#178 Julia Armstrong D’Agnese, Co-founder and CEO of Earth Knowledge
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese is Co-founder and CEO of Earth Knowledge and is on a mission to provide the most authoritative integrated planetary intelligence, translating the complexity of our Earth Systems into clear actionable impact to help build a more sustainable world.
Julia is an experienced leader in transforming businesses into sustainable operations and investments that are more resilient and actively contributing to the restoration of our planet. As Earth Knowledge’s CEO, Julia constructively challenges business and organizational leaders, advocating and driving reinvention through technology to deliver sustainable change.
Bigger Than Us #178
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Host Raj Daniels 00:46
Julia, how are you doing today?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 01:35
Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here, Raj. I love what you’re doing with your podcast, and Bigger Than Us is such a great message. And these are wonderful narratives and stories.
Host Raj Daniels 01:46
Thank you, Julie. I really appreciate that. And quick shout out to Cory Glickman from Infosys who introduced us. I’m very grateful for him for doing so.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 01:54
Yes, thank you. I am too.
Host Raj Daniels 01:56
So I’m going to start with a question that might not be so obvious. What’s the road look like from a master’s in psychology to entrepreneurship?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 02:08
My background, actually, is entrepreneurship. And I’ll explain more why. From my family history, on both sides of my parents’ ancestry from Europe to when we migrated to the colonies, we had the first glass factory. Generations have always been about, what can we do to help our world? And how can we build a business that can help to leave the world in a better place. So that is how I was raised on both sides of the family.
Originally, I thought I was going to go traditionally to studying — I got accepted at Yale and Princeton, and I decided to not go the traditional route, I decided to join a company that I ended up being a part of the management of, and we helped grow this company from being in trailers to going public within five years. And that experience along with my upbringing, and some of the business background, international background that I have, really was groundbreaking.
For me, studying psychology was a part of that really, to innovate, we have to understand success, and the whole dynamics of success, dynamics of working as teams, dynamics of communicating our message, and really transformations. So that’s where I’ve gotten additional training and mentorship, is around helping with change management and transformation. And that’s pivotal and innovation.
Host Raj Daniels 03:44
So while not to date or age you, the degree in psychology was a while ago. We’re seeing the idea around soft skills becoming more and more important many years later. What are your thoughts about that?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 03:58
Yes. I actually started my own consulting practice and had that for about 18 years, advising and mentoring and helping in innovation in various sectors, I was actually a managing partner with a VC firm. So that all gave me experience where I could see that I was really impacting change, even though I didn’t have my background in the sectors that I was advising or working with. My background wasn’t in science and technology, even in starting Earth Knowledge. But unless the science is understood, actionable change can’t really happen. And when change needs to happen, there’s a lot of resistance from us as human beings to really make those big changes happen.
So that’s where I’ve been extremely grateful over the years at the recognition, of that vital importance of the soft skills. Trust has been another — finally — highlighted process and valued process that has taken far too long to really be recognized. But building trust at all levels is something that I’ve really excelled in and focused on and really valued. Because if we can’t trust each other, we can’t work together in trusting teams and heaven, in the case of Earth Knowledge, very authoritative, trustworthy data and processes to make these sustainable decisions, then there’s a big barrier. There’s a saying that collaboration goes at the speed of trust. And that is what I’ve experienced.
So I’m very grateful today that finally, you’re asking a great question, Raj, that the world is really recognizing how critical for change and for our economy that trust in these soft skills really involve.
Host Raj Daniels 05:56
I appreciate that. And before we get to Earth Knowledge, what was the company you took from trailer to public?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 06:02
That — and I was in management, I did not found that company, versus I did co found Earth Knowledge — so the company was Sierra Tucson, and they were originally literally in trailers. And we brought on so much expertise and help with this whole building out of the facilities and managing very high-level celebrities to get help with their problems. And I was in the management structure of basically scaling this to going from ordinary citizens that were attending Sierra Tucson to Ringo Starr. So it was an incredible experience to be in management with.
Part of my job in managing and hiring and building teams was also keeping the culture of that company, and making sure that the messages, the culture, the relationships would stay the same, even though we became a publicly traded company.
