About Smart Forests

The SmartForests project is led by Professor Jennifer Gabrys and is part of the Planetary Praxis research group based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Funded through a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant, the project investigates the increasing use of digital technologies to monitor and manage forests for addressing environmental change.

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. At the same time, digital technologies are reshaping forests in order to manage and enhance their environmental contributions. Smart forests span locations from Germany to New York City to Thailand, and from remote to urban areas. However, these new technologies are generating social-political impacts that have yet to be extensively researched. This project addresses the crucial question of how forests are becoming “smart” through the increasing use of digital technologies to manage these environments. Our research project considers how forests and technologies are co-constituted. Rather than advocate for smartness, we question how and why forests are becoming technologically optimised to address environmental change.

Experimental forest with sensors, photo by author.
Experimental forest with sensors, photo by author.

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 will investigate the transformation of forests and forest communities through digital technologies. Through 5 project areas, the research will analyze the ways in which 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) and digital media studies, the research will demonstrate how these technologies impact socio-ecological relations, and will propose more equitable approaches to digital and environmental practice and policy.

For an overview of the Smart Forests project, see: Jennifer Gabrys, “Smart forests and data practices: From the Internet of Trees to planetary governance,” Big Data & Society (14 February 2020), 1-10.