Shooting for the moon

Wednesday, 01 September 2021

Claire Stewart photo
Claire Stewart

    With more than $2b invested, Minderoo Foundation — the philanthropic organisation founded by Fortescue Metals Group chair Andrew Forrest AO and wife Nicola Forrest AO — has set its sights on tackling several large and seemingly intractable problems. For Adrian Turner GAICD, former CEO of CSIRO Data61, now head of the Minderoo Foundation’s Fire & Flood Resilience initiative, dealing with natural disaster is an extremely personal mission.

    Former CSIRO Data61 chief Adrian Turner GAICD was appointed as Fire and Flood Resilience program CEO in 2020. For Turner the timing was serendipitous. After four years at the helm of Data61, the problem-solver was starting to think about new challenges. The clincher, though, was more personal.

    On 4 January, the first Sunday of 2020, Turner went to his brother’s property Kangaroo Valley in New South Wales. The Black Summer bushfires were burning and he and his siblings wanted to help prepare it, just in case. Instead, they and three others found themselves stuck, defending it on what became one of the most devastating days of the summer. Two fire fronts had come together and a pyrocumulus cloud — the kind that forms over a volcanic eruption — collapsed on the property. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” says Turner. “The fire front burned on itself for about 40 minutes and the winds were over 100kmh — they just snapped trees. You have this mental image of what the fight is going to be like and the six of us sat down afterwards and said, well, how did that rate compared to what you thought would happen? It was a 30m wall of fire, and 250m away, you couldn’t be in front of it because of the radiant heat.”

    It wasn’t what they’d expected. Three times, things went their way, when they could very easily have gone differently and they subsequently learned NSW Rural Fire Service trucks had been sent out afterwards on a mission to collect their bodies. A few days later, Turner got the call from Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest AO, telling him there was $70m available through the Minderoo Foundation, to be used to address resilience, response and recovery from natural catastrophes.

    Moon shot

    Minderoo has created a blueprint for an aggressively ambitious five-year program to overhaul how Australia — and the world — can mitigate the impact of natural disasters. The “moon shot”, as they call it in a nod to the US Apollo space program of the early 1970s, is to roll out 70 separate projects that each ladder up to solve one of three missions: to be able to extinguish dangerous fires within an hour; to halve hazard exposure in Australia’s 50 most fire- and flood-prone regions; and to give 50 of Australia’s most vulnerable communities the tools, skills and resources to mitigate their own risks and bounce back stronger, in the process helping them become as resilient as the top 50 communities.

    So what’s a tech entrepreneur who has built companies around platform economics, cybersecurity and the Internet of Things doing solving climate crises? Turner sees the potential in using technology to put an economic value on the environment, and by extrapolation, create the potential for a tangible financial loss if it is destroyed.

    “We’re so focused on when there’s a crisis — think of the health crisis going on now, or even cybersecurity — that we’ll spend whatever it takes to deal with it,” he says. “But we won’t spend ahead of time in prevention and lifting resilience.”

    Turner says every dollar spent on resilience saves between $4 and $11 on response and recovery. “We think we can help unlock nature as an investable asset class — if we can automate the measurement of the impact of investment, and also the natural, or nature-based outcomes.”

    The next 10 to 20 years are all about new applications that are enabled by Earth observation. For the first time, we’ll have relatively inexpensive access to Earth-observation data.

    Adrian Turner GAICD

    Satellite scrutiny

    Valuing natural capital isn’t necessarily a new idea, the difference now is satellites. State-of-the-art geostationary satellites can collect images down to about half a kilometre square. Low-Earth orbit satellites, like those SpaceX are putting up, will cover off on communications and broadband access and bring huge swathes of regional Australia online in a way it hasn’t been before.

    “Sitting below that, in terms of altitude, you’ve got stratospheric Earth observation tools — things like Google Loom, or solar-powered gliders,” says Turner. “At a stratospheric level, you can get down to centimetres.”

    Being able to constantly monitor nature, watch how ecosystems are growing — or dying — and ascribe evidence of changes to human interventions, means you can start to determine how those changes were triggered, and financially incentivise the changes. “An example would be to say, we want to lift resilience to flooding in the Hawkesbury and Nepean [rivers bordering Sydney],” says Turner. “There might be 15 beneficiaries who have had a part in helping do that, so how do you set up a funding and finance structure that makes it economic for them to want to do the work needed?”

    He believes automating that type of measurement, and using Earth-based observation platforms are a game changer for mitigating the effects of a changing climate. And it doesn’t hurt that there’s an accelerating desire among companies and investors to put money into sustainable initiatives, and check the box around environmental, social and governance (ESG) responsibilities. Measurement capabilities such as those Turner envisages should markedly improve the way financial instruments like social impact or green bonds can function, by creating the ability to apportion benefit and contribution from multiple parties at a systems level.

