This post is part of a series of interviews on the impacts of climate change and the COP21 talks in Paris. The author is one of 78 signatories to an open letter from CEOs to world leaders urging climate action. 

Why does climate change matter to your industry?

As geospatial information specialists providing solutions related to infrastructure management, urban planning, and disaster risk management, the increasing frequency and intensity of weather events from climate change directly affects our work. We help our clients, whom in terms of domestic business are overwhelmingly cities and prefectures, to assess, prepare, and develop plans; we provide map-based tools and interfaces to integrate across departments and tasks.

I believe climate change gives our industry an urgent reason to examine how our work relates to the bigger picture of sustainable development and our survival, and address emerging issues pre-emptively and proactively. Ours is a very technical industry, and we tend to dig deeper and narrower into specialty niches.

For example, one of our divisions might be completely focused on hazard mapping, another on forest inventory, and another on hydrological assessments and services. Understanding that all are addressing symptoms from a common cause is important at the corporate management level; important at the strategy level, in terms of identifying underserved issues within the spectrum for future research and development; important at the individual project level as well as to our research and specialist staff in terms of expanding horizons, cross-pollination of ideas and resulting innovation; and important for our sales force in adding context, social relevance and genuine urgency to what they recommend to their potential clients.

What are the key contributions your industry can make?

Climate change brings unpredictability, which threatens the smooth operation of a city. It would be better for our clients, the cities and prefectures, to also understand and proactively take actions against climate change instead of only dealing with its effects as they unfold. Our industry identifies and develops, using existing techniques or innovating where necessary, products and services that would make it easier for individuals, businesses, as well as governments to decide to take action and mitigate climate change. A familiar example might be a map-based tool that calculates how cost effective a new solar panel on your roof would be, taking into account the height of your home and trees in the vicinity, the buyback rates offered by the utility in your area, in addition to location.

While discussions of innovation and private sector contribution towards climate change currently focus on new infrastructure and technologies, it is at least equally important, especially for cash-strapped public sector bodies, to maintain and maximize infrastructure and buildings already in place, while ensuring quality and safety does not fall below par, as part of climate change adaptation. As an example of that, we provide a service involving assessment for roads, where we collect and organize data on roads, bridges, tunnels, retaining walls, and slopes, their damage and repair history, topographical and geological conditions. We utilize this data for daily maintenance and management, and also, to forecast disaster scenarios. When disasters strike, we conduct a post-disaster assessment, to identify and recommend additional measures or adjustment to the management plans. In other words, our industry and businesses like ours help cities adapt to climate change, through smart maintenance supported by layers of data.

What is an area where public-private partnerships could really help deliver climate action?

I have already mentioned infrastructure maintenance and effectively using what already exists. But when the time comes to build everything anew – via real estate or urban development – this is where public-private partnerships can really help accelerate our society into a desired future. We have been involved in the development and management of a low-carbon residential neighbourhood in Sendai City, Japan, with private, public, and academic partners. A key characteristic is the use of renewable energy as part of the energy mix, along with other high-tech features that ensure energy efficiency as well as energy continuity, as the neighbourhood has been developed for those displaced by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A lesson from that disaster was that power loss is not just an inconvenience but a life-threatening occurrence in a technologically reliant and ageing society like Japan.

This low-carbon community incorporates the latest technology, which would not have been possible from the cost point of view without strong public partner support, and national subsidies accessed through the public partner. The development, as well as the continued smooth operation and maintenance of the technology involved is also not possible without the private partners, who have taken on a community manager role. This is just one example, but we are hoping that this particular community, and the development and management via public, private, and academic collaboration would be the model and precursor of similar communities in Sendai, its surrounding areas, and all over Japan.

What would you like to see next?

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, which is the global agenda adopted this March, emphasizes the importance of risk information, and recommends the communication of accurate and scientific information to the end user, as well as the use of map-based information.

In our industry, we know that there is a fundamentally different level of accuracy and scientific reliability – in terms of pin-point accuracy in location and scale, as well as the reliability of the source of real-time information – required for geospatial information conveyed to local and national agencies for their decision-making. The emphasis on risk information in the Sendai Framework is a great development from our industry point of view, but in that dialogue, I noted that many of the discussions centered on sharing and communication, or in other words, catering to, and reaching, the individual consumers of information.

We cannot forget that in many parts of the world, reliable data still needs to be built up, by survey and collection, before it can be shared. Innovation and investment need to support both specialized products as well as mass-market. Disaster risk reduction and resilience is really the practical portion of climate change adaptation as well as a foundation for sustainable development. Risk information is important for climate change as well, both to take short-term defensive action in terms of adaptation, and to take long-term offensive action to mitigate climate change. I hope to see more balance, in this regard, in the upcoming climate change conversation.

Author: Sandra Wu Wen-Hsiu, Chairperson and CEO, Kokusai Kogyo, Japan

Image: Solar panels are placed atop a mock house of Sekisui House, one of Japan’s largest home builders, in Yokohama, near Tokyo June 13, 2012. REUTERS/Toru Hanai