| Sustainable comprehension
The Gothenburg Strategy, adopted in 2001 and renewed in 2006, defines sustainable development as a key target of the European Union. To achieve this target, sustainable development requires to be better understood by regulators, businesses, scientists and the ordinary citizen.
The NATURNET-REDIME project aims to develop educational tools that help us to understand sustainable development. The project is in fact the merger of two projects that each seek to use web and computer technologies to spread knowledge about sustainability. The first, NATURNET, is devoted to creating a web portal that brings together scattered sustainable development data from around the world in one interoperable internet architecture. REDIME meanwhile concentrates on “learning through modelling”, specifically by integrating qualitative reasoning (QR) tools that are being developed in artificial intelligence research.
A highly technical project, NATURNET-REDIME brings together 19 partners from across Europe and Brazil, including ICT and environmental researchers, as well as end-users like schools and municipalities. Karel Charvat of the Czech Centre for Science and Society admits it was not always easy bringing together such disparate actors in a common project. That said, collaboration between web technicians and environmental scientists has opened their eyes to the potential of such cross-cutting work. The idea has been to translate the knowledge generated by sustainable development specialists (in institutions like the Albert-Ludwigs University of Freiburg) into tools that can be exploited on the internet.
The 30-month project is coming to a close this year, and the first part involving technology development is now finished. NATURNET has developed a web portal architecture that can be adapted to different local environments. It employs a mobile technology that can be used interactively to map out the local conditions in any given region. REDIME meanwhile, under the stewardship of Bert Bredeweg at the University of Amsterdam and Tim Nuttle at Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena (Germany), has been developing QR models – non-numerical descriptions of systems and their behaviour – that helps make causal relationships explicit. The idea is that people can better understand a system (in this case an ecosystem) when they can construct a mental model of how it works.
So how have the end-users responded to the simulations? According to Karel Charvat, the students and schoolchildren tended to be much more receptive to the technology than the municipality officials. Perhaps that is to be expected: “the young are more open to ICT generally and interactive tools specifically, and they have quickly mastered these innovative mobile technologies”. Municipality workers have perhaps found it more difficult, but they appreciate the project’s usefulness in providing them with tools that more effectively evaluate the impact of various factors on sustainable development.
The final months of the project involve the preparation of data and content, such that the finished products should be ready to be presented by October 2007. The tools developed should help people become more aware of sustainable development. Importantly the tools will have a local focus: there are eight project regions that have been simulated (from Krimulda in Latvia to Riacho Fundo in Brazil), but the tools will be easy to adapt to local environments elsewhere.
NATURNET-REDIME will thus provide a readily accessible tool that could simplify sustainable development impact assessments. If the average person can visualise the way he or she interacts with his environment, if they can mentally construct the implications of certain actions, then part of the battle will be won. The intricacies of sustainable development will start to become common knowledge.