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Wicked solutions for wicked problems

Credit: John Westrock on Unsplash (Creative Commons)

Climate data and information, open-source solutions, human-inspired design and connected systems-wide approach will be key to tackling the wicked problem of climate change.

By Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Executive Coordinator a.i., Global Environment Finance Unit, UNDP

Climate change is a wicked problem. There’s no easy answer and no one-size-fits-all solution. Nearly everything we see, do, eat or buy somehow connects to it.

Solving wicked problems isn’t easy. Billions of dollars are being leveraged through the United Nations, private sector and national governments to build lasting solutions and address the interconnected drivers such as poverty, hunger and inequality that exacerbate the risks.

Collecting, analyzing and sharing climate data and information should be one of the first steps we take in addressing this wicked problem. Information is power. It will give companies (both large and small), cities, governments and societies as a whole the knowledge they need to respond to climate risks, make better decisions (in the boardroom, on the farm and in the halls of government), and promote an integrated and holistic approach that extends across sectors and borders.

Here’s where the wickedness of this problem comes into play. The data we have just isn’t as good as it should be – especially in the developing world. And siloed approaches, turf wars, reliance on outdated technologies and practices, and a status-quo approach are hindering efforts to modernize climate services.

Taken further, many smaller enterprises along the “long tail” that connects people with industry, lack the tools, know-how, and sometimes willingness to look at the data, and transform and evolve their business strategies to align with the unique challenges that climate change brings.

Looking at various sectors, it’s easy to see how improving the volume, variety, velocity and veracity (the Four Vs of big data) of climate information will advance business efficiency, future-proof investments, and protect the collective social gains that build strong economies, encourage consumer spending and will work toward a better world – the kind of place we all dreamed of as kids that provides equality, prosperity and peace for every man, woman and child on earth.

The value proposition is really quite simple. Energy companies can green production, save money and make better long-term investments on infrastructure and research and development if they can have better prognostics of current and future weather conditions. Farmers can improve efficiency, which will not only work toward global goals of ending hunger and poverty, but will also reduce the carbon output produced by inefficient farms. Extractive industries can protect equipment and workers from fast-acting storms that can take lives and destroy productive assets.

From a bigger perspective, this information can be used to make faster decisions, adjust approaches, orchestrate responses from multiple entities, model and scale successful initiatives, and pull a million disconnected threads into a unified approach to solving the wicked problem that climate change presents.

A new vision for climate services

So how can we improve the collection, analysis and distribution of climate data? The first step is to convene business, small- and medium-enterprises, government, civil society, UN agencies and other relevant actors to create an open-source approach.

This would mean that government agencies responsible for the collection of this information (generally National HydroMeteorological Services – NHMS) would share information more openly.

Private sector weather service providers – these are propping up the world over to fill the gaps in localized weather monitoring – will also play a role in the collection of information and analysis via cloud-computing platforms such as the easy-to-deploy, service and manage networks of automatic weather stations that are vastly improving HydroMet Services in Africa.

Finally, media companies and the telecoms sector will be essential in sharing this information. Tailoring climate information for specific businesses creates an entirely new industry that’s fast filling up with Big Data firms like aWhere, which provides analysis of weather data to inform data-based farming solutions.

UNDP is championing a new vision for climate services that brings together these various actors, leverages new technologies, builds end-to-end solutions, and connects the private sector to improve climate services across the globe. Through this approach Sierra Leone is leveraging new leap-frogged technologies and cloud-solutions to build community-based early warning systems and new public-private partnerships to protect energy production for hydroelectric dams. In Liberia, cell towers are being used to site automatic weather stations, ensuring these stations have the power, security and connectivity they need for continuous operation. In Cambodia, partnerships between the government, UNDP and Servir-Mekong (a geospatial data-for-development program that responds to the needs of Lower Mekong countries) are improving the collection of information related to droughts that will impact everything from energy production to the tech industry.

The arrival of blockchain

It’s dangerous to assume that technology will save us from climate change. After all, it was technology – cars, factories, planes, electricity – that got us here. This said, several technological innovations have the potential to change the way we address the problem of climate change.

One of the most promising solutions comes from blockchain. This tremendous new technology is most widely recognized in connection with bitcoin, but it has amazing potential to support business and governments in achieving goals for low-carbon, climate-resilient development.

Properly connected with improved institutional connections and other human-driven innovations it could also reduce inefficiencies, provide controls on corruption, and create the backbone on which to connect the million threads that come together in the wicked problem of climate change.

Blockchain also creates a sort of bonafide seal of approval as it’s tamper-proof, a positive step in increasing public confidence in climate change investments.

UNDP is highly engaged in the blockchain dialogue across the organization. For climate change adaptation, a few promising concepts are arising.

• Drinking Water Registry. A public blockchain ledger could be used to enforce peer-review of certifications, encourage accuracy through accountability, prevent modifications, and retain an immutable history around these reports to improve public health. These registries could be connected with ongoing climate resilience initiatives in Maldives and Sri Lanka.

• Forecasts and Alerts. A climate forecast, advisory, or alert can be triggered by monitoring data that exceeds certain thresholds (say for instance flooding rivers or contaminated water sources). To improve the volume and veracity of this information, a blockchain publishing system could be used to enforce a model where the information needs to be verified and signed-off on by one or more authorized users before publishing is triggered. This would also maintain a permanent record and history of these authorizations, encouraging accuracy and accountability. Reports could connect with ongoing efforts in Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as climate services projects in Georgia, Malawi and Pakistan.

• Certified Value Chains. A blockchain powered certified value chain ledger could be used to support the concept of certified green, organic or fair-trade products. Participating entities and the flow of the products throughout the value chain would be securely tracked and visible, producing a verifiable public record of the product’s track from farm to market. This could encourage adherence to standards and improve consumer confidence. In Ecuador, a deforestation-free value chain certification programme is underway. The use of certified ledgers here could facilitate payments, transparency and fiduciary controls. Taken to scale, it could also be used in places like Zambia, to track initiatives to improve resilience for millions of farmers.

A vision to connect it all

No doubt blockchain technologies, new advances in automatic weather and water monitoring systems, and cloud-computing systems will be a part of the solution. But these technologies alone won’t get us there.

A whole series of steps needs to be put in place to orchestrate these threads to create a cohesive system to solve the problem.

This means the UN system needs to improve the way they operate and respond to the demands of developing countries and businesses, especially smaller enterprises that may not have the capacity to adapt to climate change on their own. It means developed countries need to step up in a big way to finance climate actions. It means we need to streamline efficiencies and build systems that allow for faster decision-making and response. It means we need to start thinking about solutions to the climate change problem not in terms of one-off responses, but as a connected effort that incorporates inputs and feedback from all corners of our economy and society. And it means, silos need to be broken down to share information and technology more openly.

With technologies like blockchain, information silos could very well one day become a thing of the past. The whole world – and every piece of data ever created – could be shared, verified, improved and acted upon in an orchestrated symphony of everything. It’s a brave new way of doing things, and a wicked simple solution to a wicked hard problem.



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