Figure 2 Fox Glacier, part of Westland National Park, located on the West Coast of the South Island has been melting for decades, reflecting climate change that will affect these tiny islands more quickly than larger land masses. Image captured April 11, 2003 by IKONOS, courtesy of GeoEye.

A Summit Stop in Middle Earth on the Way to the Digital Earth Symposium

New Zealand Takes Sustainability Seriously

Dr. Tim Foresman
President, International Centre
for Remote Sensing Education
Secretariat, International
Symposium on Digital Earth
Baltimore, Md.

What do you get when a bunch of Kiwis traveling along on an unsustainable pathway meets an entourage of international Digital Earth enthusiasts? In Auckland, New Zealand, last August, this experiment unfolded before several hundred participants, yielding many striking results at the Digital Earth Summit on Sustainability ( The summit focused on recognizing a wave of innovative technological means to enable citizens and governments to view the complexity of our planet for any specific place on the Earth's surface. Digital Earth was presented as a global initiative aimed at harnessing the world's data and information resources to develop a virtual 3-D model of Earth in order to monitor, measure, and forecast natural and human activity on the planet.

For an isolated island nation with four million citizens and an abundance of natural resources, New Zealand might not be expected to be so keenly interested in the ubiquitous but fuzzily defined topic of sustainability. Prime Minister Helen Clark, however, quickly pointed out in her keynote speech that this is not the case for her nation. She noted that the government, universities, industry, and citizen groups are acutely aware of the looming threats to their quality of life from global climate change, decreasing biodiversity, dependence upon a fossil-fuel economy, and the myriad impacts of these dynamics on social harmony and quality of life. Prime Minister Clark noted,

“If we are able to manage our resources wisely from now on and build on modern technology and innovation, we will be able to forge a path that will enable New Zealanders to maintain our high quality of life.

Information and social engagement are a key to that. Working collaboratively across central government, local government, business, and non-governmental organizations, we can build a sustainable future for New Zealand.

The place we can look to learn how to be a global community, is in our own community. The school, the marae (Maori meeting house), the workplace, the council chamber, the country hall, all are places where we can learn how to work together as a community. Increasingly, the way we find out about what is going on in our neighbourhood, our catchment, our city, is by digital means.

Using tools like these with other digital data and information, we can look to our past, analyze our current situation, and plan for a sustainable future.”

The prowess and promise of the Digital Earth vision and technology were well covered at the summit in a series of engaging talks that investigated and assessed a great variety of compounding issues facing all nations and all people. Internationally recognized intellectuals explored various themes associated with contemporary understanding of sustainability, including energy and transportation, climate change, urban housing retrofitting, land reform, and community welfare.

Figure 1 Auckland, capital of New Zealand and location of the sustainability summit.
Satellite image captured August 15, 2001 by IKONOS, courtesy of GeoEye.
Auckland Councilman Richard Simpson provided an enthusiastic presentation that emphasized the fundamental biological imperative contained within all living species to survive. His survival-based thesis pointed out the various organizational constructs that are needed in complex societal systems, and the need to harness technology to maintain the pulse of system components in assuming ‘governance' functions for cities and the nation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and the confounding feedback and relationships of ecological goods and services can be construed, according to Simpson, to impose critical reliance on automated spatial systems. Digital Earth represents the philosophical and technical umbrella for forging forth into an uncertain world of dwindling resources and increased meteorological variability. He suggested that the need to have citizens and government working with a shared view of the landscape can best be envisioned using Digital Earth technologies that allow for community decision making to be integrated with complex models for hydrology, transportation, taxation, and other relevant data.

Auckland's Mayor, Dick Hubbard, harmonized with the other New Zealand elected officials in recognizing that good governance requires good communications with the citizens. Equally important, in his view, is mastering understanding of the complex underpinnings of municipal operations from health services to education, and from housing needs to more sustainable and green business innovation. He echoed the sentiments of other New Zealanders who wish to see their nation as a leading example, or “living laboratory,” for the movement towards sustainable living.

Mayor Hubbard noted that New Zealand's capacity for excellence in technology, including winning the America's Cup in sailing, and their strong sense of connection with the land provides the right mix for leading the world's thinking on sustainable development. The Maori legacy adds an important element to the great challenge of balancing all things to include indigenous peoples and their cultures along with e-commerce and renewable energy.

