March 17, 2020

New pathways for sustainability research through connectivity

By: Lily Cheng Zedler, William Farr

In August 2019, we introduced Verdant Place — a living lab for sustainable development through connectivity. We also launched a request for information to identify technologies, market solutions, and ecosystem partners focused on meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) using information and communications technologies (ICT).

As part of Facebook’s investment in research, we plan to invite Verdant Place members to respond to an upcoming request for proposals (RFP) in this area. This RFP follows the success of our 2019 Verdant Place workshop, which took place at our headquarters in Menlo Park on December 11 and 12.

As Verdant Place continues to grow and evolve, we would like to reflect on the variety of discussions held at the workshop and how this informs next steps for the program. While many workshop presentations highlighted ongoing research and innovations in sustainability, a number of participants presented sustainability challenges with the hope that connectivity can make a meaningful difference. Presentations covered the following themes:

  • Information and communications technologies sustainability
  • Environment and climate
  • Economic and social impact
  • Impact investing
  • Base-of-the-pyramid payments and economics
  • Energy
  • Cities and transportation
  • Models for measuring impact
  • 5G and sustainability
  • Community building and engagement

There were 54 talks from 17 countries, and we were impressed by the quantity, quality, and diversity of the presentations. The following examples represent just some of the breakthrough innovations and challenges that remain for the links between connectivity and sustainability that were covered at the workshop:

  • Dr. Channarong Intahchomphoo from the University of Ottawa presented on the impact of climate change on the Arctic and on the Inuit community and roles for social networking. As temperatures rise, he said, new animals are arriving that the Intuit do not yet have words for.
  • Alvaro Echevarria of SimpliRoute, a company focused on last-mile delivery in the Latin American region, emphasized the unsustainable levels of carbon emissions should the traditional model of package delivery persist.
  • Maria Arcaya of the Soy Niña, Soy Importante program in the Dominican Republic highlighted the digital gender gap as one of the issues that young girls and women face, as well as the trends of early pregnancy and early marriage for young girls in the Dominican Republic, resulting in school dropouts and reduced earning potential.
  • Rafael Sanchez-Duran of Endesa spoke about the learnings from building out Isla de la Cartuja, which boasts a vision for a 100% isolated electric system made from 100% renewable sources by 2025.
  • Dr. Sarbani Banerjee Belur of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and Ramprasad V of BAIF Development Research Foundation highlighted the importance of community networks for bringing internet access to remote communities such as those in the Jawhar tribal regions of India, despite their being right on the edges of Mumbai.
  • Lily Cheng Zedler of Facebook Connectivity presented on the role that rural cooperatives play in meeting the rural internet infrastructure gap. She highlighted three models: telephone cooperatives, electric cooperatives, and municipal cooperatives.

While most workshop participants aligned to sustainability as defined by the U.N. SDGs, it was apparent that the definition of sustainability and the impact of connectivity are broader than we had initially imagined. Participants acknowledged the need for meaningful metrics to guide the development of connectivity products to have a sustainable impact, as well as future workshops that include other key stakeholders, including policymakers, more nonprofits, and government representatives.

With Verdant Place, our goal is to ensure that internet connectivity is used to increase the efficacy of new products, services, and infrastructure in meeting the enduring needs of society in a sustainable way. Taking into consideration outcomes from the workshop and the initial Verdant Place request for information, we have adopted the following guiding principles for the program’s next steps:

  • Adopt a community-centric mindset when increasing internet access.
  • Mitigate the digital divide as connectivity continues to grow.
  • Leverage connectivity innovations to collect meaningful data to quantify and ultimately decrease negative environmental impacts of increasing internet infrastructure, and stimulate the positive ones.
  • Quantify the social and economic impact of increasing internet infrastructure.

To stay informed on the latest updates and announcements, please visit our Verdant Place program page. Please note that as of July 2020, applications to the Verdant Place Workplace community are closed. We will post again if openings become available.