Insights
22 April 2022

Earth Day 2022: Iggy Bassi and Prof. Mark Girolami discuss the importance of investing in knowledge

Dr. Claire Huck

By Dr. Claire Huck

Earth Day 2022: Iggy Bassi and Prof. Mark Girolami discuss the importance of investing in knowledge

In celebration of Earth Day 2022, Cervest Founder and CEO Iggy Bassi sat down with Professor Mark Girolami, Chief Scientist at The Alan Turing Institute and member of Cervest’s Climate Intelligence Council, to discuss this year’s theme: Invest in Our Planet. 

In an engaging conversation recorded at The Alan Turing Institute in the British Library, Mark and Iggy explored why investing in knowledge about the impacts of climate change is one of the most effective ways organizations and individuals can ensure a prosperous and equitable future for planet Earth. As Iggy explains, “we fundamentally need to invest in knowledge. Only through investing in knowledge can we invest in the planet we are looking to protect. Either we all win, or we all lose.”

Mark and Iggy also discussed how artificial intelligence is unlocking the mystery of our climate, the challenge of tackling misinformation in a post-truth world, and how Climate Intelligence - asset-level intelligence for managing climate risk - is enabling everyone to understand and manage their exposure to climate change.

Watch the full interview below.

Introductions

Iggy Bassi:

Mark, thank you very much for joining. For those who are unfamiliar with your work, maybe a little bit about yourself, your role, and your background.

Prof. Mark Girolami:

I am the Chief Scientist at The Alan Turing Institute. The Alan Turing Institute is the UK's national institute for data science and artificial intelligence. So I am responsible for the development of the science and innovation strategy for the Institute and of course, for its delivery. 

I currently hold the Sir Kirby Laing Professorship of Civil Engineering at the University of Cambridge. And what's quite interesting is that in addition to holding that particular professorial chair at Cambridge, I also hold the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair in Data-Centric Engineering. And data-centric engineering very much ties into the conversation we're about to have. Because the engineering sciences, the engineering professions, are being transformed by data, by information, by insight, and knowledge. And so I think that there’s a very natural progression from data-centric engineering, to data-centric climate accommodation, climate mitigation, at the asset level.

Iggy Bassi:

That's right. And they're under unprecedented pressure to think about climate-smart design, think about greater infusion of machine learning models, in how we design buildings. It's not just what we've designed, it’s what we plan to design as well.

Prof. Mark Girolami:

And in fact, going beyond just design, it's design, construction, manufacturing, even, operation, and then, of course, maintenance as well.

Investing in our planet by investing in knowledge

Iggy Bassi:

Investing in our planet, how do we do that? How do we leverage the power of knowledge, particularly for Earth Day? And a little bit of insight in terms of how The Alan Turing Institute is thinking about the cross intersection between knowledge, AI, machine learning, and also climate.

Prof. Mark Girolami:

I think we have to go right back to basics. And if you think about the great Victorian polymath, Lord Kelvin, he stated that if you wish to improve something, if you wish to understand something, you need to measure it.

And I think that's one of the key issues here in gaining that knowledge is that we need to measure, we need to gather data, we need to extract information, we need to obtain insight, and we need to gain knowledge.

Translating data into practical applications

Iggy Bassi:

We seem to be living in an age of contradiction. We have so much information about the impacts of human fingerprints on climate impacts, but yet we also don't seem to translate the knowledge that we do have in terms of data and machine learning into practical application. What are the barriers here?

Prof. Mark Girolami: So I think one of the main barriers is understanding the climate physical risk. And this is partly because of the complexity of the supply networks that we rely upon. Not just linear supply chains, but interrelated supply networks. So I think that's the first thing.

The second one is really our understanding of the impact of climate change at the asset level. So now getting much more granular. And it's there where many climate-related risks are being experienced. And we need to have that knowledge. 

And therefore, that makes it very difficult for businesses and individuals associated with them, to then employ the mitigation and adaptation measures in a way that's going to be effective and efficient.

Barriers to understanding the impact of climate change

Iggy Bassi:

Just in terms of the emergence of knowledge, what have been the scientific and technical barriers? Why haven't we reached these solutions before, just given all the breakthroughs that we've had in science?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

So we're making great breakthroughs. However, many of the underlying mechanisms and the impacts on society and the planet still largely remain unknown. 

One of the ways that we can seek to address this is by building a digital picture of our natural environment. That would give us the potential to enable superior monitoring of the impacts of climate change in a wide number of areas. Agriculture, biodiversity, our oceans, our landmass, water, and of course, the cryosphere. And this is a challenge that The Turing is approaching and hopefully helping to fill in some of the blanks.

Iggy Bassi:

Over at Cervest as well, we've been very much focused on this fusion of different sciences, methodologies. As you know, the world's climate science doesn't come neatly packaged so we can make decisions. It has to be unlocked, it has to be picked. We have to think about different approaches to modeling, how do you resolve for resolutions that come at different spatial-temporal resolutions? How do you look at different methodologies, for instance?

