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Tech for growing urban forests

Using data to increase biodiversity and combat climate change

A team of Capgemini Sustainability Warriors in Sweden used the recent Tech4Positive Futures challenge to empower the growing of urban forests.

Climate change and biodiversity loss are closely connected. As a European Commission journal highlights:

“It’s impossible to address biodiversity loss without tackling climate change, and equally impossible to tackle climate change without addressing biodiversity loss.”

One way to combat climate change and biodiversity loss is to plant trees. The European Commission’s goal is to plant 3 billion of them within the EU by 2030. But it’s not just about creating vast forests across wild landscapes, it’s also about bringing leafy canopies to our cities and towns.

To ensure the planting of ‘urban forests’ delivers the best results, a Capgemini team from Sweden has partnered with Omstilling NU, a non-profit organization (NPO) in Denmark, to support them in their ambition to plant 2,030 urban forests by 2030. Behind the team’s work is some data-driven innovation.

Passionate about sustainability

The Sustainability Warriors team was one of the winners of Capgemini’s recent Tech4Positive Futures challenge, in which employees apply their specialist skills to make a positive impact on the planet. The team is headed by Anil Kandpal, Director and Sustainability Analytics Lead for the Insights & Data team at Capgemini in Sweden.

“I’m passionate about biodiversity and climate change,” says Anil, “so I knew straight away that I wanted to do something for the Tech4Positive Futures challenge.

“According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), since 1970 the world has seen an average 69% decline in the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. European biodiversity has plummeted. In fact, the WWF reports, only 16% of EU habitats are in good health. Aiming to plant 3 billion trees by 2030 is fantastic, but it is also a very steep goal. The question is how can we do it faster and as efficiently as possible?”

How to grow an urban forest

One tried and trusted technique is known as the Miyawaki method. Named after a Japanese botanist, Dr Akira Miyawaki, it involves preparing areas of urban land to grow a range of woodland plants that are beneficial to wildlife, on plots sometimes no bigger than a tennis court.

The Miyawaki method helps us to grow urban forests faster and more densely, to encourage up to 100 times more biodiversity, and to capture up to 40 times more carbon from the atmosphere than by standard planting.

“We identified the problem is that, although the Miyawaki method has been around for 40 years, there has been no standardized way of collecting data about it, which has led to limited insights, awareness, and implementation of this wonderful technique of re-forestation,” says Anil.

Without data to prove its worth, the Miyawaki Method was unlikely to become an answer to European biodiversity loss. For the Capgemini team, gathering and standardizing data in support of the Miyawaki Method was a critical part of the challenge.

“Omstilling NU were using the Miyawaki method to help create urban forests in Denmark. Part of our challenge was to demonstrate its impact so that it could be taken up by every part of the community, from schoolchildren to university students, and by teachers and parents,” says Anil.

Data for positive futures

Gwendeline Zakhour, a business intelligence consultant for Capgemini in Sweden, and a Sustainability Warriors team member, takes up the story.

“First, we needed to gather data to prove the method’s usefulness. We developed an app, in collaboration with the NPO, to encourage people to participate and track the growth of urban forests,” she says. “If people can track the data and statistics about biodiversity in those forests, we can prove the efficiency of them. In turn, that might support further initiatives and funding to help meet the tree-planting target.”

Without standardized data, however, a lot of questions needed to be answered, says Gwendeline.

“For example, how do you actually calculate the biodiversity of a forest? What metrics are we looking for? Is it about the number of different species, or only about the total quantity of animal and plant life? At what point does the forest become sustainable and really make a positive environmental impact?”

Ecological education

Gwendeline says that working on the Tech4Positive Futures challenge provided an education in ecology.

“I learned so much about trees, soil, and animals. I know how trees that grow in different shapes through the canopy capture carbon differently, and about the different methods we can use to calculate carbon capture. It’s a whole new world and it’s been an inspiration to work with people who do this kind of work every day.”

Best of all, Gwendeline says, is that the app the team built for the challenge is now being used by the NPO in Denmark, which means the quantity of data about the efficiency of urban forests is already starting to grow. “As people continue to use the app, we’ll have more data that can be used by more people to help them plant more trees in sustainable ways,” says Anil. “It will support wildlife and our efforts in protecting against the effects of climate change. Good data helps us change the future. I like to think that, in this way, data is like sunshine – you need to share it, not hoard it.”

Tech4Positive Futures

Through Tech4Positive Futures, Capgemini applies innovation and technology to solve some of the most pressing planetary and societal challenges in the areas of skilling, health, and well-being, and climate-related sustainability. We do this by bringing financial support and leadership commitment together with the pro-bono technology and consulting services of our volunteering colleagues. This is delivered in collaboration with our ecosystem of partners, creating impact at scale.

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