Can we give foresight prescription lenses?

By Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Senior Research Analyst at International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
(This post was originally published on the IFPRI Research Blog)

There are many challenges confronting decision makers in building robust and effective policies. They must balance pressing short-term needs with long-run challenges. They must confront these varying demands while facing imperfect knowledge of the complex systems (i.e. the economy, the environment, etc.) in which their policies will have impact. Above all, they also face the same uncertainty about the future as the rest of us, making perfect prediction about future outcomes impossible.

Nevertheless, decision makers must make choices in response to future challenges; inaction itself is an implicit choice, as change is inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to improve decision making, and in Multi-factor, multi-state, multi-model scenarios: exploring food and climate futures for Southeast Asia, recently published in Environmental Modelling Software, we believe we have presented a unique methodology to improve the decision-making process, by leveraging a participatory stakeholder-driven scenario development process with a multi-model ensemble to interactively explore future uncertainty with regional stakeholders.

This methodology was first applied in a workshop in Vietnam, where a diverse set of stakeholders from a wide range of sectors in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam collaborated to develop four multidimensional scenarios focusing on future agricultural development, food security, and climate change. Through building these multidimensional scenarios, stakeholders were challenged to consider potential interactions between varied parts of complex systems, like society and the environment. By doing this with a diverse set of stakeholders from public and private sectors, participants considered the future in a holistic and multidisciplinary manner. They were asked not only how different the future might look from the present, but also how they might respond to and shape future change. In so doing, regional stakeholders gained a better understanding of future uncertainty, while introspectively reviewing their own assumptions on the drivers of change, while creating four diverse scenarios that presented challenging plausible futures.

Participants at a 2013 workshop in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – including regional stakeholders from development organizations, governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia – game out policies for the future of agriculture in Southeast Asia under different climate change scenarios, in an innovative approach combining collaboration with predictive modeling. © CGIAR photo

Participants at a 2013 workshop in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – including regional stakeholders from development organizations, governments, the private sector, civil society, and academia – game out policies for the future of agriculture in Southeast Asia under different climate change scenarios, in an innovative approach combining collaboration with predictive modeling. © CGIAR photo

These scenarios were then quantified and simulated using a series of climate models, crop simulation models, and economic models including IFPRI’s IMPACT model and IIASA’s GLOBIOM model. Quantifying the scenarios in models can assist decision makers by pairing the qualitative aspects of the scenarios with quantitative analysis that systematically considers complex interactions and potential unintended consequences. Doing this quantification across a multi-model ensemble maintains the scenario diversity and richness, which in turn ensures that a broad possibility space is maintained throughout the process. This offers decision makers a larger test bed in which to evaluate potential policies. This multidimensionality and diversity of scenario outputs has been well received in the region, allowing them to be adapted and reused in a variety of policy engagements in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

  • In Cambodia, scenario results were used to inform their Climate Change Priorities Action Plan (CCPAP) to better target and prioritize the spending of its 164 million U.S. dollar projected budget, a policy engagement that was done over 6 to 8 months as scenario analysis and use were embedded in the CCPAP
  • In Laos, scenario results were presented in a regional workshop led by CCAFS and UNEP WCMC to evaluate regional policies for economic development, agricultural development, and climate change and consider potential environmental tradeoffs
  • In Vietnam, scenario results were shared in a workshop led by CCAFS and FAO to review and revise climate-smart agriculture investments proposals by considering the potential effectiveness of different investments under various climatic and socioeconomic conditions

The regional scenarios were a collaborative effort that involved colleagues from many institutions including IFPRIIIASAFAOUNEP WCMCthe CGIAR research program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), and the University of Oxford, among others. It would not have been possible without the funding and support from CCAFS, the CGIAR research program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM),Global Futures and Strategic Foresight, the FAO’s program on Economic and Policy Innovations for Climate-Smart Agriculture (EPIC), and UNEP WCMC through a MacArthur Foundation grant.