    “New technology means we now have the opportunity to apply machine learning, AI and Earth observation data to better understand natural disasters and extreme weather events before, during and after,” he says.

    That includes monitoring changes in an environment to help predict where dangerous fires will start, and giving response teams the tools to detect then extinguish those fires within an hour.

    Earth observation

    It’s an audacious plan and is based on changes in technology and data capabilities that will fundamentally alter how we exist as a human race. Turner says he has grappled with such fundamental questions through art since childhood, most recently using his painting and mixed-media sculpture practice to process his emotional response to surviving the traumatic bushfire. His family was prone to putting their creative heads together to ponder gnarly questions and entrepreneurial solutions. It’s telling that instead, he’s making art to investigate something much less tangible, but more pervasive and, for him, terrifying — the intersection of technology and humanity. And he says we put too much trust in technology.

    “The next 10–20 years are all about new applications enabled by Earth observation,” says Turner. “For the first time, we’ll have relatively inexpensive access to Earth-observation data. Think back to being enamoured with television, which was a window into a world we hadn’t had before. We trusted that someone was thinking it through and thinking through the implications. What’s different now is the scale of tech and the way it is pervading our everyday life. We’re embedding technology in ourselves. I get a sense there is no turning back, we’re not going to unwind this, it’s almost evolutionary or biological, in a way.”

    He’s already thinking how the data they want to collect might be exploited in the wrong way. “Companies compete to win, and countries are always looking for a strategic advantage geopolitically, and that’s driving this perpetual forward motion to want to discover new uses and applications in technology,” he says.

    “With a lot of the pivotal technologies, there are both positive and negative applications. I worry about the speed of development — and who’s building the guardrails.”

    Dealing with the data

    Turner notes part of the challenge in using Earth- observation tools is that you have to get the data off the satellites. The problem is too much data. Someone has to choose what to bring back down to Earth to do the pattern matching and recognition. “That’s going to require incredibly powerful computers and if you ask, ‘Who is best placed to do that today?’ then it’s the platform vendors. Is that a good outcome? I don’t know.”

    He thinks the only way to ensure a better outcome is to guarantee the creation and survival of a ‘public good’ network service monitoring and response platform. “Who is going to hold people, companies, countries to account to operate within those guardrails? I’m not convinced the current frameworks are going to be effective in the way we need them to be. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

    Part of the salve might lie in helping more people get comfortable with data and technology; not regard it as the realm of specialists, but as a fundamental skill we all need, like spelling or multiplication. “The make-up of leadership teams needs to be far more digital and data-literate than they are today,” says Turner.

    He rates usability and approachability of data visualisation as a key component in helping people relate more easily to what technology does. And his team is focused on doing that for the Fire & Flood initiative — to help enterprises engage, in particular.

    Beyond that, there’s a bigger issue around how an initiative dealing with natural disasters creates a situational tool that is relevant to decision-making in any scenario.

    “We need to evolve enterprise systems to take the right information to the right people at the right time, to help people make better decisions in the moment,” says Turner — whether that’s the RFS responding to a fire front, police dealing with domestic violence or an enterprise trying to navigate a rapidly changing and uncertain business environment. Never has this been more pressing than in the current scenario of fundamental shifts in the structural landscape as we sit on the cusp of disintermediation of brands and enterprises through distributed ledger (blockchain).

    Collective action

    Turner sees the Fire & Flood Initiative as an opportunity to create these type of solutions in a way that proves there is a new model to solve system-level problems — based on cross- organisational collaboration to solve the problems as a collective. “You can still compete, but everybody wins,” he says. “In resilience, whether you’re a bank, an insurance company or a retailer, it’s about making the playing field better for everyone.”

    This means the role of government is likely to evolve into one more about enabling the work of collectives working on system-level problems.

    “These collectives are basically ‘data utilities’ and a new kind of infrastructure,” says Turner. “You could have agriculture data utilities focused on food traceability. Then you look at how you bring the collective together, use the technology and break the problem down to find where to push on the system to get outcomes.”

    Turner says he has realised that leadership is primarily about wielding influence. Given his latest gambit involves bringing together as broad a stakeholder group as you could imagine — and on a seriously hot-button topic — then “moon shot” may be an appropriate analogy.

    Latest news

    This is of of your complimentary pieces of content

    This is exclusive content.

    You have reached your limit for guest contents. The content you are trying to access is exclusive for AICD members. Please become a member for unlimited access.