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Aecom launches ‘living laboratory’ in Scottish Highlands

29 Jul 19 Aecom has launched a five-year ‘living laboratory’ project that will be used for trials of new technologies to help measure and monitor environmental change.

Aecom is carrying out the work across a 100-acre site in the Scottish Highlands
Aecom is carrying out the work across a 100-acre site in the Scottish Highlands

The Natural Capital Laboratory will document the rewilding of a 100-acre site near Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, allowing Aecom to test and trial experimental technologies. ‘Natural capital’ refers to the stock of renewable and non-renewable resources - such as plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals.

Aecom will be working with the landowners, their local advisors and conservation charity the Lifescape Project. The site’s natural environment will be restored, bringing back native forest and reintroducing locally extinct species with the aim of identifying and demonstrating the environmental and social benefits of rewilding.

Over the next five years, Aecom will use the Natural Capital Laboratory as a testbed for emerging ecological approaches. These include technologies such as using drones to plant trees, robotic rovers to undertake soil sampling, exploring the use of AI techniques to reduce the costs associated with data collection and analysis, and using space satellites to capture aerial imagery, map habitats and assess their condition.

The site is mostly covered by commercial forestry and the project will regenerate tree cover to bring back ancient Caledonian forest. Initial estimates suggest that replanting the whole site would store around 550 tonnes of CO2 each. A river also runs through the site and the Aecom team will undertake a feasibility study for introducing a fish ladder to bring back species such as salmon and trout. Rare species including red squirrel, pine marten and mountain hares have already been spotted at the site and there are also promising signs of the critically endangered Scottish wildcat.  

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Aecom will draw on the data collected to develop a set of natural and social capital accounts for the site to record, quantify and value environmental and social changes for each year of the experiment.

The company said that an increasing prominence of natural capital accounting in UK policy-making, means that there is growing demand for public and private sector organisations to provide a better account of their environmental and social impacts. The Natural Capital Laboratory is intended to be a real-world, practical demonstration of how to apply a natural capital approach.

“Primarily, the Natural Capital Laboratory is about restoring a stunning slice of the Scottish Highlands back to what it was,” said Robert Spencer, director – sustainability at Aecom. “But we also see this live laboratory as a way to demonstrate the value of conserving and enhancing ecosystems, including benefits to wellbeing, health and economic prosperity. We expect this will affect real change among businesses and organisations with significant land assets and encourage wider uptake of natural capital thinking. This project could be one of a network of natural capital sites across the UK. With growing demand for public and private sector organisations to better value and account for natural capital, they will need to consider how they interact with and manage their natural assets in everyday decision-making.”

Aecom principal environmental economist Chris White added: “The laboratory allows Aecom to test and trial fast-evolving technologies in environmental monitoring so that we can prove what works before asking our clients to invest and embrace new techniques on their projects. Environmental consultancy work is becoming increasingly data driven. Armed with an array of new technologies, we want to push forward digital transformation by collecting and bringing together a richness of data that could bring major efficiencies to this type of work.”

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