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Smart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SmartForests (Smart Forests: Transforming Environments into Social-Political Technologies)

Reporting period: 2021-11-01 to 2023-04-30

Forests are crucial to acting on environmental change. They are key contributors to the carbon cycle and biodiversity, as well as air and water quality. They are also increasingly at the center of policies and initiatives to address climate change and biodiversity collapse. At the same time, digital technologies are reshaping forests in order to manage and enhance their environmental contributions. However, these new technologies are generating social-political impacts that have yet to be extensively researched.

For the first time, this groundbreaking project addresses the vital question of how forests are becoming “smart” through the increasing use of digital technologies to manage these environments. Smart forests span locations from Germany to New York City to Thailand, and from remote to urban areas. While there is now extensive research on smart cities, other “smart” environments have been less well studied. This is problematic, since it is necessary to assess how these technologies enable and constrain particular modes of governance and engagement. Without this research, smart environments such as smart forests run the risk of producing social-political inequities and undemocratic governance, as has been identified with smart cities.

Using inventive digital practices, fieldwork, participatory workshops and mapping, the research project studies the transformation of forests and forest communities through digital technologies. Through a review of digital forest technologies and project, together with multiple case studies, the project analyzes how forest technologies are transforming practices of observing, mitigating, participating in, and regulating environmental change. SmartForests asks not just how digital technologies are remaking forests, but also investigates how forests become social-political technologies for addressing environmental change. Situated at the intersection of science and technology studies (STS), digital media studies and political ecology, the research demonstrates how these technologies impact socio-ecological relations, and proposes more equitable approaches to digital and environmental practice and policy.
During the first phase of research, from 1 May 2020 to 31 October 2022, the Smart Forests team included 5 postdoctoral fellows, 3 research assistants, 1 project administrator, and 6 collaborator consultants.

The team undertook initial data collection by surveying the sites, initiatives, and practitioners relevant to smart forest technology developments. This included literature reviews and document analysis of at least 250 related texts, the identification of at least 200 projects, infrastructures, and practitioners for further review and exchange, and the initial undertaking of 40 interviews with a wide range of stakeholders working in this emerging field. While travel was greatly restricted during RP1 due to Covid, the team undertook pilot fieldwork and testing of smart forests technology in locations including the UK, EU, and India.

In addition to addressing core project objectives through a review of the field, the team set up the overall project research infrastructure to meet data management requirements and to share and analyze project materials within the team. A core part of the research infrastructure is the Smart Forests Atlas [https://atlas.smartforests.net] which the team developed by working with collaborator consultants to build an open-data research platform and infrastructure for collating, synthesizing, and sharing project data.

The Smart Forests team undertook a number of dissemination activities in the form of talks and conference presentations on forests and digital technologies. The project also held its first symposium, The Forest Multiple [https://smartforests.net/the-forest-multiple] at the University of Cambridge. Podcasts from this event are in the process of being published on the Smart Forests Atlas 'Radio' channel (also available on all major podcast providers). The symposium is the topic for a special issue now in preparation. The team published co-authored and single-authored journal articles, blog posts, lexicon and glossary entries, handbook contributions, interviews, and book chapters, so as to distribute research in the broadest possible range of formats during project start-up.
For the first time, the Smart Forests project brings together practitioners, sites technologies, and policies on digital forest technologies that are developing worldwide.

Through the Smart Forests Atlas, the project has created a participatory and dialogic space for engaging diverse publics and stakeholders in smart forest and smart environment topics.

The team is now undertaking four main case studies related to the digital operations of observation, automation and optimization, datafication, participation, and regulation and transformation. Locations range from the EU to North America, India to Indonesia and Brazil. Through workshops and Smart Forests Field Schools, the team plans to host conversations across diverse stakeholders to discuss and consider how digital forest technologies are developed, implemented, and sustained.

Expected results will include the empirical material from the case studies, participatory research networks, contributions to understanding the social-political impacts of smart environments, and proposals for policy and practice as forests become even more central to addressing environmental change.
Smart Forests Atlas: Map
Smart Forests Atlas: Radio main page
Smart Forests Atlas: Radio, sample episode
Smart Forests Atlas: Home page
SmartForestsFieldwork
SmartForestsFieldworkwithDrone
Smart Forests Atlas: Logbooks