Poverty, saving species, repowering the world with renewable energy, lifting people up to live better lives—there are no easy answers to guiding our planet on the path toward sustainability. Complex problems require sophisticated solutions. They involve intricacy beyond human capabilities, the kind of big-data processing and analysis that only advanced large-scale computing can provide. CompSustNet, funded by an NSF Expedition in Computing award, is a vast research network powered by the nation’s top university computer science programs, charged with applying the emerging field of computational sustainability to solving the world’s seemingly unsolvable resource problems. Put simply, the project enlists some of the top talents in computing, social science, conservation, physics, materials science, and engineering to unlock sustainable solutions that safeguard our planet’s future.
Computational Sustainability is, at its core, the belief that with sufficiently advanced computational techniques, we can devise sustainable solutions that help meet the environmental, societal, and economic needs of today while providing for future generations. In much the same way IBM’s supercomputer Watson could defeat any challenger in Jeopardy!, computational sustainability posits that a computer-engineered solution can be applied to virtually any of the world’s problems—from helping farmers and herders in Africa survive severe droughts to developing a smart power grid fueled entirely by renewable energy. CompSustNet is a large national and international multi-institutional research network led by Cornell University and including 11 other US academic institutions: Bowdoin, Caltech, CMU, Georgia Tech, Howard University, Oregon State, Princeton, Stanford, UMass, University of South California, and Vanderbilt University, as well as collaborations with several international universities. But CompSustNet is not just an ivory-tower enterprise, as it also includes key governmental and non-governmental organizations that specialize in conservation, poverty mitigation, and renewable energy, such as The Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, The International Livestock Research Institute, The Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
CompSustNet’s core mission is to significantly expand the horizons of computational sustainability and foster the advancement of state-of-the-art computer science to achieve the scale to tackle global problems. Research will focus on cross-cutting computational topics such as optimization, dynamical models, simulation, big data, machine learning, and citizen science, applied to sustainability challenges. For example, computational sustainability is being put to work to resolve the problem of providing wetlands for shorebirds that migrate from the Arctic through California during a time of drought. As California gets drier, the shorebirds have nowhere to stop, rest, and refuel by eating wetland invertebrates. Scientists are developing new dynamic precision conservation techniques that use complex, big-data models to tackle the problem with NASA satellite imagery, meteorological forecasts, and citizen science in the form of thousands of bird location sightings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird checklisting app for birdwatchers. Through partnership with The Nature Conservancy, the program forecasts when and where wetland habitat would be needed for shorebirds, and the Conservancy pays Central Valley rice farmers to flood their fields at opportune times—providing benefits for birds and farmers at a time when extreme drought is making life tough for both. In similar ways, computational sustainability projects will also be hard at work innovating automated monitoring networks to protect endangered elephant population from poachers, promoting the discovery of novel ways to harvest energy from sun light, and generating algorithms to manage the generation and storage of renewable energy in the power grid.
Advancements in computational sustainability will lead to novel, low-cost, high-efficiency strategies for saving endangered species, helping indigenous peoples improve their way of life, and scaling renewables up to meet 21st century energy demand. CompSustNet is like the seed, the venture capital, to help the field of computational sustainability achieve what’s possible.
The research leadership and contacts from all institutions are listed on the CompSustNet website.