How have sustainability approaches evolved to address different scales?

by Matt Ball on April 2, 2012

There has been a great deal of maturity in the tools and approaches to sustainability problems over the past four years since V1 Magazine was launched. At the global and regional scale, we’ve seen an increasing application of sensors and systems to monitor, analyze and adapt to global change. At the local and city scale, there are new ‘smart’ and ‘responsive’ approaches that inform infrastructure with real-time monitoring that are incorporated into design and management, taking into account the impacts of infrastructure.

While sustainability issues and approaches are a global problem, we’ve gained greater insight by parsing the problems by scale. The scale-based approach helps us better understand interactions at the ecosystem, landscape, watershed, city, and building scale. Increasingly, we’re seeing a more scientific management approach through the creation of models, the establishment of baselines of performance, and the regular monitoring to understand global change, and its impact on global, regional, and local systems. In addition, we’re seeing this approach applied to both the natural world, the built environment, and the nexus between the two.

Global Change

We face many challenges at a global scale in terms of energy, water, food, and security that are being driven by population growth as well as climate change. Gaining a better understanding about the scale and scope of these changes, and how impacts are interrelated, is a big job that requires a rigorous methodology with interconnected systems and monitoring approaches.

While computer models have come a long way, we have yet to adequately model the complex systems of our planet. The web of remote sensing satellites and other sensor networks provide the tools to give us big-picture measurements of change to both our planet and atmosphere. However, our models must be calibrated with these inputs as well as fieldwork in order to understand local conditions. With a growing need to pull together our knowledge and to share insights in order to prioritize our actions, we’ll increasingly rely on sensors and systems to improve our knowledge of change.

Local Action

The greatest impact takes place at the regional and local level, where there’s greater opportunity for action through policy. Mandates are a likely necessity to change how we manage our impacts, but with integrated monitoring systems, these mandates can be tuned toward performance rather than estimated outcomes.

There’s a change occurring with the connection of design tools to design analytics. This new informed design scales from local to regional to help manage our dense urban areas in concert with the natural world. Design in tune with nature is an ancient practice, but what’s new today is the ability to combine sensor inputs and modeling to tune infrastructure design to both the natural environment and existing structures. This whole new level of interactivity of models within the context of the real world promises to accurately measures impacts for improved performance and efficiency.

A New Approach

While there are distinct approaches at the different scales, there’s also the need to combine the outputs of our monitoring and management systems for cross-cutting exploration of sustainability topics. The issues of sustainability play heavily on these individual scales, for inputs and actions, yet we could do a much better job of meshing our knowledge for a more holistic view if the tools and data analysis were better aligned. By combining these systems, we’ll gain a greater understanding of how global pressures affect individuals, and how local action can help alter the global picture.

The groundwork has been set for a system of systems approach at the global scale, and increasingly there’s interest in more interdisciplinary collaboration. While we can’t seem to find consensus on the human domination of Earth systems, and the scale and scope of destructive impacts to human well being due to global change are hard to gauge, we can all agree that we must be prepared and ready to adapt in a way that is responsive and efficient. Through sensors and systems to monitor global change, and more adaptive infrastructure that is resilient to this global change, we’ll be well poised to sustain and improve human well-being while also improving our planet.


Editor’s Note: Given the considerable activity to address global change, the opportunity is ripe for a re-branding of V1 Magazine to more directly address these trends. Starting in May, the publication name will become Sensors & Systems ( With this change, a new tagline “Monitoring, Analyzing, and Adapting to Global Change,” has been adopted, which maintains the sustainability message while elevating the topics of security, energy, food, biodiversity, and ecosystem services. In addition, we are launching a publication titled Informed Infrastructure ( to cover the connection of design tools to analytics, with the tagline “Extending Design to Include Impacts.” It similarly addresses the new ability to combine sensor inputs, simulation and modeling, but at the local infrastructure design and city planning scale. We look forward to serving our readers with publication titles closely tied to their topics, and aligned tightly to both local and global stewardship.

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