So the role of machine learning and machine learning research that we've done, has been fundamental to understand, unlock, but also then how do we advance and accelerate? So when we do look at assets, we can really allow people the simplicity to understand what risk has happened, what will happen, when will it happen, why does it happen? But ultimately, what can you do to your assets to think about adaptation, mitigation methodologies and how can we learn from millions of other assets, for instance? So some of the work that we were doing with Alan Turing, for instance, on transfer learning, is deeply helpful as we think about labeling assets.

The role of AI in unlocking the mysteries of our climate

Iggy Bassi:

With the vastness of information and data models, what is the role of AI? We know AI has a huge role. Machine learning has a huge, huge role. How do we think about that? And what's The Alan Turing Institute doing now about using the power of AI to help unlock some of these mysteries of climate?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

I think one of the first things is we need to be clear about what we mean by AI. The renaissance that we're seeing in AI is driven by three main things: Data, computing power, and smart algorithms.

And of course, data science is nothing, nothing more than the mathematical sciences, the statistical sciences, and the computing sciences. And so one can see how AI and data science at a fundamental level are inextricably linked. And so The Alan Turing Institute is in this very unique position where it can make advances in the data sciences, and in AI, and then apply them to certain grand challenges. 

We are absolutely committed to tackling climate change and its impacts. We're doing that by applying the data sciences and AI and the expertise that The Turing Institute more broadly has. And we're doing that in a number of specific areas. We're doing that working with partner organizations, like Cervest. From academia, from business, and from government and charities.

Forging new partnerships

Iggy Bassi:

Let's look a little bit about partnerships. We have academia. We have business. How do we forge new partnerships together? Because all this wonderful science that sits at the Turing and other great institutions, ultimately it needs to make a real-world impact. How do we think about partnerships?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

Absolutely. So I mean, from The Turing’s point of view, academic and private sector partnerships are a really powerful way of driving forward research and innovation with real-world impact, that will deliver the change that we need.

Now, one way of ensuring that this knowledge benefits everyone is to make research outputs freely available. Freely available, and open to the extent that this is possible and appropriate. And this is an approach that The Turing adopts and promotes when partnering with other organizations, including businesses. It's particularly important in fact, in the rapidly developing fields of data science and artificial intelligence. 

I think the involvement that I have in the Climate Intelligence Council is a great way of, at an individual level, to contribute my specific expertise, and that of The Turing within the statistical sciences, computational sciences, and machine learning, alongside that of the others that are helping create that impact.

Empowering organizations with Climate Intelligence

Iggy Bassi:

As you know, Cervest is very much at the frontier of thinking about how we fuse together machine learning, cutting-edge climate science in ways that can fundamentally change the way we look at assets. Because we also fundamentally believe that assets will change the way we think about climate risk. So Climate Intelligence is very much at the heart of this. How do you think Climate Intelligence can deliver on its promise?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

There's absolutely no doubt in our minds here that Climate Intelligence is going to empower organizations at all levels - from the individual right up to the corporate level - to make those better-informed decisions on the climate risks, and associated opportunities.

Democratizing Climate Intelligence

Iggy Bassi:

How do we think about the democratization of Climate Intelligence? If we think about the interconnection between nature, society, industry, public, private, how do we bring it all together in a way that can really propel Climate Intelligence? We have to stay within the Paris-aligned world within the next decade or so. So what's the role of democratization?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

Climate change is a global challenge, and it's a global challenge that's going to require real concerted collective effort if we are going to in any way solve it.

Innovation arises from diversity. Diversity of thought, interdisciplinarity. To achieve the level of innovation that we desperately need to solve this challenge, we need to remove the way in which many of us sit in independent silos.

Now, whether those silos are formed between sectors, between disciplines, or between countries. So that diversity and that coming together to really collectively address what is a global challenge is the way forward.

Iggy Bassi:

We fundamentally need to invest in knowledge. Only through investing in knowledge can we invest in the planet that we're looking to protect. For us, it's a simple equation of whether we all win or we all lose. There's not going to be a middle ground in the next 30, 40, or 50 years. As you know, the world will experience some pretty deep physical volatility that is now locked into the system. So how do we share, disseminate knowledge so people can incorporate that into their everyday decisions?

The role of science in the post-truth world

Iggy Bassi:

One of the challenges I’m finding, Mark is that we're living in a world which is increasingly governed by populism, polarization, and post-truth. How do we think about the role of science and AI and how do we alleviate some of that, so that science remains, particularly climate science, remains an objective truth?

Prof. Mark Girolami:

The first thing is that providing individuals and the public at large with information, with intelligence alone is not going to be enough. It's not going to be enough to generate that understanding that's then going to initiate behavioral change, that's going to benefit society and the planet.

And this applies not just in the climate context, but with data and AI decisions at large. So there's a big challenge. But I think that public engagement and communication is key. We need to be more open about the data, about the models, about the methods that we use.

Iggy Bassi:

And about what we know and don't know.

Prof. Mark Girolami:

And I think that's absolutely critical, is to be clear about what we do know and what we don't know. And what we partially understand. And that builds trust.

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