computing and IT across disciplines to promote sustainability in areas and systems in which advances in information and communications technology (ICT) could have significant positive impact.3
The committee believes that some of the most profound fundamentals within the field itself are suggestive of the unique contributions that computer science (CS) and ICTs can make to sustainability. For instance, the very notion of automated “queryable” structured data is at the heart of much of computer science. The scope and scale of the sustainability challenge are coupled with vast amounts of relevant data, which makes deep insights into the challenges of collecting, structuring, and understanding those data essential. Computational thinking is critical to solving almost any large problem. The committee’s focus is on problems that are intellectually challenging, grounded in IT and CS, and important for sustainability—that is, a kind of “Pasteur’s octant.” See Figure 1.1.
Despite the profound technical challenges presented by sustainability and the huge potential role for IT and CS, the committee recognizes that sustainability is not, at its root, a technical problem, nor will merely technical solutions be sufficient. Instead, solutions ultimately will require deep economic, political, and cultural adjustments, as well as major, long-term commitment in each sphere in order to put technical advancements and enablers in operation at scale. Nevertheless, technological advances and enablers can be developed and shaped to support such change, while continuing to support enduring human values in the process. Information technology can serve as a bridge between technical and social solutions
3The community has already begun addressing this challenge. Bill Tomlinson’s book Greening Through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010) explores how IT can address sustainability challenges at scale. A 2009 article by Carla Gomes, “Computation Sustainability: Computational Methods for a Sustainable Environment, Economy, and Society” in The Bridge 39(4):5-13, provides examples of computational research being applied to domain fields (biodiversity and renewable energy sources). Gomes’s work is an important component of computational sustainability; the present report explores the broader potential for research and innovation in CS and IT to have an impact on sustainability. Additionally, the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering and the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) jointly sponsored a workshop on the Role of Information Sciences and Engineering in Sustainability. The full report of the workshop, Science, Engineering, and Education of Sustainability: The Role of Information Sciences and Engineering, which discusses research directions for IT as it relates to sustainability, is available at http://cra.org/ccc/docs/RISES_Workshop_Final_Report-5-10-2011.pdf. This report is well aligned, in terms of research areas, with the CCC report. Additionally, the committee concurs with the CCC report Section 4, titled “The Power of Use-Inspired (Collaborative) Fundamental Research.” The present report expands on this theme in Chapter 3, especially in regard to the strength of computer science as a discipline and what it can contribute to sustainability objectives.