Host Raj Daniels 07:02
Sounds like an amazing journey.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 07:04
Host Raj Daniels 07:05
Now we both teased Earth Knowledge a couple of times. Can you give the audience an overview of Earth Knowledge and your role at the organization?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 07:12
Yes, Earth Knowledge. Essentially, what we’re doing at this point is we’re building a digital twin of the earth. And we provide this kind of integrated planetary intelligence platform of the highest caliber of authoritative science-based information, basically, for being able to mitigate operational and sustainable and investment risks and harness opportunities for companies and for the financial sector.
I’m co-founder and CEO of Earth Knowledge. Part of what we do and our process over the years is that we built this living scientific network of Nobel laureates and experts, scientists from all over the world, this treasure trove of amazing people who have studied different aspects of the earth. And what they do with Earth Knowledge, then, is they know that when their information, data, models, and forecasts are integrated into our platform, that provides an avenue for their research to have a whole other level of scale and impact in the world.
So our Earth Knowledge Network is a very critical part of what I oversee and help drive as well as strategic partnerships in the business and finance world to utilize the information. So we’ve partnered in a wonderful way with Microsoft, who’s a fantastic partner, not only with technology, but they’re very relationship-based with us as partners, with our customers in a co-selling process. And they also really value sustainable science. So we’re working at all levels with the financial sector, the corporate sector, them helping us continue to build our platform on Azure as well as their sustainable science — the team is overseen by Lucas Joppa. That just gives you a sample of us.
Host Raj Daniels 09:11
Now, for those that might not be familiar with the idea of a digital twin, can you explain what exactly that is?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 09:18
Yes. So when Dr. Frank D’Agnese and I co-founded Earth Knowledge in 2003, our whole vision was that we wanted to drive sustainable decisions through integrating accurate, authoritative information about the earth. And the way that the earth works is — and the way that we’re building our digital twin — is that we integrate models from the subsurface, the geologic layers, all the way up to the atmospheric layers. And it’s really how these systems interact that give the most important information that we can gather in order to make the most sustainable decisions. So the water information relates to agriculture cycles and models, relates to landslides, relates to ocean processes, relates to climate change, etc. And there are these interactions of these systems that we analyze, understand, and then also forecasts.
We do forward-looking business intelligence in order to be able to look at what we imagined could be happening at any location around the globe, within up to the year of 2100. So let me back up for a minute. Part of our process is we have integrated historical information from the late 1800s. And that means at any location on the globe, we’ve integrated as much information as we can, and over time, we’re building out more and more so that we can understand how the Earth has been changing and evolving over time, then our models are run forward, looking into the future up to the year of 2100. At any location, what we’re analyzing is how we, as human beings, are impacting the Earth and the Earth impacting us.
So what we do is we look at sustainability, and global change indicators and factors. And so we break up these processes of global change. And global change, as I said, can include climate change, pollution, infectious disease, invasive species, land conversion, renewable resources — it’s all kinds of human planet interactions. And so what we do is we work very hard to simplify this complex information so it can actually be used. Because it’s too complicated for most of us to really understand at a deep level; yet businesses and financial organizations, government agencies, etc, want to use this information.
We’ve developed over 300 indicators that break down these global change processes so that they can be measured, and then inform that corporation or financial institution, how, at the location of any operation or supply chain around the world, they might need to limit their, mitigate their climate risk, or mitigate how they’re impacting biodiversity, for example, or what kind of water issues there might be, or all kinds of different impacts that can be there. So we help companies actually develop, then, mitigation plans to mitigate their risks, which maximizes their investments and maximizes their operations as well.
Host Raj Daniels 12:46
I have friends and acquaintances that build digital twins of infrastructure, machinery, and virtual machines, essentially, where they can run scenarios, like you said, of what might happen, what might go wrong on the digital twin, and then, like you said, predict or forecast. What moved you and Frank to decide to build a digital twin of the Earth?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 13:12
That actually was a great summary of what we do, but with the Earth. And this has been a really important part of our journey. Since 2003, that’s been our goal. The words nowadays we use are as digital twin. Then, what we were saying was that we wanted to make sure that we built a replica of the earth from the subsurface to the atmosphere, so that we could understand how these systems interact, and therefore provide the best business intelligence, planetary intelligence we could to drive these sustainable decisions.
