For more than a century, scientists have recognized the importance of vegetation structure in understanding forest dynamics. Now future satellite missions such as Deformation, Ecosystem Structure, and Dynamics of Ice (DESDynI) hold the potential to provide unprecedented global data on vegetation structure needed to reduce uncertainties in terrestrial carbon dynamics. Here, we briefly review the uses of data on vegetation structure in ecosystem models, develop and analyze theoretical models to quantify model-data requirements, and describe recent progress using a mechanistic modeling approach utilizing a formal scaling method and data on vegetation structure to improve model predictions. Generally, both limited sampling and coarse resolution averaging lead to model initialization error, which in turn is propagated in subsequent model prediction uncertainty and error. In cases with representative sampling, sufficient resolution, and linear dynamics, errors in initialization tend to compensate at larger spatial scales. However, with inadequate sampling, overly coarse resolution data or models, and nonlinear dynamics, errors in initialization lead to prediction error. A robust model-data framework will require both models and data on vegetation structure sufficient to resolve important environmental gradients and tree-level heterogeneity in forest structure globally.