Digitizing nature: how taking nature online could be the answer to greener cities
A conversation with the award-winning researcher, Nadina Galle
At first glance, the concept of digitizing nature may sound counterintuitive or like something out of a dystopian novel, but researcher, entrepreneur and speaker, Nadina Galle, is out to show us how translating our cities’ green spaces into useful data can help us create healthier, happier and more resilient urban environments. At a time when the world is urbanizing faster than ever — two-thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050 according to a United Nations report — we spoke to the Fulbright Scholar and MIT researcher about her concept, the Internet of Nature, why green space is often still an afterthought in urban planning, how modern technology can help us create wilder ecosystems and her thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic is making us all rethink our relationship to the natural world.
To start, what is the “Internet of Nature”?
The Internet of Nature (IoN) essentially describes a world where urban ecosystems are represented through digital technologies and applications with the mission to restore and enhance nature’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change, but also to reconnect people to nature. It’s essentially about this trio of cities, technology and ecology coming together to form the IoN.
What inspired this concept?
It was inspired by the science behind the notion that plants and trees “talk” to each other via something called mycorrhizal fungi. These are fungal fibers that colonize a tree’s root system and develop a symbiotic association with the tree. The fibers establish a network that allows for biological communication in which nutrients, water, carbon and information are exchanged. So, say one tree is suffering from a pest, there’s been research to show that these trees are able to send warning signals to other trees. I just thought that that was so incredible because we have this vision of trees as solitary beings, when in fact, they’re chit-chatting with each other below the surface. I started thinking about how these fungal fibers have kept forests and plant systems self-regulating and self-sufficient for hundreds of millions of years, but in cities, they’re highly fragmented. Trees and plants have evolved to help their neighbors, but they’re often physically blocked from doing so in cities, which causes poor soil health and high mortality rates among urban trees and plants. A tree outside of the city can live up to a hundred years or more but a tree within a city is only reaching around seven to 13 years of age, most of them never reaching adulthood (20+ years of age).
Nature may seem like it’s far away from the urban environment, but research increasingly shows us what a critical role it plays in everything from stormwater management to pollution reduction to climate resiliency to simply making us better people by offering benefits like stress reduction and opportunities for social cohesion. So with all that brewing in the background, coupled with this rise of smart and technology-driven cities, I started asking, “What if technology could step in where Earth’s biological communication networks have been altered and disrupted?” That’s what forms the basis of the IoN and this new, innovative approach to better value, understand and manage these very novel ecosystems that we call cities.
I started asking, “What if technology could step in where Earth’s biological communication networks have been altered and disrupted?”
How did your background lead you here?
While I was studying earth sciences, I started working with an organization called Metabolic in Amsterdam and became fascinated with this idea of urban ecology, which was something that was always kind of playing in the background for me growing up in Canadian suburbia. My parent’s house used to be on the very edge of the city. It was almost considered rural, but in the last 15 years, subdivision after subdivision started popping up. In the back of my mind, I was always thinking: how is it that developers are able to go in, wipe out these native ecosystems, put in cookie-cutter subdivisions and then go back after and plant a couple of seedlings because they’re like, “Oh yeah, humans do need trees”? I just never understood that, but I always knew that first I needed to understand how everything worked before I could drive any kind of solution. So, the combination of those ideas that were with me from a young age, my earlier studies in ecology and evolutionary biology and a PhD in ecological engineering, which I’m finishing up now, led me here.
What are the obstacles currently holding back urban planners when it comes to incorporating green space and infrastructure into cities?
The thing with green infrastructure is that it’s both an asset and a liability. Let’s say instead of a stormwater or wastewater treatment plant, you might build a wetland to serve the same function. With the wetland, you know that’s an asset that’s appreciating in value over time. It’s actually going to be worth more in 30 years than it would be right now, unlike a wastewater treatment plant, which, like any building, is going to depreciate in value. But the thing is that the wastewater treatment plant doesn’t have a lot of liabilities, whereas the wetland does. Things can go wrong. It can be invaded by an invasive plant species. If it rains too much, people might not be sure how to handle it. There are all these other factors that you have to consider. Plus, there’s a whole legal side of things which is also a huge hindrance. A lot of the time when you see something innovative, it is often done in an experimental area, like De Ceuvel in Amsterdam, for example. That space was granted to the developers in this experimental, one-off kind of project where a lot of these legal things were given leeway. It’s nice that they were given a tangible way of carrying out the project, but until we’re able to develop and implement these solutions within the legal framework that we have, or by making changes to it, you don’t really know where things can actually work in practice.
You made an observation in your paper, “The Internet of Nature: how taking nature online can shape urban ecosystems”, that managing nature can ironically lead to wilder ecosystems, which I thought was interesting. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that works?
If we consider cities as these novel ecosystems that have been heavily dominated by humans, then we need to see humans as both the problem and the solution. Technology then, in whatever form that might be, can serve by helping us monitor nature. One of the best examples of this is from the Netherlands. The Netherlands is not exactly known for having raw, wild nature, but at the same time, they’ve been pioneers in what they call “rewilding” some of their landscapes. One example of that is the Oostvaardersplassen near Almere. It’s an area to the East of Amsterdam that used to be sea, but they dredged it in the sixties and transformed it into a 56 square km nature reserve. That in itself is ironic because you’re rewilding a piece of land that wasn’t even land. Irony aside, this points to the fact that a huge part of creating wilder ecosystems is about giving nature the space to do its thing. The harder part is protecting that area and allowing that to happen, and that’s where proper management tools come in.