Mason-D’Croz D, et. al. (2016). Multi-factor, multi-state, multi-model scenarios: Exploring food and climate futures for Southeast Asia. Environmental Modelling & Software
Volume 83, September 2016, Pages 255–270. doi:10.1016/j.envsoft.2016.05.008

Note: 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.

Pessimism is not an option: The road to sustainable development

Interview with Naoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an independent organization that provides grants for projects working towards sustainability. IIASA, the GEF, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) have recently partnered on a new project to explore integrated solutions for water, energy, and land.

Naoko Ishii ©Global Environment Facility

Naoko Ishii ©Global Environment Facility

Q What is sustainable development and why is it important?
As Brundtland put it, sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

If we do not achieve sustainable development, we will fail to provide even the barest essentials of life—food, water, and shelter—for the growing population. The extra two billion people that will inhabit the world in 2050 can only be accommodated if we are serious about sustainable development.

On a personal level I care about sustainable development because I care about the future, I care about young people, and I care about humanity. Achieving sustainable development is, in my opinion, the single most important issue we face today. Without it, all life on Earth is in jeopardy.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was created on the eve of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio to assist in the protection of the global environment and promote sustainable development. The benefits of such an endeavor have only become clearer over time. It is no coincidence that in 2015 all nations of the world will adopt a set of sustainable development goals which place a strong emphasis on the “global commons,” and that in parallel we have a new global agreement on climate change within reach.

How do you see the world in 2050? What are your most optimistic and pessimistic visions?
I am an optimistic person so I will say that, by 2050, every government, every business, and every individual will take the environment into consideration in all their actions. By 2050, we will all be caring for the Earth, taking responsibility for the use of our planet’s resources, and building economies which will leave no one without dignity or necessary subsistence. We will live within safe planetary boundaries. Pessimism is not an option for me.

How can science help the world achieve sustainable development?
Science plays a critical role.  We need it to monitor the state of our resources, the impacts of our activities, and the progress being made.  Science can also help identify solutions. It can help encourage businesses to make smart decisions, for example, about saving money though energy efficiency, risk mitigation, and new revenue opportunities driven by innovation and new business models.

Sustainable development is a truly cross-cutting endeavor: it spans many sectors, from agriculture to economics, and transcends national boundaries. Science can play an important role by producing research that is integrated, cross-sectoral and international. In this way, synergies, co-benefits, and trade-offs can be explored in order to identify the smartest paths to achieving multiple sustainable development goals at the same time

©The GEF

“Sustainable development is a truly cross-cutting endeavor: it spans many sectors, from agriculture to economics, and transcends national boundaries.” ©The GEF

How do you see the role of Global Environment Facility in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals?
The GEF is uniquely placed to support the global commons—the planet’s finite environmental resources that provide the stable conditions required for a sustainable, prosperous future for all.  Our new strategy—GEF2020—lays out an ambitious vision for the GEF, aimed at addressing the underlying drivers of environmental degradation and delivering integrated, holistic, solutions. We are building on more than 20 years of experience providing support to over 165 countries. By working with national governments, local communities, the private sector, civil society organizations and indigenous peoples, we help find and implement integrated solutions to global challenges.

What are the advantages of a cross-sectoral and cross-border approach to identifying paths to sustainable development?
Many environmental challenges and threats to sustainable development do not respect borders.  Moreover, they are often interdependent, or share common drivers. For example, biodiversity loss and climate change is partly driven by unsustainable forest management, which is in turn connected to production of globally traded commodities like palm oil or soy. Problems like this require an integrated, cross-cutting approach.

Given the importance of cross-sectoral interventions, at the GEF we will be implementing a program of integrated approach pilot projects. We believe that these will help countries and the global community in tackling underlying drivers of environmental degradation. I am also very excited about a research program we have recently launched in partnership with IIASA and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, focusing on development and implementation of integrated solutions to tackle the water-food-energy nexus.

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.