So that’s what we decided to do because we knew it was the only way to make the really true lasting, sustainable decisions. In our journey with the company, the world wasn’t ready for that. The business and financial world hadn’t suffered enough of the multibillion dollar and trillion dollar losses with climate risk, etc. So what we did is we did aspects of the digital twin. We built water models and climate models and agriculture, etc. We forecasted where wildfires would be in the state of California, for example. So we worked with the Obama administration related to their climate data initiative. And again, our tools for forecasting were used at that point.
But what had us hold on to this vision — because we were told, really, for years. For 15 years, we were told that we should change this goal of ours, that it was too big, that we weren’t focused enough and that we should change it. We should build a water app or an agriculture app or a climate app. And we would say, “Well, we’re actually very focused, it’s just what we’re focused on is building a replica of the Earth, so that the best sustainable decisions can be made.” And it was really holding on to that vision because we know, that’s what the world needs. That made us so driven and committed to be able to protect this vision and not go off course, to just do a fragment of what our big vision really is.
Now, because of the computational power, because of the corporate and financial sector being ready, because government agencies are also worried about their infrastructure and climate risk, and all kinds of things in the future, the time is now really, for Earth Knowledge to be able to scale at a whole other level, our digital twin. So we’re very, very excited that finally we’re getting to realize the largest part of our vision and dream, which we think can help the world in the most significant way.
Host Raj Daniels 15:57
You know, while I appreciate the people who said you should perhaps focus and build an agriculture app, a water app, a climate app, I think it’s a very myopic view. People don’t realize that they’re all interconnected. I don’t think — agriculture and water go hand in hand. So how can you look at one without looking at the other? I don’t quite see how that wouldn’t be an idea, or perhaps taken from a macro standpoint, you need to focus on a holistic standpoint, because otherwise, like we do in the healthcare system a lot nowadays, we treat the symptoms and not the underlying causes.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 16:33
Exactly. And it’s the same principle, that the best medical decisions are made when we look at the whole person. We know what’s going on in the different systems of the health of that individual, their own feeling stage, where they are emotionally, and all of that. Looking at them as a whole person,we can help them make the best decisions medically, and it is the exact same thing for our planet, for our world, really.
Host Raj Daniels 17:00
On data collection, I believe, you said you have access to data going back to the 1800s. Is that correct?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 17:08
Host Raj Daniels 17:09
Where does that data reside? Not that data you have now, but the data you collected? Where do you get that data from?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 17:14
There’s a lot of that from the government agencies. And from — we work with the White House as a US Global Change Research Program, and that oversees all kinds of government agency information. In the US, it does. Now there’s different ones government agencies that we work with around the world, depending on what country’s information we’re integrating. But that’s certainly one source.
Some nonprofits have really done tremendous research to understand more what was happening earlier. So we gather as much information as we can from academic agencies, from nonprofit, and from government agencies to be able to piece together, like a tapestry, our best understanding of what was happening. For example, with land conversion, what what did our world look like prior to more and more growth in these different areas, and in the countries that evolved with urbanization and industrialization, etc?
So we look at how the world was in an earlier version as a wild state, and what all evolved, that developed an impact of the land, impact to biodiversity, impact to the renewable resources. So it really is a threading together like a tapestry of this information. It is incomplete, it is imperfect. And so there’s work in threading that together in the most useful way possible.
Host Raj Daniels 18:44
Are you using any kind of artificial artificial intelligence to help complete that picture?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 18:49
Yes. And we’ve been using that since 2010. This is something that we think is really critical in order to be able to make some of the leaps that we need to make to really understand — and again, at scale — to understand the most that we can related to our planetary intelligence.
