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Digital technology facilitates world heritage protection

Author  :  BAN XIAOYUE     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2022-08-26

On Aug. 17, an academic dialogue of “World Heritage and the Digital Revolution: New Technologies Supporting the ‘5Cs’ Strategic Objectives for World Heritage” was held online, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s adoption of the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

Theory and practice expanded

Yang Chen, an expert member of the Comité International de la Photogrammétrie Architecturale (CIPA) Heritage Documentation, said in his introduction that the Convention was adopted in 1972, when the internet and home computers were in their infancy. From the 1980s to the early 21st century, the rapid development of the World Wide Web and mobile communications greatly promoted global exchanges and cooperation, as well as the internationalization of the world heritage system.

Since 2000, the digital protection of world heritage has entered a new stage, Yang said. A series of international documents were published, such as the UNESCO Charter on the Preservation of Digital Heritage and the London Charter for the Computer-based Visualisation of Cultural Heritage. The International Centre on Space Technologies for Natural and Cultural Heritage (HIST) under the auspices of UNESCO was officially launched in 2011. In addition, “Digital Dunhuang” and other internationally influential digital heritage projects sprung up continually. Digital technology has not only facilitated the Convention’s implementation, but also expanded the theoretical and practical scope of world heritage.

In recent years, digital technology has been widely used in world heritage protection. Based on remote sensing and big data, Chen Fulong, deputy director of HIST, developed a new application together with his team to monitor heritage protection through changing data of land cover in the core and buffer zones of world heritage sites. The calculation results show that from 2015 to 2020, the land cover change rates were generally lower than 1% for the monitored 564 world cultural heritage sites, indicating the sites were well protected.

In Chen’s view, digital technologies, such as remote sensing, have provided important tools for monitoring the impact of natural disasters or human activities on world heritage. Using first-hand scientific data to assess the status of world heritage supports the sustainable development of heritage protection.

Rational attitude needed

When it comes to the transformative impact on world heritage, Yang mentioned that digital technology is revolutionizing the way people look at world heritage, guiding them to look at heritage’s value and characteristics from more comprehensive perspectives across nature, cultures, borders, and disciplines.

“Digital technology is changing our understanding of what heritage is, enabling more local voices to be heard, deepening people’s understanding of heritage’s multi-layered value, and informing them of the link between world heritage and environmental and social sustainability,” Yang said, adding that digital technology is transforming the exchange and cooperation mechanism of world heritage protection, constantly strengthening global cooperation in heritage protection, while making the Convention’s implementation more inclusive and transparent.

Digital technology brings both new opportunities and challenges to world heritage protection. Marie-Noël Tournoux, a project director of the UNESCO World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region (Shanghai), noted that digital technology has a dual nature, which means a country can either achieve development through digital technology, or be excluded outside of the new economic power game due to technological gaps. As such, it is necessary to utilize digital technology as a positive and integrated approach to promote the realization of the “5Cs” strategic goals, thereby benefiting all groups.

In order to rationally use digital technology to achieve the 5Cs strategic goals, Mayura Gadkari, a heritage conservation professional at the National Institute of Urban Affairs in New Delhi, India, proposed that when exploring digital technology as a means of heritage protection or management, the value of human talent should take higher precedence. The application of digital technology can never replace humans’ subjective perceptions, highlighting the necessity to balance the relationship between technology and humanity.

Editor: Yu Hui

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