Data from space for sustainability on Earth
When World Economic Forum executive chairman Klaus Schwab announced the fourth industrial revolution at the 2016 Davos conference, he described it as “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”. This fusion enables unprecedented advances, from manufacturing and telecommunications to medicine and transport. But it also brings disruption to human identities and social structures, raising ethical and practical concerns about how we live, work and govern ourselves. As recent protests by young activists have shown, there is greater awareness than ever of potential threats to the very survival of human beings and the planet.
In September 2018, Murray Collins joined the University’s School of GeoSciences as a Chancellor’s Fellow. He is keenly aware of the risks and opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution, drawing on his entrepreneurial instinct, interdisciplinary academic record and extensive field experience in the forests of Africa and Asia to understand human impact on the planet, whether positive or negative. Dr Collins works on algorithms to analyse satellite radar data, using the results to inform the mapping of deforestation and forest degradation, and to find solutions for the problems of balancing biodiversity conservation and development pressures. He highlights a widely-held perception of “inexorable decline across the UK” in the face of complex issues like Brexit, stagnating wage growth and reduced prospects for upcoming generations. “There are fundamental questions to address about where the next phase of economic growth will come from,” he stresses, “and how this can be achieved in an environmentally positive manner.” Meeting those demands in Scotland depends on the creation of “a new generation of highly technically-competent graduates who are sufficiently innovative and entrepreneurial to create world-leading companies exploiting opportunities which we cannot yet foresee.”
As the fourth industrial revolution gathers (digital) steam, Dr Collins sees Edinburgh and South East Scotland needing to develop the “human capital, technological basis and supporting environment” to provide “high value jobs in an inclusive economy of the future”. This will only succeed, of course, if it is part of a planet-wide shift to sustainable growth, and the research Dr Collins undertakes as a Chancellor’s Fellow offers a vital connection between growth and conservation. “Satellites are collecting huge volumes of data about the surface of our planet,” he says. “We can map and monitor natural and human-dominated systems, from agricultural landscapes in western Europe, through to the last remote patches of forest in the Amazon.” This contributes to the “particularly strong capability” of the School of GeoSciences when it comes to monitoring progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals — the gold standard for sustainability in the twenty-first century, and beyond.