Host Raj Daniels 19:09
I think it’s fascinating. And I’m really curious to see or ask: you have a front seat right now to potentially viewing hundreds of different scenarios as to the direction of climate change and the earth, etc. Your opinion, what are the top three concerns that you see right now in your models from a climate change perspective?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 19:31
Well, one of the — and again, just to back up just for a moment, our director of climate science is Dr. Don Wuebbles, who was President Obama’s Associate Director for the White House Office of Science and Technology, Policy. Climate science as well. And we trust and are led by a lot of his vision, as an IPCC author, as a Nobel Laureate sharing the Nobel Peace Prize for climate change. There are a lot of his and and our colleagues together that have integrated all kinds of really critical and valuable climate information.
Unfortunately, it’s really a big concern because there’s so much that we are not ready for. And when we just look at, for example, infrastructure, and how just with sea level change that’s already evolving, we’re just not ready. At a global scale, we’re not ready for infrastructure impacts with sea level rise. And that’s just a very fundamental process that we already are forecasting that is of concern. There’s what we call nuisance flooding that’s already going on. So the sea level rises one level, but there’s nuisance flooding, where there’s the periodic flooding that’s going on in these urban areas, that is really impacting populations, impacting individuals, their houses that they bought that they thought were great investments are now getting more and more impacted. That’s putting them at risk financially as well as can really put them out of commission, depending on how severe that is. So that’s another piece that we track.
Nature loss is an enormous concern. We are a part of the task force on nature-related financial disclosure. It’s a new organization that has evolved that is kind of a sister organization to the task force on climate related financial disclosure. And it’s, especially in Europe, in the very forefront at this point, is understanding the value of nature and how we’ve impacted nature. They’re saying there’s $44 trillion that is resting on nature, dependent on nature, in one way or another.
So that is a whole other process that’s very complicated, but one that deserves just front and center attention. This is why Microsoft, Ernst and Young and Earth Knowledge have just co-authored a white paper on basically biodiversity and finance. And it’s called Waking Up to Nature: an Imperative for the Financial Services.
It’s essentially saying the time is now for us to realize, as you were saying, Raj, we’re an interconnected human planet economy process. And so we need to wake up to how dependent we are on nature, how valuable our planet is, how much we can actually do things to mitigate these risks if we wake up and make the changes necessary. So that’s another one of our big driving initiatives at this point, is helping the corporate world and the financial world make better decisions around biodiversity and nature and how they’re impacting it, how they’re reporting it, how they’re reporting ESG, and really driving that kind of change.
There’s a lot of hope in all of this, even though when we look at what the models tell us, it’s enormous concern and worry. But as we’re in the process of Cop26, and the world is evolving to really be waking up, there is tremendous hope because there are things that we can do to mitigate these risks and build a better economy and planet and communities.
Host Raj Daniels 23:42
Now, you mentioned nuisance flooding, nature loss earlier, you mentioned fires. In my eyes, these are all canaries in the coal mines. I think the difference is that when there really was the canary in the coal mine, the miners whose lives were at risk would take it very seriously. And I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but in today’s day and age where people are preoccupied with perhaps squid games or other kinds of entertainment — if you had a magic wand, how would you propose we draw more attention to these issues?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 24:11
That’s a really great question. What we’ve seen over the years is — again, because we started by, if you can think about this, when we used to try to Google for Earth Knowledge, well, we’re in the sustainability market. So let’s Google the sustainability market. No results. That’s where we started.
Now Earth Knowledge sits in potentially a $40 billion opportunity. So for us, finally, there is more and more recognition just because where we’ve come from is such a depletion of being recognized. Initially the when we would go to companies and talk about Earth Knowledge, we would be sent to, first of all, the nonprofit arm. Then later, we would be sent to the social corporate responsibility arm.
Then we were sent eventually, as, for example, Corey Glickman is, the Vice President and Director of Sustainability. Now he gets all of this and really understands at such a profound level, with their CEO with their board, how big of an issue that sustainability is, and wants to help other customers also become more sustainable as well. So for us, this is an incredible growth, and there’s more recognition and attention than ever. We are actually introduced to CEOs of financial institutions and corporations, really the people at the top that can make these very large changes. So from our perspective, this is what we’ve been waiting for. And we believe it’ll continue to build more and more.
