Can Geodesign Help Us Adapt to Climate Change?

The earth’s climate is changing, leading to serious problems for humanity in areas such as food security, health, and public safety. We need to adapt swiftly. But where do we start? Should we reinforce or rebuild existing structures? Or should we abandon existing settlements and relocate the population in some cases? And how can mass rebuilding/relocation efforts be best accomplished from human, environmental, and economic perspectives?
Geodesign is a framework for understanding the complex relationships between human-designed settlements and the changing environment, for quickly planning ways to adapt existing communities and build new ones in a more sustainable manner. This methodology helps us assess risk, identify change, create synergies, develop strategies, adapt to change, and monitor the results. Geodesign takes an interdisciplinary, synergistic approach to solving the critical problems of future design—to optimize location, orientation, and the features of projects at local and global scales.
How can geodesign help us adapt to climate change? I recently asked this question at the Spatial Roundtable (, where geospatial industry thought leaders share their perspectives about concerns, trends, challenges, and technologies. Participants in the Spatial Roundtable offered thought-provoking insight into the role of geodesign in climate change adaptation, and I would like to share some important points made by several contributors.

This climate change scenario planning study for Cape Cod demonstrates the communicative power of geodesign using spatially informed models, fast feedback, and a large format sketching environment.
This climate change scenario planning study for Cape Cod demonstrates the communicative power of geodesign using spatially informed models, fast feedback, and a large format sketching environment.
Designing Our Future
“Geodesign proposes to support decisions about the surface of the Earth through a combination of two sets of tools: one to allow designers to sketch proposals as they appear in map form, and the other to provide scientifically sound assessments of proposals through the execution of computer-based models,” said Dr. Michael Goodchild, Professor of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara. “For example, a designer should be able to sketch a design for a development near a coastline, and to evaluate it based on scientific models of sea-level rise, as well as pollution of air and water, impacts on traffic congestion, and other environmental and social dimensions. By including projections of the effects of climate change, this approach offers a coherent and scientifically based way of addressing key decisions about development and land-use change.”
A Global Dashboard
“If we really want to feed 9 billion people by the middle of this century, we need spatial data systems with real-time monitoring capacity and a data dissemination capability that can reach all stakeholders directly,” said Dr. Wim Bastiaanssen, Co-Founder, eLEAF. “Without daily updates of intelligent, pixel-based data components, the great capacity of geodesign will not reach its full potential to support daily decisions in natural resources management—and become more climate resilient across the world. A data-enriched geodesign system supports authorities, policy makers, water managers and individual farmers to make firm decisions. Geodesign principles fed with quantified crop, water, and climate data components must become one click away for everybody.”
Scenario Development
“I am especially interested in the role geodesign might play in environmental scenario development,” said Dr. Elena Bennett, Assistant Professor, McGill University. “Scenarios, sets of stories about the future, can be a useful technique for thinking about a range of potential futures. In the environment, scenarios are often used to understand situations of uncontrollable or unpredictable futures, of which climate change is a classic example. Environmental scenarios can be qualitative or quantitative, and are often associated with images, but rarely with maps. I am interested in the potential for mapping scenarios, and for using geodesign as a way to bring together multiple disciplines to improve development and understanding of environmental scenarios in situations of climate change.”
Integrating Knowledge
“Geodesign, by bringing multiple disciplines into a common geographic perspective, is the ideal integrator—helping societies identify those regions and policies where the interactions between climate stress and differing socioeconomic conditions are likely to make the most difference,” said Dr. James Baker, Director, Global Carbon Measurement Program, William J. Clinton Foundation. “The resultant visualization and modeling will give guidance on the most efficient and effective ways to adapt both in the short and the long term. The long-term impact of climate change looms large—the sooner we can begin to adapt with tools like geodesign, the more resilient our societies will be in the future.”
The Issue of Scale
“GIS, as a spatially based technology, offers a powerful approach to both the sketch and assessment aspects of geodesign, allowing decisions and their impacts to be investigated at a full range of scales from the very local to the global,” said Goodchild. Dave Williamson, Founding Partner, Cascade Environmental Resource Group, agreed that scalability is a key issue: “Climate change is a global issue, and the models tend to operate at a global scale. However, planning decisions must consider meso-scale influences, while implementation generally takes place at a regional or local scale.”
A Responsive Framework
“GeoDesign should strive to provide a systematic and consistently applied methodology for assessing risk and potential outcomes,” added Williamson. “The current state of the science of climate change is such that new information is coming to light on a regular basis and yesterday’s accepted fact is tomorrow’s fallacy. Geodesign should provide a dynamically responsive framework that can accommodate the ongoing shifts in the climate change model. When it comes to planning in response to climate change, the future will belong to the speedy and the integrated.”
Moving Forward
“The geodesign framework is to be welcomed as another powerful arrow in the quiver of approaches and tools that will help us to plan and implement climate-smart development measures,” said Gernot Brodnig, Geographer, World Bank. “The time for implementation of strategic and tactical projects based upon this understanding is now,” added Dr. Nguyen Huu Ninh, Nobel Prize winner and Chairman of CERED. “Making wise decisions to accommodate emerging changes will have major positive impacts on the health, security, and prosperity of populations in high risk areas around the globe.”
I’d like to thank all of the Spatial Roundtable participants for their valuable insights on this important topic. You can read the complete responses here.

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