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Why understanding our rapidly changing planet calls for a geographic approach

Esri founder and CEO Jack Dangermond argues that “geographic information systems” are a fundamental framework for understanding that impacts virtually every aspect of our society

Why understanding our rapidly changing planet calls for a geographic approach
Map courtesy of Esri

When it comes to slowing our world’s current slide into climate-caused calamities, Esri founder and CEO Jack Dangermond says, “It’s late in the day, but it’s not dark yet.” Dangermond has hope because hundreds of thousands of people around the world are already using advanced mapping and analysis to address problems, including corporations seeking a fix to stalled supply chains, governments looking to lessen the risks its residents face, and relief agencies working to help the most vulnerable among us. In this wide-ranging interview, he argues that global challenges such as COVID and climate change require a geographic approach to building new systems for understanding the world.

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It can sometimes feel insurmountable in addressing the simultaneous problems we’re facing—climate change, social inequality, global health concerns. How can geography make better sense of today’s world?

Jack Dangermond: Our world is complex; it’s highly interdependent and rapidly changing. And the world is not well-known. Everybody thinks it’s well-known, but it’s not. We’re in a crisis. Technology can help. We’re an organization that is developing a geographic approach and a technology that can help deal with a crisis.

Esri founder and CEO Jack Dangermond

One need only look at the COVID map from John Hopkins that has been viewed 2.2 trillion times. That opened the world’s eyes. I look at it every day. It reached almost a third of the world’s population. That visualization helped people understand the context of what was going on. We would not be in the same place we are, even today, had that map not been there, because people wouldn’t have collectively understood. They would still be in the dark.

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How is a “geographic approach” different from any other approach to problem solving? 

A geographic approach is a fundamental framework for understanding that impacts virtually every aspect of our society. It’s multidisciplinary and multi-objective. And it’s collaborative; it can bring people together regardless of economics or nationalities. The technology we work with, a geographic information system (GIS), empowers this geographic approach. It takes in and stores all kinds of data and creates new data, so people can manage it, analyze it, and map it.

These powerful GIS maps and dashboards show where things are, obviously, but more importantly they give context surrounding those locations—you can see what’s happening where. You can bring in aerial and satellite imagery and, through AI and machine learning, teach the GIS to recognize features on the ground. When you visualize your data, not as a list but as a picture that tells a story, and model it, you can see what’s happening now and predict what may happen next. This results in better, more informed decisions.

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Sustainability is going to require that we first see the world as one system. Geography provides the science and language to do that. GIS provides the technological tools.”

We have about 45 million datasets that have been shared by our customers, and they’re starting to use each other’s data too. They’re creating more sustainable forests or developing more resilient cities using this geographic approach. Sustainability—and I’m not just talking environmental conservation but a balance that also addresses economic and social inequalities—is going to require that we first see the world as one system. Geography provides the science and language to do that. GIS provides the technological tools.

What about a business just trying to navigate pandemics, supply chain disruptions, and climate events to survive?

Private industry is taking note of the geospatial analysis governments have long seen value in. Take insurance companies, which are way ahead. They are overlaying all the risk factors on maps and then assessing the risk of a particular geography, whether it’s wildfires or sea-level rise. The knowledge they’re working with is going to change land-use patterns. High-risk land may eventually find itself undeveloped and preserved, not from any charitable doing. It will simply be too expensive because the insurance is going to be so high.

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Retailers, like Starbucks, Walmart, Chick-fil-A, and Nike are also realizing the geographic advantage of seeing their customers, locations, and operations more clearly, through GIS analysis of data from sensors and other sources. Shippers route delivery trucks that way, too. UPS saved $400 million on routing their vehicles; FedEx, similarly.

As for supply chain challenges, we’re working with companies including Kohler, BNSF Railway, and FedEx to use our tools to help them model, in real time, how their actual operations work. Supply chains failed because people always thought of them as a cost center, not as an area of investment. They were always at the end of the line in terms of getting support from management.

Understanding the locations of potential suppliers, spatially, sets up a nice framework because you can use a map to overlay things like weather or earthquakes or disruptions in the physical infrastructure. This helps you see and immediately understand where the interruptions are going to happen. You can test various scenarios and responses and simulate the results. We have been able to help a number of railroads that way.

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A geographic approach can also help companies ensure their supply chains are environmentally sustainable. There’s an organization that is a consortium of about half of all the clothing manufacturers around the world. They’ve set up an index, the Higg Index, to help connect suppliers that are acting responsibly, with sustainable objectives in mind, to the manufacturing cycle.

The urgency to turn things around globally, especially surrounding climate change, feels as if it’s reached a fever pitch—that if we don’t act now, we’ll have missed our chance. Is our window for using a geographic approach to solve these weighty problems closing?

I see a time when every organization is going to be using maps and the geographic approach to chart their future, run their business, and create a more sustainable future.”

It’s not going to be easy to stop some of the downhill momentum, that’s why we need everyone to go all-in with us on turning things around. At Esri, we have about 10 million users, including about 350,000 organizations, and they’re already solving problems and managing vital resources across the planet—forests, water, mining, agriculture. They gather the data, they analyze it, and then they act. They’re doing conservation work and intervening to help the environment. They’re designing cities. They’re making services more equitable. They’re working with nature, not against it. They’re managing traffic, in the air and on the ground.

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Our users are also keeping the public safe. They’re monitoring threats. They’re making maps about disasters, preparing for them, and responding to them. Our users made literally trillions of maps to respond to the pandemic. With them, governments picked the right sites for vaccinations and quarantine zones.

Ninety percent of the electrical utilities in North America, and about 40% around the world, are using our technology to manage their assets but also to decide where to build wind farms and solar projects as they move to renewable energy. One of our customers models snow depth and determines how much will be available for agriculture in the Central Valley of California. Another, a satellite company, tracks illegal fishing in places like the Galapagos.

There are billions of maps made every day. Some of them are interesting, dynamic maps. Some of them are traditional maps. A map of Mars even traveled with the Perseverance Rover and was used to sense the landing site’s terrain while descending and adjust in real time.

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The work is already being done; there just needs to be much more of it. I see a time when every organization is going to be using maps and the geographic approach to chart their future, run their business, and create a more sustainable future.

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