Now why has it become the way that it is at this point, where finally Earth Knowledge is leading and getting the recognition for what we’re doing? It’s really because of the pain of the financial losses that the corporations have gone through, the financial institutions have gone through, and then incredible human movement, from the younger generations on up to really, truly understanding the importance of sustainability in our planet and actually truly caring. So that momentum is very exciting to be a part of, and we do expect that to continue. There’s more and more investment that is going in to ESG-related funds, and to nature risk-related funds that are careful to be nature positive, or all kinds that are climate risk, and they’re evolving. So we’re thrilled that this is finally happening, and are very hopeful to continue to drive that drive that forward.
Host Raj Daniels 27:04
To add to my question, though — you and I are steeped in this every day — the minute I stepped out of my quote unquote, immediate work occupation network, and I speak to people who are perhaps close friends, families, about their questions and concerns if they have any, regarding climate change, or some of the challenges.from a broader perspective, very few people that I find are really either aware or engaged in any way at all. How would you suggest we better spread the message or the word or the narrative to everyday people?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 27:37
Yes, one of the things that we did earlier in Earth Knowledge, which is one of the vehicles or ways that we could do this, is we built what we call the Earth Knowledge Portal, which really was the first to market of a sustainability hub. And we did that when Google came up with Google Earth. We went to Google and talk to them about, we’ve got the the Earth Knowledge Network, the scientists around the world and information around the world that we can integrate on the globe. So that we can actually build this sustainability hub together and provide 24/7 live streaming data and information to the world, free. It basically was a SaaS product that was free.
And they were very excited, jumped on board, we contacted the BBC and Guardian World Wildlife Fund, all kinds of government agencies around the world, nonprofits. Everybody that we contacted at that point in time was saying, “Yes, I want to join in. Yes, this will help get our information out. Yes, sustainability matters.”
But we allocated, Raj, very little money, almost none, to marketing. We were sponsored by the University of Phoenix that was owned by Apollo group. And so they had 900,000 students, staff and faculty at the time, but they didn’t have environmental studies at that time that they offered. And so they sponsored the portal. But other than that and Google, we we didn’t advertise.
Over the five and a half years that we ran this free information portal, over 80% of the countries of the world accessed to our information. And this was one of our “aha” moments as well, is we thought, “Oh my gosh. So we’re getting told by companies that we tell about Earth Knowledge that we must be a nonprofit, or we need to talk to their social corporate responsibility. Yet the feedback we’re getting from the world, from the everyday person who’s using information sources, is it’s spread like wildfire.”
And so that was one of our aha moments. We ran it from 2007 to 2013. Where we said, we now realize, really, that was forecasting where our world has evolved, where stainability is much more front and center. But one of our goals right now in scaling Earth Knowledge is actually to have a media arm of Earth knowledge, the Earth Knowledge channel, to be able to interview and, and make this kind of science and information much more tangible, much more approachable, and more in the everyday world that people can understand, including business leaders, including those that just need to be able to understand the earth in a better way to make better decisions, but also the everyday people.
So that’s something that we would love to, again, do a second version of the Earth Knowledge Portal, build out our Earth Knowledge channel in a way that we can have interviews and educate people and and direct them to places where they can get better information. There is phenomenal information, now, that is out there. But often, it’s hard for people to find, and it’s hard for people to relate to. A
nd so that’s one of our key ways that we spend. Just our deep commitment is, “How can we take this brilliant science, but make it simple enough and impactful enough that people care. And people can remember things, and feel that they can do something to make a difference?”
Host Raj Daniels 31:16
Now, you mentioned that people were interested in it, then eventually sounds like business and commerce caught up. And now commerce is interested because of financial repercussions, challenges, etc. How often do you have a conversation with a company or organization where you find that they’re doing it for financial reasons, rather than — this is a morality question — the right thing to do.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 31:42
You know, it’s a blurry line. Because we tend to be optimistic that even people who are doing it, essentially, to take care of the bottom line, that if they understood more the impact and the power of what they were doing, and shifting to make more sustainable decisions, that they would feel better about it and care about it more. So that’s part of our approach and working with companies, even, that do things and try to hide things that are impacting the Earth, when we meet with them in private under NDA, and they share some of their worries and concerns, that we keep 100% confidential.
