Solving climate change will require technological and political innovation

This article was originally posted on DemWorks.org.

The earth faces unprecedented ecological challenges. Human activity has now pushed the earth beyond four of the nine planetary boundaries first identified in 2009 by Johan Rockström, a recognized expert on natural resource management from Stockholm University. Breaking through one or more of these boundaries, Rockström says, may be catastrophic because it triggers abrupt environmental degradation at a continental or even global scale.

Time to throw up our hands in despair, right? Wrong.

The earth is also at an important moment for technological innovation. Renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, which were seen as a pipe dream just a few decades ago are becoming increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, and battery technology, a barrier to the viability of renewable energy in the past, is improving at an equally rapid rate.

But technological innovation is just one part of the solution. To overcome these challenges, technological innovation must be paired with political innovation at every level of government.

At the international level, a new global compact to fight climate change is taking shape. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a development economist at Columbia University, has called 2015 a key year for global action on climate change. A series of high-level international negotiations between now and December will “reshape the global development agenda, and give an important push to vital changes in the workings of the global economy,” Sachs writes.

Political innovation will also be required at the local level, where the impacts of climate change are most acutely felt. Citizens and governments will need to work together to effectively mitigate and adapt to the localized impacts, and causes, of environmental degradation.

In the Chure mountain range of the outer Himalayas, for example, citizens struggle with landslides triggered by deforestation and repeated flooding. These natural disasters have taken a heavy toll on lives and property. A recent initiative, carried out with NDI assistance, enabled 11 members of the Nepali parliament (including five members of Nepal’s Environmental Protection Committee) to travel to Kailali, a district in the Chure range, to learn about these environmental challenges.

The officials connected with local experts, who briefed them on environmental changes in the Chure range, and constituents adversely impacted by mudslides. The delegation presented its finding and recommendations to the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, which amended its policies to, among other things, immediately stop the felling of trees in the name of “scientific forest management,” which had been taking place across the country.

Simply developing new technology to replace fossil fuels will not save the planet. Technological innovation needs to be matched with political innovation that both lifts the global consciousness and responds to the needs of everyday citizens.

Canvassing for development

The New Media Taskforce here at SIPA is holding an “Innovating Mobile Tech for Development Competition,” where students are given the chance to pitch their idea for innovative mobile applications that seek to address specific political, economic, or social needs in international development to a panel of industry judges. Here is the idea that I may submit:

Village Well, Jombo village, Malawi

Village Well, Jombo village, Malawi by Flickr user Bread for the World

One of the major failures of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is a lack of timeliness and completeness of data measuring progress towards achieving the goals. Dr. Jeffrey Sachs wrote in the Lancet:

One of the biggest drawbacks of the MDGs is that the data are often years out of date. Accurate published information from the past 12 months is still not available for most low-income countries. This timelag was inevitable when data were obtained by hand in household surveys, but in the age of the mobile phone, wireless broadband, and remote sensing, data collection should be vastly quicker.

Dr. Sachs is spot-on in suggesting that mobile technology will make data collection more rapid, but I would also contend that mobile-technology-enabled crowdsourcing will increasingly make traditional statistical surveys irrelevant. This is already happening in the arena of American politics. President Obama’s canvassing app enables citizens to volunteer their time to help register voters, build a massive database of registered voters, and ultimately organize voters out to the polls on election day. The app uses information about your location to suggest nearby households that you should visit and questions you should ask when you get there. I believe same model can be applied to the realm of international development.

Let’s say you have a database of 1,000 water projects spread across Malawi. You know the location of the water projects but do not have the resources to send an employee to monitor them on a regular basis. Water For People has built a platform called FLOW that enables field workers monitor water projects using a mobile app. While replacing pen and paper with a smartphone and Internet connection is a significant step forward, I believe that FLOW still doesn’t take the concept far enough because its capacity limited by its reliance on paid professionals to conduct the surveys.

The next-best thing to a trained monitoring professional would be a citizen armed with a smartphone. Bringing up the app, the citizen would be given a map of water projects in their immediate vicinity. They would then “check-in” at the water project and complete a simple survey about the state of the project. If the idea is expanded even further, this app could potentially supplement or replace the statistical surveys currently used to track progress toward achieving the MDG. And because the data would have no time lag it could be used to identify regions that require intervention in real-time, such as a village with an abnormally high maternal mortality rate.

Effectively, crowdsourced development data could turn the MDGs from an out-of-date snapshot of past development status into a tool for development practitioners and governments to detect issues with development while they are still relevant and actionable.