Computing Community Consortium Blog

The goal of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) is to catalyze the computing research community to debate longer range, more audacious research challenges; to build consensus around research visions; to evolve the most promising visions toward clearly defined initiatives; and to work with the funding organizations to move challenges and visions toward funding initiatives. The purpose of this blog is to provide a more immediate, online mechanism for dissemination of visioning concepts and community discussion/debate about them.

CSTB Releases Study on “Computing Research for Sustainability”

June 29th, 2012 / in big science, research horizons, resources / by Erwin Gianchandani

Computing Research for Sustainability [image courtesy the National Academies/CSTB].The National Academies’ Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) released this morning a new report — Computing Research for Sustainability — laying out an overall framework for computing research for sustainability, including recommendations for long-term research objectives and directions. The report, which was prepared by the CSTB’s Committee on Computing Research for Environmental and Societal Sustainability, describes how “innovation in computing will be essential to finding real-world solutions to sustainability challenges like electricity production and delivery, global food production, and climate change.”

As UCLA computer science professor and committee chair Deborah Estrin noted as part of today’s announcement, “These problems are as complex as they are important; we need to engage deeply across disciplines to have any hope of meeting global sustainability challenges. The urgency of these problems means that we must begin to deploy our ‘best-of-breed’ approaches immediately to put our critical societal infrastructures on a digital plane. This will give us a chance to start creating opportunities for transformative efficiency gains, deep scientific understanding, and informed evolution of the associated political and economic systems.”

According to the National Academies’ official press release (following the link):

The report uses smart energy grids, sustainable agriculture, and resilient infrastructure as examples to illustrate the potential impact of advances in computing. In each example, the report shows how information, data management, and computational approaches can be used to weigh costs and benefits of alternative approaches, minimize the risks of failures and disaster, and cut waste and unnecessary redundancy. For instance, in the case of a smarter energy grid, better data management will enhance understanding of the energy supply and demand chain in ways that could foster substantial reductions in overall demand and more use of renewable energy sources.


The report recommends working toward these complex and challenging sustainability goals from the bottom up. By solving particular pressing problems, researchers can identify and improve approaches that can then be applied broadly. Past efforts in computer science research, such as Internet protocols, machine learning, and databases are successful examples of this problem-focused, iterative approach that can stimulate dramatic change.


An ultimate goal of applying computer science to sustainability is to inform, support, facilitate, and even automate decision making, the report says. Four broad research areas in computer science are crucial to attaining this goal: measurement and instrumentation; information-intensive systems; modeling, simulation, and optimization; and human-centered systems. Efforts in each will be needed, often in tandem. Since these areas correspond to established research areas in computer science, the research community is well-positioned to make progress.


The report stresses that computer science research in sustainability must be an interdisciplinary effort, with experts in the various fields of sustainability being equal partners in research. To further that end, undergraduate and graduate education in computer sciences should provide experience across disciplinary boundaries. Programs should include tracks that offer course work in areas such as life-cycle analysis, agriculture, ecology, natural resource management, economics, and urban planning.

Here’s a point-by-point breakdown of the report’s key findings:

  • Although sustainability covers a broad range of domains, most sustainability issues share challenges of architecture, scale, heterogeneity, interconnection, optimization, and human interaction with systems, each of which is also a problem central to CS research.
  • Fast-moving iterative, incrementally evolving approaches to problem solving in computer science, which were critical to building the Internet and web search engines, will be useful in solving sustainability challenges.
  • Although current technologies can and should be put to immediate use, CS research and IT innovation will be critical to meeting sustainability challenges. Effectively realizing the potential of CS to address sustainability challenges will require sustained and appropriately structured and tailored investments in CS research.
  • 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.
And in terms of the principles by which the research should be undertaken:
  • A CS research agenda to address sustainability should incorporate sustained effort in measurement and instrumentation; information-intensive systems; analysis, modeling, simulation, and optimization; and human-centered systems.
  • There should be strong incentives at all stages of research for focusing on solving real problems whose solution can make a substantial contribution to sustainability challenges, along with in-depth metrics and evaluative criteria to assess progress.
  • Encourage research at and across disciplinary boundaries, well informed by specifics and well structured to handle scale, data, integration, architecture, simulation, optimization, iteration, and human and systems aspects. CS research in sustainability should be an interdisciplinary effort, with experts in the various fields of sustainability being equal partners in the research.
  • Refine funding and programmatic options to reinforce and provide incentives for the necessary boundary crossing and integration in CS research to address sustainability challenges. In particular, funding, promotion, and review and assessment (peer review) models should emphasize in-depth integration with data and deployments from the constituent domains.
  • Undergraduate and graduate education in computer science should provide experience in working across disciplinary boundaries. Graduate training grants and postdoctoral fellowships should support training in multiple disciplines. Undergraduate and graduate programs should include tracks that offer introductory and intermediate course work in such sustainability areas as lifecycle analysis, agriculture, ecology, natural resource management, economics, and urban planning.

There’s much more detail in the report itself — which elaborates on the elements of a research agenda in measurement and instrumentation, information-intensive systems, analysis, modeling, simulation, and optimization, and human-centered systems. Please take a moment to freely download and read it here.

And a reminder: be sure to check out the Computing Community Consortium’s (CCC) related roadmap on the role of information sciences and engineering in sustainability, the result of a visioning workshop held in February 2011, as well as a series of special sustainability tracks at research conferences in the past year.

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)

CSTB Releases Study on “Computing Research for Sustainability”

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