Are we renaissance people propelling societies toward a better future? Or, perhaps, are we technocrats putting old wine in new barrels? Dr. Tom Koch, adjunct professor of medical geography, University of British Columbia, addressed these questions in his keynote speech on Sept. 28, 2020, during USGIF’s GEOINTegration Summit. An ethicist, historian, and geographer, Koch has traced the history of medical mapping from the 1600s into the present and the use of spatial data in the consideration of contemporary ethical divides.

According to Koch, to address these questions,  the idea of a renaissance should be understood as an aspiration and not a conclusion. We need to think about what the Renaissance was and what it might mean for us today. And if we are to be the vanguard, we need to think about what “geospatial intelligence” really is and what it contributes.

The renaissance today, according to Koch, has been more technological than intellectual. The digital revolution has brought forward new and wonderful tools to produce data for different domains. But it has yet to inspire new ways of thinking, and technologies alone do not guarantee a renaissance. While there were myriad technological advancements during the Renaissance period, such as the printing press, according to Koch, it was more than that. The technology enabled changes that we think, in retrospect, were ‘revolutionary.’

“[The Renaissance] was a period of centuries of intellectual change in radical thinking and experimentation,” Koch says. But a technological or digital revolution does not guarantee an intellectual renaissance; sometimes technologies only reinforce the old.

According to Koch, geospatial intelligence has paved the way for old ideas using new technologies, without real thoughts of the limits of the argument being made. And without new ideas, there is no renaissance, nothing worth changing, and certainly no boon for the future.

“Maps and statistics can make anyone an enemy or a friend, and anything can be a danger or a boon because maps are arguments about things and data chosen to promote specific viewpoints. Without new ideas, there is no renaissance. Without a way to liberate intelligence beyond the traditional and mundane to be critical of the data we are given, the revolution does not mean much at all,” Koch says.

What does this mean for the future workforce? Simply training people in narrow skills with expertise in specific programs is not revolutionary. To bring forth a renaissance, we also need to make history central and teach rhetoric, ethics, law, and personal responsibility.

“The renaissance that we seek will come from the real intelligence we bring to our problems and our desire to find new ideas with greater data that we can argue to our fellow citizens,” Koch says.

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Posted by Lisbeth Perez