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First 'computational sustainability' conference to draw an unexpected crowd

Nearly 200 researchers from universities, private laboratories and government agencies will converge on Cornell June 8-11 for the first conference on computational sustainability -- how to use computing to balance environmental, economic and societal needs for a sustainable future.

Hosted by the Cornell Institute for Computational Sustainability, which was launched last fall with a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the conference will bring biologists, conservation workers, economists and others together with computer scientists to share goals and methods. Along with visitors from all over the United States and as far away as Australia and the Netherlands, speakers include half a dozen Cornell faculty members from disciplines as diverse as economics, ecology, ornithology and biological and environmental engineering.

The turnout is much larger than expected, said Carla Gomes, director of the Cornell institute. "Part of our mission is creating a new community for computational sustainability. It has to be more than just us, and I think it's happening already," she said.

Conservationists will report on using computers to find the best balance of many competing factors in deciding, for example, which tracts of land to purchase to preserve a species, taking into account the budget, cost of parcels, economic impact on nearby communities and the best interests of the species. Wildlife experts will report on the use of computer models to predict how an endangered species might spread depending on a variety of possible interventions. Policymakers will describe how computer simulations help in making decisions about urban land use and transportation systems.

In projects like these, computers offer a way to try out thousands or even millions of possible scenarios, but for some scientists this may require a mental shift to "computational thinking," Gomes said. Many scientists try to reduce a problem to an equation, she explained, but with such problems as balancing the value of biofuel production against land use, fertilizer costs and food prices, "There are an exponential number of cases, there's no short way of collapsing it into an equation."

So one goal of the conference is to expose participants to an approach based on algorithms, or methods of processing information, while giving computer scientists a taste of some of the problems to which computational thinking might be applied.

There are also plenty of opportunities to use applied mathematics, operations research and statistics, Gomes added. "It's such an interdisciplinary community that having a common language is a challenge," she said.

The conference is open to the public. A schedule is available at


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