ArcNews Online

Summer 2005

"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers

Integrative Trends in Geographic Research and Societal Applications

Doug RichardsonGeographic research and GIS applications in society during the next century will occur in a context that is highly networked and which will continue, despite the artificial fences we erect, to transgress both disciplinary and sectoral boundaries. Partly in recognition of the complexity of a world changed through the forces of globalization, many institutions have begun to call for more integrative approaches to research and education for the next century. Certainly recent events have heightened the need for understanding our world and all of its marvelous diversity—an understanding that geography can richly provide.

The dynamics of globalization have strong spatial implications and geographic dimensions. As we embark in earnest on our journey through the 21st century, conflicts and terrorism are actively shaping the geopolitical relationships among people and places all over the world (Cutter, Richardson, and Wilbanks 2003). Environmental problems and natural disasters know no political boundaries. Ecosystem healing requires the participation of countries, nations, and communities from many political, economic, and social origins. With increased international migration, economic integration, and cultural interaction, pressures of globalization can fracture communities along ethnic, cultural, and religious divides.1

In light of the realities of globalization, many prior understandings of the world have begun to change. Clearly, geographic research and education are essential to achieving better international and intercultural understanding, with all its implications for addressing economic, natural resource, and other social and political disparities.

At this time in history, the need is great for geographers and GIS specialists to apply their knowledge and innovation to these challenges. The opportunities are great as well. We now witness a rising tide of support for integrative and multidisciplinary approaches to research methods that have long been advocated and practiced by geographers, and for the integrative problem-solving capabilities of our new geographic technologies, led by GIS. Many federal, private, and nonprofit funding sources are basing research funding decisions increasingly on whether proposed solutions include strong multidisciplinary and partnership components. The National Science Foundation's recent publication on a "10-year Outlook for Environmental Research and Education'' (Pfirman and AC-ERE 2003) establishes a thoroughly interdisciplinary vision and budgetary framework that encompasses all its activities. The National Academy of Sciences also has moved toward advancing multidisciplinary research, incorporating within its geographic studies both the physical and human perspectives from its various divisions. For geography with its GIS technologies, thriving as it does at the intersection of the physical and social sciences—as an inherently interdisciplinary discipline—this trend within the broader research and applications communities generates many fruitful opportunities, provided we can effectively respond to them.

The increasing reliance of cross-disciplinary research programs and societal solutions on the highly integrative capabilities of the new geographic technologies also holds special promise for geography. To the extent that many multidisciplinary research and application projects now depend on the integrative and analytical power of our new geographic technologies, many other disciplines are finding it increasingly important or necessary to incorporate geographic ideas and perspectives into their curricula and research (NRC 1997). The technical expertise and theoretical insight of geographers is increasingly necessary to advancing research agendas across the university campus in programs ranging from MBA and public administration to engineering, law, and computer science. Geographers' know-how and "know-why" can be central to informing and advancing future multidisciplinary research programs during the AAG's second century. More undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and researchers than ever before will need to tap into geography's traditions, technologies, and multidisciplinary experience. A critical task for the future of geography and geographic information science as a discipline will be to engage these potential linkages and strike up effective interdisciplinary collaboration.

One fortuitous result for geography and the GIS community of these trends has been an explosion of employment opportunities for those with education and experience in geography and GIS. This past year, for example, the U.S. Department of Labor designated geotechnologies as one of the three most important and evolving new fields, together with biotechnology and nanotechnology. This trend shows every sign of continuing to expand well into future decades, as the demand for geographic understanding and GIS solutions grows worldwide. Meeting these needs will require an urgent and concerted effort by all sectors of our community—educational institutions, private-sector companies, and public-sector agencies. The challenges are great, but the stakes are high because more than ever what the world needs now is understanding.

Doug Richardson

1. For further discussion of these topics and full information on the references, see Richardson and Solis 2004, "Confronted by Insurmountable Opportunities" (at from which portions of this column are adapted.

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