat this weekend on the sidelines of the European Forum Alpbach.

Johanna Mair ©Hertie School of Governance

At the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group retreat this weekend, you will be joining a discussion on governance and institutional transformation towards sustainability. What do you see as the biggest barriers to sustainable development?
Sustainability challenges typically require a concerted effort to achieve impact. We still lack the appropriate governance and accountability mechanisms that ensure implementation of well-intended strategies and commonly devised goals.

As an expert in social entrepreneurship and innovation, what new developments have you seen that you think could drive a transformation towards sustainability? Could you give examples of successful innovations that have taken hold?
We do see innovation on many fronts. Especially in governance technology has enabled a number of useful and helpful innovations that allow for more transparent and accountable processes. At the same time we still face enormous challenges that cannot be fixed by technology and require us to face deeply rooted relational and cultural problems. The prevalence of open defecation and lack of sanitary infrastructure in India is just one example.

Sometimes it seems like there are many great ideas, but adoption is slow. What do you think is necessary to make the leap from innovative idea to widespread practice?
“Most new ideas are bad ideas” as Jim March from Stanford University would say. We must stop praising innovation and start to think and act on linking innovation and scaling as two distinct process to create impact.  Innovation is an investment and creates the potential for impact. Scaling enacts and grows this potential and transforms innovation into tangible outcomes – improving the lives of marginalized people and communities and making progress on stubborn societal and environmental problems.

We have elaborated on this in our new book on “Innovation and Scaling for Impact – How Successful Social Enterprises Do It,”  which I co-wrote with  Christian Seelos.

How do innovation and governance go together? What are the challenges and opportunities for bringing new ideas into institutions and governments?
Governance needs to exert an enabling role. We need to craft and design governance systems that foster innovation. At the same time, governance systems need also make sure that the potential and usefulness of innovation can be tested along the way. This requires reflecting on markers of success that are process and not outcome focused.

The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type?
The most important outcome will be a shared understanding of priorities, pathways, and markers of success for this journey.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

More information
IIASA at the European Forum Alpbach 2017 and Alpbach-Laxenburg Group Retreat: 27-29 August 2017
Johanna Mair appearances at Alpbach: 19 August – 1 September

Interview: Living in the age of adaptation

Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.  

How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career?
The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.

Prof. Adil Najam speaking at the Deutsche Welle Building in Bonn, Germany in 2010 © Erich Habich I en.wikipedia

Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this?
Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.

How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.

COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.

© Piyaset I Shutterstock

What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today?
My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.

What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers?
Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The roads to 2050

By Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Center (excerpted from a post on

What will the world be like in 2050?

Of course, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future, as the Danish proverb goes.

Part of the difficulty is that we – individuals and the institutions that allow us to act collectively and in the long term – routinely assume the future looks very much like the past. Just as routinely, though, this assumption is flipped on its head. Think of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, Brexit, or the recent US election.

But what if we already know what we want the world to look like in 2050. How do we get there?

By Andrew Hitchcock - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Dusk on Chang Jiang (Yangtze) Credit: Andrew Hitchcock | Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

I was reminded of the Danish proverb as I arrived at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) outside Vienna earlier this month for a three-day meeting of The World in 2050 (TWI2050) initiative. This was the third such scientific meeting hosted here at the home of some of the leading economic, demographic and energy modellers.

TWI2050 is arguably the most ambitious research being undertaken in the world today. At its heart is an ambition to map out the pathways for a sustainable planet. As with the previous meetings, it attracted about 130 complex-systems thinkers and computer-modelling experts.

Unlike other international modelling initiatives, TWI2050 was not created to explore a range of possible utopian to dystopian scenarios focusing on energy prices or climate change. The baseline assumption is a single scenario: successful completion of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by all nations in 2015, and arriving in 2050 with a global economy operating within planetary boundaries – the limits of natural systems that keep Earth in a relatively stable state, relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation, and fertilizer use, among others.

The 17 SDGs and their 169 targets are extremely ambitious. Buried in the detail are many trade-offs but also potential win-wins. Meeting the climate goal means reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, and this could affect the energy, biodiversity, or consumption goals either positively or negatively. The goals and their inherent trade-offs are already catalyzing research and the results show how challenging this will be.

This month, scientists publishing in the journal Nature explored Australia’s land-use trade-offs to reach the goals. The team, who were not at the TWI2050 meeting, used a massive computer simulation called Land Use and Trade Offs (LUTO) to see how factors such as climate policies or crop prices could shape Australia’s landscape by 2050. Exploring 648 scenarios, researchers Brett Bryan and Lei Gao found just 1% of scenarios achieved five goals simultaneously. However, some goals seemed to go better together than others. Achieving targets related to food, water, and biofuel production was possible in 6.5% of scenarios, for example. The authors, whose work contributes to Future Earth’s Global Land Programme, conclude that national policymakers need more of this type of analysis to elucidate trade-offs and avoid conflicting policies. Moreover, they argued for more scientific coordination internationally for a global perspective on implementing the SDGs.

Other research groups have also begun exploring the world in 2050. Recently Karl Heinz Erb from the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna, who attended the TWI2050 workshop, and colleagues explored 500 scenarios to assess options for feeding 9 billion people in 2050 without further deforestation .

Their work, which also supports the Global Land Programme, concluded that it was possible, but would likely mean low meat, vegetarian, or vegan diets globally. Meanwhile, Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, also attending, and colleagues showed that by 2050 a global vegetarian diet would reduce diet-related global mortality by 6-10% and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29-70% – contributing to several goals. This type of research is essential to understand potential win-wins but these examples do not provide the pathways to arrive at these scenarios.

