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Environment groups to use MIT network to coordinate sustainable-development work

An international "Symposium on Accords for Global Sustainability" agreed last week to use a cyberspace information system developed at MIT to coordinate environmental efforts around the globe.

At the First International Workshop on Cyberspace for Global Sustainability, the major international institutions responsible for shaping the global agenda on environmental sustainability formally agreed to work with MIT's patented Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD) to enhance worldwide networking on science, technology and policy for sustainability. The workshop was chaired by Professor of Political Science Nazli Choucri.

"International collaboration on uses of innovations in information technology could contribute to reducing critical `gaps' of information and knowledge in the world," Professor Choucri said. The agreement can be viewed as a form of "technology leapfrogging" in that the work being done at MIT could be made available to researchers in all parts of the world, regardless of level of industrial development or technological advancement, she said.

GSSD is an adaptive intelligent agent interface for the Internet that makes it easier to access and analyze the complex, multidimensional aspects of environmental problems and setting up procedures for the global sustain-ability accords. The system is a collaborative effort by the Department of Political Science and the Technology and Development Program, along with the Artifical Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Computer Science and the Center for International Studies. The GSSD links systems of information

It is currently being tested around the world, and is expected to go on-line on the World Wide Web by June, Professor Choucri said. By using GSSD, individuals can access web sites of environmental information that has been pre-screened by MIT and is coherently organized and cross-referenced for use in the system.

"MIT undergraduate and graduate students were central to the design and development of the GSSD system," which represents the first patent applied for by scholars in MIT's School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor Choucri said.

The cyberspace workshop and the Symposium on Global Accords for Sustainable Development that followed it last week at the Tang Center are part of the formal international review process following the 1992 Earth Day summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The cyberspace workshop focused on enabling technologies for sustaining the global environment and the implications of those technologies for financial and legal institutions. Three technology domains were emphasized: communication and information technologies, energy-related technologies and technologies to facilitate management of large-scale urban centers or megacities.

The review process is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to assess progress on the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) agenda, including the conventions, institutional innovations and Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is an ambitious program of changes in energy use, economic development and use of natural resources that need to be made throughout the world to decrease practices that damage the environment.

Participants in the symposium included Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Under-secretary General of the UN; Razali Ismail, Malaysia's ambassador to the UN and chairman of the forthcoming UN General Assembly; Maurice Strong, senior advisor to the president of the World Bank; Jonathan Lash, co-chair of the U.S. President's Council on Sustainable Development; Ambassador Abraham Katz, president of the US Council for International Business, and others.

MIT President Charles Vest opened the first session by reminding the attendees that MIT strongly supports international collaborations involving government, industry and scientists. This type of collaboration has been referred to by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development as "The Technology Triangle," and it is mandated as a major international strategy for technology collaboration.

"Scientific and technological knowledge must be harnessed to effective policy discourse if we are to understand the issues, and ultimately to solve the problems, before us," Dr. Vest said. "We need to work together to develop the enabling technologies, the underlying institutional requirements and the organizational frameworks that are critical to achieving a more sustainable environment and economy-in short, a more livable world."

Dr. Vest underscored the complexity of dealing with environmental issues in a world of limited capital resources, burgeoning populations and increasingly intense energy consumption. "We have come to see that economic patterns can have profound consequences for the global environment and human health," he said.

Dr. Vest lauded Professor Mario Molina of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, a recipient last fall of the Nobel Prize in chemistry for identifying chemical reactions initiated by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that can damage the ozone layer.

"That work [by Molina and his colleagues] led ultimately to a landmark international agreement to phase out this entire class of chemicals," Dr. Vest said. "But it was not scientific knowledge alone that led to this global agreement. The agreement grew out of a concerted, cooperative effort among the scientific, industrial and governmental communities to understand the full complexity and consequences of the problem, and to develop an orderly and equitable approach to its solution."

Differing viewpoints

Equitable solutions lie at the heart of Agenda 21 discussions, particularly between rich, developed nations of the northern hemisphere and the generally poorer, developing nations of the south. Symposium participants from northern countries generally felt progress had been made since the Rio summit in moving forward, albeit slowly, with Agenda 21. However, some southern nations feel disappointed by the promise of the Earth Summit.

"Though Agenda 21 is comprehensive, it suffers from serious omissions," Malaysia's Ambassador Ismail told the meeting. "It does not deal in concrete terms with the inequitable economic environment, does not attend seriously to questions of trade and environment, and does not carry the binding force of conventions."

Mr. Ismail said the challenges of incorporating environmental and social sustainability into economic relations and development needs have largely been unmet. "The world in 1996 remains sharply divided between the rich and the poor, the global environment continues to deteriorate at an accelerating rate. We have little if any evidence to show that the principles and practices of sustainable development are truly being implemented."

He and others also pointed to the problem of funding global environmental programs. Official Development Assistance for environmental programs has been shrinking, putting more of the onus on private industry to fund programs for environmental protection.

The discussion results of the symposium will be fed into the post-Rio evaluation process and be available on the Web. The next major meeting will be next year, when the UN General Assembly will have a special session for the fifth annual review of Earth Day.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 1996.

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