Innovation in forestry: Where it’s happening, why it matters

Pinpointing potential for incremental, transformative + disruptive change
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A technician instals equipment on the Congoflux tower, which continuously monitors atmosphere/ecosystem greenhouse gas exchange in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape, Tshopo Province, DRC. Photo by Fiston Wasanga/CIFOR-ICRAF

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The theme of this year’s International Day of Forests: ‘Forests and Innovation: New solutions for a better world’, is perhaps deliberately provocative: the forestry sector is not widely seen as one of the world’s most innovative. Indeed, there’s a perception among many that it’s instead rather conservative and opaque.

But it’s time for that perception to be updated – and for governments, funders, and investors to rally behind the array of innovations that hold potential to create positive change in the sector, and contribute to many other sectors, too. Our lives literally depend on forests: there is no escaping the rapidly changing context and worst impacts of the climate, food, and biodiversity crises without successfully adapting and innovating to better protect, restore, and manage the planet’s forests.

So what do we mean by innovation? Well, it’s not just about new technologies – it’s also about new policies, institutions, and forms of governance. And there are three main types of innovations to consider: incremental, transformative, and disruptive.

Incremental innovation has to do with adding attributes to existing products, developing more efficient processes, and/or expanding into new markets. It is relatively easy to plan and forecast, is often the result of improved processes or market knowledge, and is generally a linear process. In the forestry sector, this includes things like reduced-impact logging, increased awareness of keeping high-carbon-stock or high-conservation-value forests intact, better breeding to make plantation forestry more productive and sustainable, and ‘precision forestry’, which uses advanced technologies to improve forest management results. 

Transformative innovation leads to new products, novel value chains, or new ways of doing business, creating new socio-economic trade-offs. And, disruptive innovation occurs when a transformative innovation is so radical that it displaces existing established actors or well-known technologies. These latter types of innovation, unlike their incremental counterpart, are not linear: they progress by leaps and bounds, and their ultimate outcomes cannot fully be known in advance.

With regards to forestry, transformative innovation often comes from other sectors and requires more time and effort to be adopted and tailored for specific forestry-relevant uses. It also requires the congruence of several conditions: versatility of the innovation (can it be used outside of the realm it was initially created for?); the existence of the technology and/or enabling environment to expand the use of the innovation; and strong, yet unknown, demand for the products of this innovation – the latter being the condition for transformative innovation to become disruptive.

Right now, there are more examples of ongoing, potentially disruptive innovation in the forestry sector than many people realize.

For instance, biotechnology advances are being used to tailor trees in plantations, such as by reducing the amount of lignin in wood to improve pulp yield or increasing it to produce biomass for energy, and increasing the amount of cellulose-derived sugars for bio-plastics or bio-fuels. Machine learning is being used to identify wildlife species in camera traps much faster and more cheaply than manual methods, and to predict animal and poacher behaviours in national parks. And, drones equipped with advanced sensors (e.g. LIDAR) are being put to purposes such as management surveys, fire detection, and illegal logging reporting – with huge potential to save costs and protect resources.

Meanwhile, rethinking forest, plantation, and tree product ownership and stewardship by individuals and communities (rather than following classic industry concession ownership) is proving significant for the expansion of tree cover – including agroforestry – into private and community land, to better value tree products including non-timber forest products,  fostering diversification and better livelihoods for the rural dwellers. 

Policy moves like India’s to give farmers the right to use the products of trees previously pertaining to the state (creating a key incentive to take care of such trees), and Peru’s to formalize smallholder timber production on agricultural fallows, have the potential – if effectively translated into practice – to make a huge change to livelihoods and the environment. Innovation can indeed occur at the ‘end of the pen’ of forest legislators.

The previous examples are already in use in some places and have potential for wider adoption to make more significant impact. Other innovations have even higher potential for transformation and disruption, but are yet to be applied at a meaningful scale with the sector, and often require the existence of a given technology and an associated platform. They have the potential to completely change the job of the forester of tomorrow. 

One is digitization: drones equipped with new sensors, combined with more and more accessible and accurate satellite data and supported by increasingly affordable data storage, distributed calculation capacities, AI-driven analysis, and virtual reality, will enable us to manage forests and plantations with real-time data, combining information across different scales on the health and productivity of forest stands, ecosystem services, and more.

Blockchain and other fintech developments, supported by mobile applications, also have immense potential in securing land rights and transactions, and increasing transparency in forestry-based operations – despite being created for a very different purpose.

Yet innovation alone will not save us – we also need to get the most basic things right. For the benefits of incremental, transformative, and disruptive innovation to be fully and fairly realized, we need forests, plantations, and trees to be managed by well-trained people who can make a decent living by sustainably managing the resource. We need to also ensure that these innovations benefit not just the innovator, but first and foremost the communities and actors that will use them. 

Robert Nasi is the Chief Operating Officer of CIFOR-ICRAF and the Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research. For more information, please contact him on: r.nasi@cifor-icraf.org

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