Social Inclusion and Environmental Sustainability: We Stand or Sink Together

During the opening plenary of this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to retrofit one of our oldest paradigms. “The one who controls data,” he said, “controls the world.”

But if there’s one urgent takeaway from the information revolution, it’s that humankind’s efforts to control the world have had unintended consequences. New data are revealing deep interconnections, and some disastrous dynamics, between human social systems and the natural world.

Environmental degradation and climate change are taking a frightening toll, especially in cities, where 60 percent of the world’s people are expected to live by 2030. Headlines describe melting streets in Sydney and mounting sea levels in Osaka; “blast furnaces” in the South and “bomb cyclones” in the North.

And those most affected by environmental crises tend to be the most vulnerable populations on Earth: the young, the old, the disenfranchised, and the poor. Social inequities translate to environmental inequities as well.

Today, for example, we know more than ever about the connection between socioeconomic status and exposure to environmental pollution and harm. In the United States, longitudinal research paints a grim picture of pollution sources and hazardous waste facilities systematically locating themselves in lower-income communities — whereas environmentally friendly interventions like bike-sharing that can help reduce automobile pollution and traffic are often located only in higher-income areas.

But what if data could not only reveal such dilemmas, but also help to remedy them? Dr. Angel Hsu is the Director of Data-Driven Yale, a research group dedicated to strengthening environmental policy through the advances of the information revolution.

One of the group’s newest projects, the Urban Environmental and Social Inclusion Index (UESI), seeks to answer pressing questions about the relationship between environmental performance in urban areas and the people who call cities home. Where do environmental performance and social inclusion intersect? Who in a city is benefiting from clean air and green spaces, and who is suffering under sparse tree cover and heat stress? How can one city’s successful interventions help lift the lives of people in another?

The UESI aims to respond with more precision than its counterparts. While comparable indices rely on self-reported data and usually provide only one “score” of a city’s environmental performance, the UESI leverages satellite imagery and sensed data across multiple points in a city to account for spatial variation. Instead of simply asking, “How is this city performing?” the UESI is like a neighborhood watch: “Where in a city is performance low or high, and who needs help the most?”

Perhaps the UESI’s greatest strength is its focus on practicality and reproducibility. Sustainable Development Goal 11 — one of the 17 Global Goals that came into force at the United Nations two years ago — pledges to make urban communities inclusive and ecologically equitable by 2030. This index will help city planners around the world to track their progress, closing the gap between intervention and results.

So far, the UESI is active in 20 cities at various stages of development and growth. With time and investment, Data-Driven Yale seeks to expand its data collection to every city on the planet. Baghdad and Sao Paulo, both suffering from crippling droughts, could swap solutions in real-time. The investments Amsterdam and Berlin have made in mitigating air pollution could be shared for free with developing cities like Kampala and Onitsha.

Even before the UESI officially launches in June, there are opportunities to discuss its application in the fight against environmental degradation and social isolation.

From February 7–13, 2018, for example, thousands of policy makers, practitioners, NGO representatives, and more are expected to descend on Kuala Lumpur for the Ninth Session of the World Urban Forum (WUF 9), which is dedicated to implementing the New Urban Agenda (NUA) — the international community’s most promising roadmap for reaching SDG 11.

The NUA commits leaders to build cities that “foster social cohesion, inclusion and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies, where the needs of all inhabitants are met, recognizing the specific needs of those in vulnerable situations.” Yet, even as the NUA is one of the first agreements of its scale to prioritize social inclusion, it lacks a set of tools or viable monitoring system by which city planners can measure their progress.

Without a way to track performance toward the NUA’s goals, we may not know if our interventions are working until it is too late to correct course. By the same token, a tool such as the UESI can equip people with the knowledge they need to hold their governments accountable. To revise Prime Minister Modi’s observation: When the people control the data, they control their destiny.

There is no time to waste. The opportunity for action is already fading in cities like Jakarta, where underserved residents on the outskirts of town are so desperate for clean water that they have begun to dig hundreds of wells, causing the entire city to sink even faster than sea levels rise. Indonesia’s capital stands as a sobering reminder of the stakes at hand: In the fight to protect our planet, we stand or sink together.