Other delightful contributions to the summit potpourri of intellectual wealth included the work of Beacon Industries as presented by Nick Collins, who described the company's retrofitting of 50,000 homes in New Zealand as part of a strategy to reduce the ecological footprint (the resource demands for water and energy). These and other impressive pilot projects are being studied by academic-industry-government partnerships of the Land Environments of New Zealand. Dr. Maggie Lawton shared with the summit attendees the impressive efforts of her team as they collect, analyze, and organize the fundamental information layers for New Zealand as prerequisite components of their “Digital New Zealand.”

All in all, the New Zealand speakers presented a positive image of a country that recognizes and treasures the gifts of natural and cultural resources within the island nation. They also readily acknowledge the challenging struggles to address the oil-addicted elements of their society, as epitomized by the ranking as number two in car ownership per capita in the world. Real estate sales of the old railroad lines and right-of-ways are making the news as citizens are wondering how to maintain transportation and standards of living in a greener and more sustainable set of circumstances. A ubiquitous challenge remains in how to communicate with and educate the majority of citizens to enable them to understand the necessary changes in lifestyle behaviors that would accompany societal shifts towards sustainability.

A chorus of energetic and articulate young Kiwis added a much needed balance to the Auckland Summit by placing focus on the life journeys of one hundred representatives (17-25 years of age), therein transferring the abstract notions of future events into concrete dimensions of their lives. This coming-of-age generation is acutely aware that environmental scientists are not trying to scare them with reports of sea-level rise and global warming. They recognize that corporate interests in the bottom line are often lacking in moral fortitude and are simply based on short-term financial gains, even if that means consuming the seeds for tomorrow's harvest.

Figure 3 Fiordland National Park (on the southwest corner of the South Island) includes the famed Milford Trek along Milford Sound, shown here, offering a coveted 4-day hike along the river, with waterfalls and dramatic peaks. This natural habitat will benefit from being monitored for environmental change. Image captured on Feb. 5, 2006 by QuickBird, courtesy of DigitalGlobe.
These one hundred youth helped to remind everyone that the value of the Digital Earth vision is ever more important as more and more trend analysis points to an extremely variable and risky future for all elements of economic, environmental, and social variables. But they also recognize the myriad opportunities for research, green-industry development, and social revitalization that are paragons of progressive movements away from doom and gloom.

Throughout the three-day event, an international gallery of visiting speakers added details and anecdotes, and increased the dimensions of the science to the overall summit understanding of where we are and where we are going. Technologies that enable citizens to see what is on the ground and what is going on day by day were viewed as essential to the community decision support systems being developed.

Remote sensing data, GIS, and other geo-enabled technologies all play a crucial role in the aggregated synthesis of information needed to implement the envisioned Digital Earth of the near future. Three-dimensional spinning globes linked to vast amounts of information about commerce, impacts of policies, environmental conditions, and social well-being are rapidly being developed by industry, academia, and government. What the Auckland Summit provided was a clear vision and determined consensus that the path for survival of the country and the planet is one that includes Digital Earth.

Digital Earth advocates have entered a new phase of the world's awareness as people all over casually “google” (search) the Earth for directions to anywhere with an address. People now spend hours on recreational reconnaissance as they investigate honeymoon getaways or adventure vacations. The learning and entertainment value for 3D virtual Digital Earth is just beginning to be appreciated against a backdrop of apathy, ignorance, and denial.

The Auckland Summit proved to be an excellent testing ground for the relevance of the Digital Earth vision and community to the pragmatic and often mundane operations of daily Kiwi life. From the setting in New Zealand, the group gained a veritable wealth of understanding that forms the catalyst for the follow-on event, the 5th International Symposium on Digital Earth on June 5-9, in Berkeley, California.

We now have the Digital Earth tools in hand, along with the creators of the tools, and we have the students and practitioners of the tools gathering. It is time to stop and ask some pointed questions and to ponder our future. We now know that at least some of our world leaders understand what we need to do and where we need to focus our attention.End

Sensors & Systems | Monitoring, Analyzing and Adapting to Global Change | Stay in tune with the transformation. Subscribe to the free weekly newsletter.