Interview: Taking Geo-Wiki to the ground

Steffen Fritz has just been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant to fund a research project on crowdsourcing and ground data collection on land-use and land cover. In this interview he talks about his plans for the new project, CrowdLand. 

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

Farmers in Kenya are one group which the Crowdland Project aims to involve in their data gathering. Photo credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT

What’s the problem with current land cover data?
There are discrepancies between current land cover products, especially in cropland data. It’s all based on satellite data, and in these data, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between cropland and natural vegetation in certain parts of the world if you do not use so-called very high resolution imagery, similar to a picture you take from space. With this high-resolution data you can see structures like fields and so on, which you can then use to distinguish between natural vegetation and cropland. But this is a task where currently people are still better at than computers–and there is a huge amount of data to look at.

In our Geo-Wiki project and related efforts such as the Cropland Capture game, we have asked volunteers to look at these high-resolution images and classify the ground cover as cropland or not cropland. The efforts have been quite successful, but our new project will take this even further.

How will the new project expand on what you’ve already done in Geo-Wiki?
The big addition is to go on the ground. Most of the exercises we currently do are based on the desktop or the phones, or tablets, asking volunteers to classify imagery that they see on a screen.

What this project aims to do is to improve data you collect on the ground, known as in-situ data.  You can use photography, GPS sensors, but also your knowledge you have about what you see. We will use volunteers to collect basic land cover data such as tree cover, cropland, and wetlands, but also much more detailed land-use information. With this type of data we can document what crops are grown where, whether they are irrigated, if the fields are fertilized, what exact type of crops are growing, and other crop management information which you cannot see in satellite imagery. And there are some things you can’t even see when you’re on the ground, thus you need to ask the farmer or recruit the farmer as a data provider. That’s an additional element this project will bring, that we will work closely with farmers and people on the ground.

For the study, you have chosen Austria and Kenya. Why these two countries?
In Austria we have much better in situ data. For example, the Land Use Change Analysis System (LUCAS) in Europe collects in situ data according to a consistent protocol. But this program is very expensive, and the agency that runs it, Eurostat, is discussing how to reduce costs. Additionally the survey is only repeated every three years so fast changes are not immediately recorded. Some countries are not in favor of LUCAS and they prefer to undertake their own surveys. Then however you lose the overall consistency and there is no Europe-wide harmonized database which allows for comparison between countries.   Our plan is to use gaming, social incentives, and also small financial incentives to conduct a crowdsourced LUCAS survey. Then we will examine what results you get when you pay volunteers or trained volunteers compared to the data collected by experts.

In Kenya, the idea is similar, but in general in the developing world we have very limited information, and the resources are not there for major surveys like in Europe. In order to remedy that the idea is again to use crowdsourcing and use a “bounded crowd” which means people who have a certain level of expertise, and know about land cover and land use, for example people with a surveyor background, university students, or interested citizens who can be trained. But in developing countries in particular it’s important to use financial incentives. Financial incentives, even small ones, could probably help to collect much larger amounts of data. Kenya is a good choice also because it has quite a good internet connection, a 3G network, and a lot of new technologies evolving around mobile phones and smartphone technology.

What will happen with the data you collect during this project?
First, we will analyze the data in terms of quality.  One of our research questions is how good are the data collected by volunteers compared to data collected by experts. Another research question is how can imperfect but large data collected by volunteers be filtered and combined so that it becomes useful and fulfills the scientific accuracy requirements.

Then we will use these data and integrate them into currently existing land use and land cover data, and find ways to make better use of it. For example, in order to make projections about future land-use and to better quantify current yield gaps it is crucial to get accurate current information on land-use, including spatially explicit information on crop types, crop management information and other data.

Once we have done some quality checks we will also make these data available for other researchers or interested groups of people.

Crowdsourcing for land cover is in its infancy. There have been lots of crowdsourcing projects in astronomy, archaeology, and biology, for example, but there hasn’t been much on land use, and there is huge potential there. ”We need to not only better understand the quality of the data we collect, but also expand the network of institutions who are working on this topic.”

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.