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The Internet of Environment: digitally twinning the planet

October 10, 2019

By Elaine Richmond

The Internet of Things is influencing our daily life, and it's only logical that the Internet of Environment will do the same thing

Data is being collected everywhere. The interconnection of computing and smart devices embedded in everyday objects, enables them to constantly send and receive data. The fourth industrial revolution through connecting the physical world to the digital is allowing reinvention of industry. Process improvements and increasing productivity, create customised solutions which ultimately provides a better client experience.

As Environmental Practitioners, we have a responsibility to embrace this fourth industrial revolution, and explore how these digital principles can be applied to gain an in-depth understanding of the interactions (natural and human) that impact the delicate ecosystem within which we live.

Whilst there is significant academic understanding of how the Earth’s ecosystems function, this largely remains based on traditional knowledge transfer protocols: learn, think, write, approve. It is a static understanding using the knowledge of ‘experts’; this has ultimately been the same for centuries, arguably since the Agricultural Revolution.

As an Environmental Consultant, I am all too conscious that we have not responded and moved the agenda forward. We need to change this governance structure in favour of a protocol that reflects the dynamism of the environments within which we live.

Running parallel to this dilemma is a solution.

Digital Twinning the Planet

Digital twinning is the mapping of a physical asset to a digital platform, using data from sensors on the physical asset to analyse its efficiency, condition and real-time status. Data collected by digital twins are predicting breakages before they happen and reporting them to human operators to save money and time during production. Before the faults occur, businesses can order parts from companies that source automation components, reducing the risk of downtime caused by broken machinery. Can we use the same approach to digitally twin our environmental ecosystems through establishing the Internet of Environment, to avoid a broken planet for future generations?

Technology exists through edge computing, connected devices, and geospatial data (satellites, aerial imagery) that replicate the natural environment in real-time; showing how it responds to natural and human interactions and influences. Automated and self-learning computational systems can draw on this immense digital resource, and can provide advocacy for our natural environment, through a far more integrated understanding of the interactions of the physical, natural and human parameters.

Here are five recommended actions to extract the value of the 4th Industrial Revolution, to preserve the precious environmental resources that civilisation depends upon:

  1. Environmental professionals, institutions and academia need to understand, learn and embrace the process and language of the digital sector, to be on an equal playing field and maximise the potential.
  2. A national ledger of environmental data needs to be created. It should be mandatory for all environmental data submitted with planning applications to be submitted to this ledger. Currently, the sum of the millions of environmental data collated is stored two-dimensionally in pdfs, and hence a significantly under-utilised resource.
  3. Local planning authorities should be required to establish a web of connected devices that automate environmental monitoring beyond just air quality. This data would form a comprehensive baseline for the national environmental ledger.
  4. The use of rigid Excel spreadsheets for creating tools to represent environmental conditions needs to stop. This is no more accentuated than with the Government’s Biodiversity Benchmark Tool, and the myriad of rigid locked Excel-based Natural Capital Toolkits that continually misrepresent how ecosystems function. Badly informed complex decisions are being made because of these tools.
  5. The Government needs to provide the economic conditions for the Internet of Environment to exist. The value of the environment, the ability to replicate it digitally and then to return the investment on its service through better understanding, is a considerable economic opportunity.

The ability to digitally twin the natural environment and build the Internet of Environment exists now, and we need to be on the front foot. Ultimately collaboration between the environmental, computer science and finance sectors is required for it to happen effectively, and we need to speak a common language.

This Digital Wave cannot be stopped, so Environmental Practitioners need to learn to surf it.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Elaine Richmond

    Elaine is an environmental director who works closely with technical leads to provide client-focused environmental service solutions.

    Contact Elaine
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