On digital tools for environmental sustainability, international organisations, and empathetic leadership

By Mélisande Teng

Joining the LEADS program, I wanted to understand how to bridge the gap between scientific research and implementation, and how to best use insights from science to inform environmental policy making. I completed my LEADS internship with the Future Earth Canada Hub, and worked on one of their major international initiatives, the Coalition for Digital Environmental Sustainability (CODES). This partnership between UN bodies, governmental, intergovernmental and research organizations emerged in a context of questioning of the ethical, legal, and human rights implications of our digitalized society.  Indeed, while digital technologies are transforming economic, governance and cognitive systems, enabling unprecedented levels of connectivity and innovation, penetrating all sectors, reducing costs, and boosting productivity, they are often not designed and used to support a sustainable civilisation. In fact, they might even amplify the acceleration of the degradation of our planet with the growing amount of e-waste for example, and add another dimension to social inequalities with the issue of access to technology. Nevertheless, they have led to tremendous changes in our societies, and therefore,  they also have the potential to help achieve a necessary shift : rethinking our conception of value to achieve a balance between people and planet. The question is : how can we and how should we use digital solutions to enable environmental sustainability ? The goal of CODES is to build  a global community of common purpose and steer actors towards adopting actionable and time-bound commitments. Defining those should be a collaborative and inclusive process to make sure that no one is left out if we want digital technologies to benefit all.

During my internship, I worked closely with the CODES co-champions, reviewing and contributing to  the  flagship report “A Digital Planet for Environmental Sustainability”.  I also supported the organization of  a two-day virtual global conference to gather feedback on a first version of the report from a diverse crowd. The event was  key to identifying not only items that should be highlighted in the report, but also  which groups of people were not represented and should be involved in the CODES community. I participated in the organization of workshop sessions, collecting and synthesizing inputs gathered through multi-stakeholder consultations to make sure their voices were incorporated and reflected in the products of CODES. Being at the heart of this international project, I witnessed perseverance in the endeavour to be inclusive and to listen to the voice of each and every one, whether it be when collecting external inputs  or within the organization of the coalition itself, however hard it may be sometimes to reach consensus and to keep moving forward when so many actors are involved. The initiative is now entering a new phase of reflection at the end of which the final  version of the report should be issued. 

I also took part in other projects besides CODES  at Future Earth, including contributing to a chapter about biases in AI as part of a call for proposals to identify blind spots in AI policy and programme development, and providing organizational support for a session of the Sustainability Research and Innovation Congress 2021.

I would like to thank the Future Earth team for welcoming me so warmly.  I am very happy to have experienced working in a caring environment that fosters personal development and learning and encourages curiosity and open mindedness. I am especially grateful for having always been invited to take part in any relevant projects, meetings, conferences whenever I expressed the interest to learn about different topics, whether it be biodiversity pathways in Canada, or Indigenous-led nature-based climate solutions.
The ethos of empathetic leadership at Future Earth, one that recognizes the work done, puts community first, encourages initiative and expression, and yet knows when to be firm and give clear directions, is something I want to embrace and manifest. 

There was one moment in particular during my internship that left a great impression on me.  During an internal meeting, to the question “Why did you choose to work at Future Earth?”, someone answered “To learn how to be a good ancestor”.  I do not think I had ever heard that answer to a similar question.  I realized finding true alignment with your values in your work is not something we should feel we have to compromise on. Nor should we feel expected to lower our ambitions when it comes to leaving our planet in a better situation  for future generations. 

There is certainly something to learn from this in all fields, and as a PhD student in Computer Science, I already see how this idea can help me be reminded of putting my work into a broader perspective. While I’ve always viewed publications as the by-product of good work, and not the goal of research, I am aware that there is no guarantee I will stay immune to the pressure imposed by the fast cycle of machine learning conferences as I advance in my degree.  But maybe, if we valued early on not only academic excellence but also kindness and generosity towards others, we could build a better environment for graduate students. Maybe, if we focused not only on the immediate product of our work, but always had in mind how it will be used and what we leave behind, we could limit the detrimental applications of AI. Maybe if publications were not viewed as a race to have our names first, but rather as the natural prolongation of a research process that needs time, it would leave more space for creativity and real advances in the field.

 I hope this is only the start of my learning journey to being a good ancestor. 

Keywords: Digitalization, Environmental sustainability, Environmental Governance

 

Mélisande Teng is a PhD student in Computer Science at Mila/UdeM, passionate about using AI as a tool to tackle environmental and societal challenges. Her current research focuses on biodiversity monitoring using satellite images and citizen science data, and she is also contributing to the development of an educational tool to raise awareness of climate change by visualizing the impacts of extreme weather events. Her background is in mathematics, engineering, and social entrepreneurship, and prior to Mila, she worked in the fields of public health, environment and democracy. Outside of work, she is also interested in education, visual arts and music.