Computational sustainability: a modern collaborative approach to sustainable development

Computational sustainability: a modern collaborative approach to sustainable development

By Amid Sedghi

July 31, 2013

The result of a partnership between government, academia and industry, West House was showcased during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games at the Vancouver Yaletown LiveCity Site and is now in its legacy installation on a City of Vancouver owned site where it serves as a technology showcase, research and development test bed, and a "living lab".

Sustainability is complex. With the interactions between natural and social systems, it has become more difficult to analyze and create solutions towards sustainable development. Take transportation as an example. Developing, expanding, and maintaining greener forms of transportation must take into account the complex relationship between the economy, governments, eco-systems, energy, and many other factors and variables. These complex interactions, especially within an information society, require innovative and hi-tech solutions. Thus, I became curious towards how technology or more specifically, computing science, has contributed to solve complex sustainability issues. Needless to say when I first heard the term “computational sustainability”, I was intrigued.  

What is computational sustainability? The Institute for Computational Sustainability provides a solid definition: “an interdisciplinary field that aims to apply techniques from computer science, information science, operations research, applied mathematics, and statistics for balancing environmental, economic, and societal needs for sustainable development.” Yet, many questions remain unanswered. How does it work? Who is working in this field of study? How can computer and mathematical science relate to the social aspects of sustainability? 

Interestingly, this scientific discipline is not associated with a specific group of scientists. The field creates a collaborative atmosphere for a wide array of disciplines, bringing computer scientists, operation researchers, applied mathematicians, statisticians, economists, biologists, policy-makers, environmental scientists, and engineers together. The problem-solving approach is synergetic and aims at solving problems ranging from resource distribution, conservation, cognitive behavior, energy, infrastructure, land-use, the climate and so on. As a result, the need for interdisciplinary experts is inevitable. 

It seems as though the most challenging issue within computational sustainability is the collaborative work between people of different scientific backgrounds. How do such diverse fields of study work together? Is there potential for conflict? I was able to find some answers in my discussion with Stephen Makonin, a member of Human-Centered Systems for Sustainable Living (HCSSL) which is a research group, headquartered at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at SFU and led by Lyn Bartram and Rob Woodbury. Stephen emphasized the possibility of conflict, but he also believed that successful collaboration is possible through a multi-disciplinary approach. That is, each expert's knowledge should expand beyond their own discipline and be aware of how other scientific fields contribute to the project.

Stephen used his experience at the West House project in order to provide an example of challenges in computational sustainability. Constructed through the collaboration of SFU and its partners, West House is a sustainable living home that incorporates leading edge materials, passive efficiency, solar technologies and a computational energy management system. Typical smart homes rely on complex interfaces and schedule-based automation such as programmable thermostats. However there exists an automation challenge with these homes' central control panel. The central systems provide automatic adjustments to every energy-consuming device in order to ensure lowest energy consumption.  Unfortunately, they do not necessarily minimize user's efforts. For example, the user can adjust the lighting setting such that the lights are off during sleeping hours. However these hours could potentially vary. Homebuyers may find it difficult to work with automated home systems as "most peoples' lives are more complex and variable than the simple schedules" that the system provides.

I was also able to find out what solutions the HCSSL found for this automation challenge and to gather some information behind the technology of the West House's central control panel, from Lyn Bartram, the head of the West House project. Lyn explained that the West House system ALIS (Aware Living Interface System) provides both schedule based and flexible control of lights and heat in both detailed and “one-touch” operations. The resident can easily define and set the house into various energy-saving modes such as sleep and away, with a simple touch of a light switch, an iPhone button, or a web control, accessible from anywhere. 

Another prominent institute that is currently conducting research in computational sustainability is the University of Cornell’s Institute for Computational Sustainability. At the University of Cornell, researchers and scientists have been working on many interesting projects such as; the economical design of conservation corridors for grizzly bears, the creation of new computational analysis methods that help to discover new materials, examination of the impacts of increased US gasoline taxes, the costs evaluation, land-use adjustments, and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from various bio-fuels policies and so on. 

As we can see, the collaboration between experts from different scientific disciplines increases the range of sustainability issues that can be tackled. Computational sustainability also allows experts to tackle problems of higher complexity using computational science. This is what makes computational sustainability an exceptional environmental force that is developing a new sense of hope towards a greener future.

(Icon photo courtesy of  botheredbybees/Flickr, West House photo courtesy of Lyn Bartram)

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