Underneath that we have experienced that they do care. They do worry about, what’s the land that they’re passing on to the next generations? How are their grandkids and great grandkids going to be living, and their own dependents, on what’s happening. That’s where we really try to work within understanding the complex nature of human beings waking up themselves to the reality of what’s going on.
Because honestly, it’s pretty overwhelming. When we bring on — early on, we brought on interns that helped us with the Earth Knowledge Portal. And they would read the — college students, very, very bright. And they would read these articles and say, “We were mapping the location of different natural social and economic capital information.” And they would say to us, “Is this true?”
And I would say, “Yes, I’m sorry to say it is true.” They’re like, “Well, we need to talk about this. I knew things were bad, but I didn’t realize this.” And that’s really what we see has happened, even with corporate leaders that underneath, they’re like, “Well, I didn’t realize that we were taking these kinds of risks.” And so there there is that blurry line, and we experience the human aspects and various degrees of denial and acceptance and commitment to do something different, versus just trying to save the bottom line. There is that just continuum.
But the way that we work with them is to really focus on the most optimistic path, which is mitigating financial risk as well. But realizing that financial risk does tie with operational risk and supply chain risk and investment risk. So at this point, there’s a huge movement that this ties into, that ESG, it became a very big deal in the corporate and financial world. Most companies are rated according to what that, SMP global or Refinitiv or whomever the the company is that is evaluating that company, to see what they view their ESG risks is; environmental, social and governance risk. What’s happened though over time is that there’s been a realization that really those decisions have been based on what is the information the companies are saying that they’re doing, not necessarily what actually is happening on the ground.
So they call it greenwashing. So that’s where Earth Knowledge comes in, is to say, “Well, we can tell you what’s happening on the ground. We can analyze any asset, any operations, or supply chain processes around the world. And we can let you know, to some degree, all kinds of these 300 indicators of climate and biodiversity and all kinds of different risks. And we can let you know what things to be aware of to be careful of.
We can let the company know, we can let investors know, etc.” That is what’s evolving today. And regulations are being put in place today, in order for that process to happen. So that’s where we’re involved with the taskforce on nature related financial disclosure, for example. But rather than being afraid about that, we’re hoping that corporations — yes, of course, we’d be concerned — but that they would also really have the desire to do something different and to mitigate their costs, and then have the ability, like from Earth Knowledge, that we can document those changes. And they can report the changes, that they really are mitigating the risks.
So it’s evolving, this whole process is evolving, and it is going to take another 10 years to really be in alignment with these processes that are going to truly build a more sustainable world. But we choose to be as collaborative as we can, no matter what they look like they’re doing or look like what their awareness level is. We’ve had so much success of behind the scenes, being able to help corporate and business and government leaders wake up. Then we need to console them, and then we need to get to work.
Host Raj Daniels 37:05
It sounds like you walk them through the five stages of grief.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 37:08
Host Raj Daniels 37:11
I need to get to acceptance, and now we can work together.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 37:13
Host Raj Daniels 37:15
Wonderful. Now, let’s go back to 2003, when you started. People were asking you questions, sounded perhaps a little crazy. What’s your why? Why did you decide to take on this endeavor?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 37:26
Well, in 2003, we knew and we began working right away on very critical projects and custom implementations. So for water rights in Las Vegas, the Earth Knowledge models were all developed related to Las Vegas being one of the first cities and the largest being faced with enormous drought and water restrictions and concerns. So we had very, through the years since 2003, we’ve done some very significant work. It’s just the models of building the digital twin and incorporating and doing it at scale the way that we are now, we just knew the computational capacities weren’t there to be able to do that, economically, that we needed to do it in pieces, and that we were waiting for the market to really, really be ready.
But we would tell people that we thought that one day, our company would become a multi billion dollar company, because that is how important the earth is. And Frank D’Agnese and I see ourselves as leaders — he is President and CTO and me as CEO, essentially, just as instruments in that process. This needs to happen, not because of us, but because it really needs to happen. It truly is the only way for the most sustainable decisions to be made.
