Once a model is established, “what-if” scenarios can be simulated, evaluated, and used as input for decision making. Modeling and simulation tools vary widely, from spreadsheets to highly sophisticated modeling environments. When a model reaches a certain maturity and trust level, algorithms, such as optimizations or triggers, can be deployed to automate the decision making if automation is appropriate (for example, in terms of actuation). Alternatively, information can be distilled and presented in visual, interactive, or otherwise usable ways so that other agents—individuals, organizations and businesses, and policy makers and governments—can deliberate, coordinate, and ultimately make appropriate, better-optimized choices and, ultimately, actions.

All of the steps described above must be done in an iterative fashion. Given that most sustainability challenges involve complex, interacting systems of systems undergoing constant change, all aspects of sensing, modeling, and action need to be refined, revised, or transformed as new information and deeper understandings are gained. A strong approach is to deploy technology in the field using reasonably well understood techniques to explore the space and to map where there are gaps needing work. Existing data and models then help provide context for developing qualitatively new techniques and technologies for even better solutions.

FINDING: Enabling and informing actions and decision making by both machines and humans are key components of what CS and IT contribute to sustainability objectives, and they demand advances in a number of topics related to human-computer interaction. Such topics include the presentation of complex and uncertain information in useful, actionable ways; the improvement of interfaces for interacting with very complex systems; and ongoing advances in understanding how such systems interact with individuals, organizations, and existing practices.

Many aspects of computer science and computer science research are relevant to these challenges. In this chapter, the committee describes four broad research areas, listed below, that can be viewed as organizing themes for research programs and that have the potential for significant positive impact on sustainability. The list is not prioritized. Efforts in all of the areas will be needed, often in tandem.

  • Measurement and instrumentation;
  • Information-intensive systems;
  • Analysis, modeling, simulation, and optimization; and
  • Human-centered systems.

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