2017 Miami Global Impact Challenge winner tackles climate change to help sea level cities

Communities / Article

Francisco D’Elia sees the effects of climate change every day in Miami Beach, where the city is installing pumps and raising streets to mitigate the effects of sea level rise.

Now D’Elia, a geographic information systems analyst in the city’s Public Works Department, is taking his big ideas for addressing climate change to Silicon Valley as the winner of Singularity University’s 2017 Miami Global Impact Challenge.

No global challenge looms larger than climate change in vulnerable sea level cities like Miami Beach, where flooding is a constant concern; with this issue as its focus, the challenge sought candidates capable of innovative and far-reaching ideas addressing the problem in South Florida. D’Elia won one of 90 spots in Singularity’s Global Solutions Program for his innovative idea dealing with the environmental vulnerabilities of Miami Beach. He receives a full scholarship to the nine-week program in Silicon Valley.

D’Elia took first prize in the local competition with a conceptual model that manages data from different sources—for example, from weather forecasts to storm water runoff—that researchers hope can predict and prevent weather disasters; his concept, enlarged onto a global scale using artificial intelligence with information from biologists, geologists and government sources, and loaded into one giant climate monitoring network, intrigued the judges.

With a passion for extreme sports, kite surfing and motorcycles, D’Elia, 33, describes himself as one who “never stands still and likes to push boundaries.” He was born in Brazil, studied geography and earth sciences in college, and early in his career worked for the Brazilian space program testing satellite data to map the degradation of the Pantanal region, the largest tropical wetlands in the world.

After continuing his graduate education in Australia (and founding a water sports distribution company), D’Elia returned to Brazil for risk mitigation work in the offshore oil industry. He also created an international trade company, which brought him to South Florida on business, where serendipity took over. He fell in love with the region—and with his future wife, a nurse. D’Elia subsequently decided to expand his water sports business to the U.S. and to shift his focus from the energy sector to climate change and disaster resiliency. (The couple now lives in Ft. Lauderdale with their 2-year-old son).

“All worked out perfectly,” he said, “because while shifting my professional focus to South Florida, I still had enough work between the two businesses, and then when the energy sector took a big downturn in South America, I sold the watersports business and got hired by [the] Miami Beach Public Works Department … and asked to join the geographic information systems group. During my interview [Miami Beach City Engineer Bruce Mowry] asked, ‘Can you bring innovation to the city because that is what we need here?’ From that moment onwards, I knew I would have the support to do some great work!”

Under the mentorship of Mowry, he applied online for the Miami Global Impact Challenge and was selected as a finalist. Given five minutes on May 11 to pitch his idea along with four other finalists at Miami’s Venture Cafe, D’Elia won the challenge. Asked if he was nervous during his presentation, D’Elia said the experience was “very cool, and I only got nervous when I understood the magnitude and huge opportunity to develop my ideas.” 

Regina Njima, director of global impact competitions at Singularity University and one of the judges, said D’Elia stood out because, “It was clear his idea was feasible and he would benefit by meeting like-minded folks who hopefully would work with him and bring his idea to fruition.”

The Singularity University 2017 summer program is currently underway at its NASA Research Park campus in Mountain View, California. Though encouraged by the progress he has seen in Miami Beach, D’Elia is eager for this opportunity, which includes access to Singularity’s global network of mentors, and is “going with big eyes.” 

Ana Cecilia Benatuil, the 2015 winner and organizer of the Miami competition, said, “Francisco was the whole package: He made a great pitch, had a really good attitude and fit the right profile—very technical but also entrepreneurial.”

“This opportunity will change his life and perspective on the world,” she said, “and he will go far.”

Betsy F. Perry is a freelance writer based in Miami and New York. Email her via [email protected].