And we have an incredible rigor that we put all of our data and models through, as we won’t accept anything that isn’t authoritative, peer-reviewed, goes through our Earth Knowledge Science Council’s rigor to assess, yes, this is something that we can integrate into our models. So that builds trust, then, that we are the organization that can be trusted for that kind of planetary intelligence. And so that’s what we’ve held on to because we’ve known that that’s what needs to happen. And we’ve known that the earth is that important. And one day, the business world would wake up to that. And fortunately, that day is now.
Host Raj Daniels 39:36
Tell me more about being an instrument.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 39:39
This ties into your podcast. This is bigger than us. And when Frank and I decided to — again, you know, my background was innovation. His background is he’s just a brilliant scientist, an earth system scientist. Very innovative in his own ways. He always wanted to integrate different disciplines in science. And he would be told, as he was getting his PhD, “No, no, you don’t want to integrate disciplines, you want to focus.” And he would say, “Well, I want to focus on the earth.” So he brought that focus to us to say, and with his technology background, as well, to say, this is what we know needs to be built to make the best decisions in the world.
And my contribution, along with innovation and transformational change, was also that we need to make sure that the ordinary people, like me, can actually understand you brilliant people, like all of the scientists who I love, and who are a part of our Earth Knowledge network.
So that’s been a really critical part of what we’ve done together, then, is built this capacity to make this really complex science and models, simplify it with these indicators, and be able to communicate in a way that’s measurable, and in a sense, go from the EarthCube to the spreadsheet, and have it be a form through which better decisions could be made, that the business is speaking the language of business, and speaking the language of accounting, to be able to make those those real decisions.
Host Raj Daniels 41:16
Now you’ve used the word “trust” many times during this conversation, I see it as a very strong guiding principle. Tell me more about that.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 41:24
Trust is something that really is the forefront of what we want to communicate about Earth Knowledge. Even in Cop26 discussions, there are discussions about, “What is the climate model information that’s being used, and how trustworthy is that information for decision-making?” And having a source that can be trusted for the most reliable, authoritative information is really critical, because otherwise, their data is going to be seen as an obstacle for change rather than a vehicle for change.
So trust in that way, that the information has got to be seen and understood as being trustworthy, that really important and big decisions can be made, that can be used with trustworthy science-based information. Trust also has to be integrated with our Earth Knowledge Network. Scientists, in general, are really brought up to be their own advocate, in many ways, to create their own research, to collaborate, most definitely. But it’s been more in the last 10 years that putting multidisciplinary information has become more and more popular and common. But that also involves trust, is someone who’s been studying geology and landslides and roads and infrastructure and the impact on the land is different than a climate scientist. They think differently, they operate differently, they operate different paradigms.
When we used to informally advise people in the White House who would want to integrate across government agencies, they would say, “Well, how do we bring NASA and NOAA together?” And we would say, “The only way to really bring NASA and NOAA together is to respect that they’ll always be very different.” And that’s a good thing, NASA’s paradigm, and what they do with, for example, just in in Space, and technology in space, is very different than NOAA’s focus, for example, on climate, and that’s okay.
They may have datasets that we want to integrate and share. But we need to trust them and have them trust each other and not compete with each other. Everybody has their place to be able to provide and then have us integrate this vital planetary information. So trust with our Earth Knowledge Network is another critical piece.
So it’s not only with our customers and those that need the information, but it’s also with our network. And then it’s with our partnerships with Microsoft and Ernst and Young and Infosys and all kinds of partners that are new and developing. And we look for partnerships. Very prominent companies are coming to us to partner, and that also requires trust, to really get a lot done together, to say, “Well, let’s integrate our information into supply chain management here, we’re going to be getting on one of the exchanges with their ESG hub.” That all involves working together, collaborating, and some level of trust, to partner together really.
And then finally, internally within Earth Knowledge, we have a culture that really prioritizes collaboration, honesty, accountability, mindfulness. We’re all in this together. This is much bigger than all of us. Just like your podcast is saying, you know, Earth Knowledge’s mission is so much bigger than all of us. We just need to work hard, keep our egos out of the way, do the right thing, be as committed and consistent and passionate as we can be. Because this is much bigger than us. And we want to see it really succeed. And depending on each other and trusting each other to be able to do that is really a critical part for us at internally with Earth Knowledge as well.