So, are computer models powerful enough to capture essential elements of incremental and disruptive change across complex issues relating to poverty, equality, education, technology, policy, energy, food, water, and climate? Read more on the website

This article is excerpted from an article on the website. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

*The Stockholm Resilience Centre is one of the founding partners of The World in 2050 alongside the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and IIASA. Contributing organisations include the European Commission, Future Earth, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Future Earth. Check out the website for details.


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2. Nilsson M, Griggs D, Visbeck M, Ringler C (2016). A draft framework for understanding SDG interactions. ICSU – International Council for Science. PDF for download
3. Stafford Smith M, et. al. (2016). Integration: the key to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science DOI:10.1007/s11625-016-0383-3
4. Gao L, Bryan BA (2017). Finding pathways to national-scale land-sector sustainability. Nature 544:217–222 DOI:10.1038/nature21694
5. Bryan BA et al. (2016). Land-use and sustainability under intersecting global change and domestic policy scenarios: Trajectories for Australia to 2050. Global Environmental Change 38:130–152 DOI:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.03.002
6. Erb K-H, Lauk C, Kastner T, Mayer A, Theurl MC, Haberl H (2016). Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Nature Communications 7 DOI:10.1038/ncomms11382
7. Springmann M, Godfray HCJ, Rayner M, Scarborough P (2016). Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change. PNAS 113:15(4146–4151)DOI:10.1073/pnas.1523119113

Natural regeneration for sustainable development

By Alvaro Silva Iribarrem, researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program.   

Restoration of degraded ecosystems is an exciting and relatively new way of looking into the conservation of natural capital—the world’s natural assets, including soil, air, water, and all living things. For one, the success of restoration is more readily verifiable than, for example, avoided degradation. Further, it increases the landscape’s resilience: natural areas can be placed around agricultural crops, increasing their yields by providing habitat for pollinators and therefore increasing pollination, protecting them from natural disasters, and improving the provision of important ecosystem services for human wellbeing.

These services include removing CO2 from the atmosphere (which contributes directly to climate change mitigation); ensuring that more sediment is filtered from the rivers (which reduces the risk of landslides and floods); and providing habitat for a large diversity of species. For scientists, it feels like being at the head of the counter-offensive: it is us, humans, finally doing something not only to slow our seemingly unstoppable degradation of the environment, but to actively start pushing it back.

Restoring an ecosystem to its original state can be an expensive endeavor, but tropical rainforests are very resilient. For example, even after centuries of extensive use of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, which has been reduced to a tenth of its size, in many places it would still grow back to much of its original state in a manner of decades, if allowed to do so. For such ecosystems, natural regeneration represents an extraordinary opportunity to enable restoration at scales that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive.

In places like the Paraitinga watershed, in the countryside of São Paulo state, most of the original forest has long been cleared, and replaced, predominantly, by small dairy farms. After over a century of careless land use, large areas of the converted landscape has degraded to the point where yields are so low that farms are barely viable. The lack of forest cover has led to frequent floods. The worst of the recent ones, in 2010, destroyed most of the historical city of São Luiz do Paraitinga, with a population of 11 thousand inhabitants.

The 2010 flood in Paraitinga. © Luciano Dinamarco

The aftermath of the 2010 flood in Paraitinga. © Luciano Dinamarco

In a couple of recent publications, we made a comprehensive effort to include the natural regeneration of that watershed’s native forest as part of a bigger plan for more sustainable development of the region, one that would increase its resilience to this kind of disaster.

Starting from a landscape approach, we looked at the potential for grass growth in the region, and concluded that it was possible to accommodate all foreseeable future demands for cattle production and still make space for the restoration of a large area in the watershed. Sustainable intensification of current pasture is key to avoid the economic losses that could otherwise follow the land shortage caused by such a large-scale restoration. It would also help to gain the farmers’ acceptance. By producing more in a smaller area, they could let go of the degraded areas they currently use, allowing the native forest fragments nearby to spread.

In our regeneration scenario, we assume that around 24,000 hectares of pastureland that is presently abandoned in the watershed will be allowed to undergo natural regeneration in the next 20 years. This naturally occurring forest regrowth would sequester 6.2 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Additionally, it would reduce sediment load into rivers by 570,000 tons annually, bringing water purification costs in the area down by 0.37 dollars per year per hectare restored. Finally we showed that restoration of even this relatively small area would be enough to significantly increase habitat availability for all species, particularly for those which travel between forest fragments.

To understand the difficulties farmers face in improving productivity, we conducted interviews and focus groups with them. We found that the tendency to keep to their old, low-producing, land-extensive ways, is less related to a resistance to change, and more to a lack of technical knowledge and the means to make the upfront investments needed to switch to a more productive system. Credit for investment is available and cheap in the country, but only a small number of farmers in the region risk taking it. Technical assistance is key to tap into these resources and enable the necessary improvement of the watershed’s production. The conditions for unlocking large-scale forest regrowth, not only in the Paraitinga watershed but in many similar landscapes in the country, are in place—they need only to be implemented properly.

Strassburg BB, Barros FS, Crouzeilles R, Silva Iribarrem, A, dos Santos JS, Silva D, Sansevero JB, Alves-Pinto H, Feltrain-Barbieri R, & Latawiec AE (2016). The role of natural regeneration to ecosystem services provision and habitat availability: a case study in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Biotropics. 

Alves-Pinto HN, Latawiec AE, Strassburg BBN, Barros FSM, Sansevero JBB, Iribarrem A, Crouzeilles R, Lemgruber LC, Rangel M, & Silva ACP (2016). Reconciling rural development and ecological restoration: Strategies and policy recommendations for the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Land Use Policy.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.