Because of the high costs of monitoring, nature reserves in the Netherlands are typically only monitored every 10–15 years. New conservation policies are also based on this older data. Nature is a lot more dynamic than that, so the monitoring technologies we use should be too. Machine learning plays a key role by letting the computer do the thinking. Instead of ecologists observing patterns on foot, the computer now searches for patterns and distinctive features in big data. By monitoring annually, instead of every decade, we can achieve a clearer picture of the trends, and use our ecologists efficiently, sending them into the field where it really counts. The ecologists and technology complement one another. As urban forester, Josh Behounek, once told me, “Technology will never replace ecologists, but ecologists who use technology will probably replace ecologists who do not.”
A huge part of creating wilder ecosystems is about giving nature the space to do its thing. The harder part is protecting that area and allowing that to happen.
What kinds of new data and technology are you researching and experimenting with to help create greener cities?
During my time at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, I was experimenting with many kinds of technology. Going back to my inspiration for the IoN, I was interested in seeing if there was microbial activity in the soil of these very desolate, mangy looking street trees, because if there’s microbial activity, we know the soil is alive and can gauge the health of the tree. The traditional way of finding that out is by taking soil samples and analyzing it in a lab under a microscope. I wanted to see if, instead, we could develop sensors to detect a proxy of microbial activity in order to measure that in a more efficient way.
I’m also fascinated by the developments in remote sensing technology. We now have imagery that’s up to a 30-centimeter resolution. To put that in perspective, that means if you have an A4 sheet of paper and put that on a sidewalk, you could see that A4 sheet of paper with a satellite. Having that kind of resolution from a satellite that is able to orbit the earth—sometimes twice a day—means that we now have access to a huge amount of data. The applications surrounding that are really interesting. I am particularly interested in hyperspectral imagery. These photos are able to pick up on vegetation and the health of that vegetation. This has been used since the seventies to measure the health of agricultural fields and forests, but now that we have that coupled with this high resolution, we can actually measure the health of individual trees.
One other thing I’m researching that’s in a completely different ballpark is my work developing algorithms using TripAdvisor reviews that derive how people feel about certain urban green spaces in different parks and cities. I like to delve into each technology, figuring out as much as possible, but I’m always collaborating with experts in these fields since it moves a lot quicker when you have geniuses around to help you.
How do you measure the impact of your work?
It’s something I’m continuously learning more about, but right now, I roughly divide it into three buckets: engagement, publications and presentations. With engagement, it’s a question of how much of what I’m putting out in the world is easy for the community to understand and reaches the people that I think could benefit from it most? Publications are easier to quantify, and as a scientist, they are very important to communicate my results to people that could potentially take that research further. However, I think that the engagement — and presentations are a part of that — is what really drives me at the end of the day. I get most excited by being able to translate all that research into new facts or a new perspective on things that help people think about the problem as much as I’m thinking about it, and hopefully, come to more creative solutions than I am. At the end of the day, whether it’s in academia or in entrepreneurship or in something else, I always want to be in a position where I’m constantly forced to translate my work into something that’s relatable and easy to understand.
I always want to be in a position where I’m constantly forced to translate my work into something that’s relatable and easy to understand.
That’s really great because I feel like that link is often missing between the academic world the entrepreneurial world and just the average person trying to understand what it all means.
Switching gears a bit, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you think it’s changing our view of nature?
Oh, hugely. I think people have really taken nature for granted, even if it was just the small park or playground outside of their house. When this is all over, I don’t think people are going to look at nature and cities in the same way. I hope it’s going to be seen as an essential human right, just like how we have the right to clean drinking water, clean air, healthcare, all those things. Hopefully, in situations where people have been much less fortunate and don’t have those green spaces, we will start making moves to create those areas, whether that’s just giving up a parking space and turning that into a pop-up park, or whatever it may be. There are really creative examples all over the place of how people have begun gardening in the most difficult of circumstances, how cities like Milan have come out with this really ambitious plan to increase cycling in the city center. It’s really forced people to stop and consider the important things in life.
When this is all over, I don’t think people are going to look at nature and cities in the same way. I hope it’s going to be seen as an essential human right.
Yes, true. As we come out of this, I’ll be curious to see how much of that introspection and personal change will be long lasting and transformative.
Me too, but I think back to the recession in 2008 and how a lot of people came out of that and started using credit and savings in a different way. That gives me hope that long-lasting change can come out of these things. I think for a long time we were getting quite disconnected from the important things in life, considering the emphasis on hustle culture, productivity and always getting things done. Now everyone is being forced to slow down a bit, and I’m optimistic it will stay.
Last question. As the world is urbanizing and climate change is becoming an increasingly pressing issue, what is your ideal vision for future cities?
My focus will always be on rewilding and renaturing cities. If cities are humanity’s principle habitat and also a substantial contributor to climate change, how can cities be more aligned with nature and operate as a cohesive ecosystem? There’s a stat that the amount of urban space we need to build in the next 40 years approximately equals the landmass of South Africa. That helps illustrate the scale of what we need to build. The beauty of that is that there is a massive opportunity to do things differently, in a way where nature is the center of everything that gets built, rather than an afterthought. I think a large part of that problem currently lies in the inability to effectively manage nature. That’s where these insights from monitoring and data analytics can massively improve the efficiency of nature management in cities. Hopefully bringing in that added layer of technology with this increasing understanding of just how important nature is in cities, will eventually lead us to much better cities, not only for the climate but also just nicer places for us to live.
> Learn more about this project at moments-of-impact.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.