Host Raj Daniels 45:35
Well, you struck me as a very introspective individual. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself on your journey?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 45:43
To really follow our passions. I really believe that all of us are given gifts that are unique, and that we can really have a unique purpose or purposes in our world. What Frank and I have had to go through in order to hold on to our mission really has involved going through, and basically protecting ourselves from, a lot of criticism and belittling from others who didn’t really understand the earth and didn’t really understand where the market was going. And we built more thick skin through that process, we built a deeper commitment, we also built a very strong support system for those that really got Earth Knowledge.
There’s a lot of money that we could have made, had we done — this is what people pointed out: “Well, if you build a water app, based on your water models already, you could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars of annual revenue. Why are you not doing that?” Well, we’re not doing that, because our bigger gift to the world is really building the digital twin. And we’ll wait until we’re able to really do that. But we’ve weathered a lot of backlash from that, and also gotten stronger because of it. So that’s one of the things that would encourage people to really find what your passion is, and those that can support and empower you with that passion, and also protect you from criticism.
All innovative stories usually have some part of that story of people trying to knock that innovation down or telling that innovator that it won’t work, or it’s not a good idea, or it’s too big of an idea, or whatever criticisms it is. So that’s what I would really encourage is is to stay steady and tight and strong with what you feel you really can contribute in the world. Learn from our mistakes, which is something of course that we’ve been doing as well. But really staying committed and with our heart and minds open, that it gives really the best results. And I think it does make the biggest difference in the world.
Host Raj Daniels 48:00
It’s the crazy ideas that people have, or perhaps said differently, it’s the shift in the Overton window where it moves from ridiculous to acceptable.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 48:10
Right. And then to popular.
Host Raj Daniels 48:13
There you go exactly. Here we are at popular, right?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 48:17
Host Raj Daniels 48:19
So Julia, let’s fast forward into the future. If Fast Company, Newsweek, Time — pick a publication — were to write a headline about Earth Knowledge, would you like it to read?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 48:31
Well, what I envision is by 2030, there will be this strong bridge being built between the brilliant scientific and sustainable science community and experts and those decision makers who deeply need that information — the corporate and government agencies, the financial sector — so that bridge then can really be strong to truly help us make the most sustainable decisions, to build a truly sustainable world where the triple bottom line becomes a way of life. So I see Earth Knowledge as a key facilitator in helping to make that happen, helping to integrate the information, bridge the relationships and help make that information more understandable and actionable. We’re looking planetary intelligence to really help a shift to become more nature-positive and climate-resilient.
Host Raj Daniels 49:33
Well, I look forward to continue to watch your growth. My last question, and you talked about it briefly earlier about people and passion. But if you could share some advice, words of wisdom recommendations, even with the audience, it could be professional or personal. What would it be?
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 49:48
The biggest lesson is what I was talking about, is that in the face of innovation, and in order to really bring big changes in the world, innovation and is built into that process for people to remember that there always will be others who can’t embrace those changes for whatever reasons, and to make sure that those naysayers aren’t given power. But the ones that support that vision and can help with the practical steps of making, taking that dream and making it a reality, those are the ones that are listened to, that are embraced at some level, that are incorporated into that innovators life and company and process. We do need each other and we do need that support.
But I think that’s really important. Our world kind of drives itself. The media often focuses on what’s negative, what’s going wrong, what to worry about, fear-based news in many ways. So it’s easy for our brains to focus on something that is a negative piece of feedback far more than its is easy to focus on the positive feedback. So I think watering the seeds of the positive feedback, nourishing and nurturing that is just really critical in being able to sustain our own vision of how we can make a difference in the world. And just stay with that, through thick and thin, through hard times and good times, to really be able to stay with that.
Host Raj Daniels 51:33
Julia, I think nurturing and watering the seeds of positivity is a great place to end off. I really appreciate your time today. And I look forward to catching up with you again soon.
Julia Armstrong D’Agnese 51:42
Great. Thank you so much, Raj. I love what you’re doing, and I’m so grateful and privileged to be a part of it.
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