Nature Tech: A New Opportunity for Smart Cities

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4Q 2021 | IN-6323

Nature-based solutions are a proven and effective method for cities to mitigate and reduce the impact of climate change. The use of technology to enhance these solutions is an attractive market and, with many pledges such as tree planting from both governments and corporations, it is set to grow in popularity.

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The Rise of Nature Based Solutions


Green corridors, green roofs, urban farming, reforestation, and storm water capture are all examples of nature-based solutions (NbS) that have been implemented in cities across the world. NbS is the use of natural solutions to decrease the impact of climate change; for example, increasing the amount of green space to increase the drainage potential in a particular area. There are many other benefits to NbS that are of interest to city planners, such as an increasing the mental health and wellbeing of citizens, decrease in heat island effect, and increase in biodiversity, that make NbS so attractive. There are some barriers to NbS which mainly stem from a lack of education on their worth, effectiveness, and possible additional benefits.

Technology and nature have often been seen as the opposite of each other but, in reality, they have an incredibly beneficial partnership. Technology helps us to understand the state of natural systems and how to maximize their benefits. This makes the use of technology in NbS a crucial step for its success and value recognition.

Nature Tech and the Internet of Nature


Nature tech is the leveraging of technology to exploit NbS to increase their effectiveness. Furthermore, the marriage between technology and nature can be incredibly powerful in protecting nature and to help fully understand its value. The term the ‘Internet of Nature’ has been coined to name the network of devices that monitor nature. The information gathered from these devices should help inform city planners on the state of nature for better planning and understanding. Moreover, these monitors can create autonomous systems that maximize the potential of NbS.

Planting trees is an incredibly popular NbS for both governments and businesses. For example, the UK has an Urban Tree Challenge Fund (UTPF) that plans on planting 44,000 standard trees over the next two years, and charities such as Trees for Cities help enable private companies to deliver their corporate social responsibility objectives. This can be a problematic strategy as trees in urban environments only live for an average of 20% of their expected lifetime (fifteen to twenty years compared to fifty to one hundred). This is mainly down to the harsh environments that young trees are required to overcome in urban environments. However, a Dutch company called Tree Mania partnered with Digital Matter to install its SensorData Low-power Wide-Area Network (LoRaWAN) product to monitor critical health statics of the trees via an app. This allows authorities to remotely monitor the trees health so that any health issues can be prevented, extending the lifetime of the tree.

Smart Technologies for Nature Based Solutions


Smart city technologies are only at the beginning of their relationship with nature. Many environmental sensors only monitor the impact that humans have on the environment (pollution sensors) and not on the impact that nature can have on humanity. Technologies that either help realize the value of an investment in NbS or help to decrease the risks involved will be critical to the success and growing investment in NbS. Much of the infrastructure that is required for NbS is already being deployed for other smart city use cases, such as connections for environmental sensors or waste generation monitoring. This makes an investment in nature tech a very attractive prospect for cities as they can get more value out of the connections that are already in place.

A smart city technology that is primed to work with NbS is digital twins. A current use case for digital twins is that they can be used to map the urban canopy for planning purposes. The ability to map an urban canopy can be used to maximize green coverage so that it works with urban surveillance and lighting. This can also translate to real-time sensor data when sensors are attached to roots of trees for an overview of the health of green spaces in a spatial context.

The connection of the urban, social, and natural environments is the next step in the connected world. It will help enable smarter NbS and pave the way for sustainable and robust smart cities.