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San Francisco Uses a Virtual Reality Program to Educate and Engage Residents about Sea-Level Rise

San Francisco, CA, USA
Nutter Consulting

Government Champion

Department of the Environment


60 Thousand USD

Project Status

Operational since 2017

At a Glance

The City of San Francisco’s Look-Ahead Program used virtual reality alongside comprehensive community engagement to educate and engage its residents about sea level rise.

Problem Addressed

The City of San Francisco is vulnerable to sea-level rise; the Golden Gate tidal gauge has already recorded a 20.3 cm rise over the past century and is projected to rise up to 66 inches (167 cm) by the end of the century. Under Mayor Edwin M. Lee's leadership, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, in partnership with the Public Utilities Commission and Planning Department, convened an inter-agency Climate Adaptation Working Group also known as SF Adapt to coordinate a citywide effort on address local climate change and planning for future adaptation measures. In 2016, the working group’s Sea Level Rise Action Committee commissioned a report entitled, “Sea Level Rise Action Plan” that serves as a guide for the City’s future adaptation. The San Francisco Planning Department has also recently released a Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Consequences Assessment in 2020, describing the vulnerability of the City’s infrastructure and economy.

To increase community support for addressing climate change locally and for investing in adaptation initiatives, the City of San Francisco partnered with Nutter Consulting, Climate Access, and FEMA to launch the LookAhead program to increase community awareness and engagement around sea-level rise.

The City of San Francisco used/is using the LookAhead virtual reality smartphone app and Nutter Consulting’s Outreach and Communications Plan to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

Working with Climate Access, the LookAhead SF program utilized virtual reality technology to create an immersive visual experience for users to understand sea-level rise impacts and encourage action. In the free smartphone app, users were able to view the effects of sea-level rise at three unique locations in San Francisco under three scenarios: current environment, business as usual, and significant climate action. Interactive prompts within the app gave information and prompted users with key questions for the City to gain insight into public opinion.

Nutter Consulting was hired as the lead outreach and education consultant for LookAhead SF. In this role, Nutter Consulting developed and implemented the Outreach and Communications Plan to reach stakeholders to engage in community risk reduction efforts, connect users to opportunities to take action, and encourage involvement in local planning efforts.

Throughout the duration of the project, Nutter Consulting coordinated with key city government officials in San Francisco - including Fuad S. Sweiss, the Mayor’s Senior Policy Advisor for Sea Level Rise, and Shawn Rosenmoss, the Senior Environmental Specialist for SF Dept. of the Environment - as well as developed a network of local project partners, and conducted community education. Educational materials were also distributed to officials and other Bay Area project partners, including Bernal Heights Branch Library, EcoCenter at Heron's Head, Institute at the Golden Gate, Mission Bay Branch Library, SF Main Library Branch and individual vendors in the Ferry Building. Finally, Nutter Consulting attended key community events as outreach partners, staffing educational booths at the Aquarium of the Bay, California Academy of Sciences, and the San Francisco Green Film Festival.


  1. Engaged and educated community members throughout San Francisco on the potential effects of sea-level rise on their neighborhoods and action pathways for solution-building
  2. Pioneered virtual reality tool to increase engagement and deepen users’ understanding of sea-level rise
  3. Involved key community organizations in the City’s sea-level rise initiatives

Lessons Learned

  1. Using digital visualizations are an effective and innovative way for engaging citizens about the impacts of sea-level rise and climate change
  2. Building an application from scratch with a developer can be costly and time-consuming. Recommend working with an existing application or an app-building partner.
  3. Simply building and launching a visualization tool is not effective. It must be accompanied by a robust marketing plan and budget to maximize the intended result.

Something Unique

By utilizing virtual reality technology, LookAhead SF created a unique and compelling sea level rise education and engagement tool. Since participants picture what future landscapes would look like, it allowed for an immersive visual experience that provided for a deeper understanding of the issue.

Who Should Consider?

Coastal cities that are looking to increase engagement and awareness around sea-level rise initiatives can use this technology to educate and build support within the community.

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