Microsoft and The Natural Capital Project join forces to transform the way we evaluate the services that nature provides

What is the economic value to cities of parks and trees that reduce storm runoff, lower air temperature and improve air quality? What is the value of a wetland that can significantly reduce storm surge damage? What is the value of a forest that prevents landslides, improves air quality and water quality? What would happen if we invested in re-establishing coastal habitats like wetlands and reefs vs. building more cement and concrete infrastructure in our coastal cities?

These are questions that we not only need to ask ourselves, but ones which we can now better understand and answer and which will have profound impact as our cities around the world continue to grow.

Today, Microsoft is joining forces with The Natural Capital Project, a 10-year partnership among Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota, to help accelerate the way in which IT-enabled decision support tools will help leaders around the world transform their approach to making decisions that benefit both nature, the economy and human well-being at the same time.

For the past few decades, there has been a growing body of work, tools and data that support a very simple premise – nature provides society with significant value. But determining the economic and societal value that is assigned to the services nature provides different communities around the world has been a difficult task. While many cities acknowledge that preserving the environment and these resources is essential, they often believe environmental health is a general benefit that cannot be quantified. However, metrics do exist to measure, map and value the essential role the natural environment plays in global economies and broader human well-being. According to a 2012 study by The Nature Conservancy and the Corporate EcoForum, it is estimated that the environment currently provides some $72 trillion a year of “free” support to the global economy. Gaining insight into how this value can be best realized, managed, preserved or enhanced has been a complex problem.

With up to 70 percent of the world’s population projected to live in cities by 2030, cities will face increasingly limited natural resources, outdated infrastructure, growing energy demands and rigorous regulatory requirements. All of those pressures have effects on the “natural capital” – forests, river basins, wetlands, coral reefs and so on – that governments around the world rely on to provide fundamental value to people. At Microsoft, we believe that by combining the right sets of data with the right tools and by driving awareness and use of these tools, society can accelerate projects which invest in our natural capital – and that those investments are both economically and ecologically sound.

Historically, very little was known about how and where ecosystem services provide benefits. As a result, such values have not conventionally formed a part of either public or private sector planning and financial analysis. Today, major science and technology advances have dramatically transformed our capabilities to improve resource and land use decisions so benefits from natural capital are realized for intended beneficiaries who need them most. But city and business decision-makers often lack the expertise, data, tools and incentives to fully incorporate these opportunities and trade-offs into their choices.

This new partnership between Microsoft and The Natural Capital Project aims to help companies and cities understand the positive value that can be realized by better understanding and investing in natural ecosystems. We hope that by providing access to a growing library of relevant data and cloud-based tools that assess the value of nature to specific landscapes, places and communities, we can help accelerate change. These tools have been created based on mathematical models developed and tested by leading scientists in collaboration with end-users over the last decade. Through this partnership, leaders will have access to the best data and powerful analytic and visualization tools so that they can more deeply understand historical trends and patterns within the city or company, predict future situations, model “what-if” scenarios, and gain vital situational awareness from multiple data streams such as satellite imagery, social media and other public channels.

By taking a data-driven approach to understanding nature and the value of its services, leaders will be empowered to create positive returns for citizens, organizations and the surrounding ecosystems.

The Natural Capital Project is excited about partnering with Microsoft to accelerate access for leaders to the latest information on where and how the environment can improve economic and personal vitality for people, governments, and companies. Mary Ruckelshaus, Managing Director, The Natural Capital Project

Together, Microsoft, The Natural Capital Project and others will tap into the power of the cloud, data analytics, distributed sensor networks and mobile devices to both enhance existing decision-support tools and to bring about the next generation of them through:

  • Developing use cases focused on new types of decision makers who are working in areas like cities and natural infrastructure benefits for their companies and citizens;
  • Exploring the application and development of technology, computational and visualization tools to enhance natural capital decision making;
  • Engaging the app development community to accelerate the business opportunities that these technologies can reveal; and
  • Sharing learnings widely in the community of organizations and people advancing natural capital solutions.

We are excited to work with The Natural Capital Project to help cities around the world to reduce risks and realize new economic opportunities by accounting for nature in a quantifiable and explicit way. Check back here for more updates.

About the Author

GM, Cities and Sustainability

As part of the company’s corporate, external and legal affairs group, Rob is responsible for defining and implementing the global strategy for Microsoft’s environmental efforts. His work includes working across the company to maintain carbon neutrality, advance our investments in renewable energy, improve energy efficiency in operations, and work with customers and partners to help empower them to better leverage IT to drive a more sustainable planet.