UvA Alumni Portraits: Green Cities with Dr. Nadina Galle
Alumni Portraits, where we interview UvA alumni who are pursuing sustainable careers inspiring you to do the same!
In this first edition of Alumni Portraits, read about Dr. Galle’s job and career, her experience at the UvA and her thoughts on the future of cities. Keep reading to learn about Nadina’s mission of using new smart technology to protect, restore, and enhance the green spaces within our cities, or what she calls ‘the Internet of Nature’.
Dr. Nadina Galle
This week we'll be talking with Dr. Nadina Galle, an ecological engineer who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto and her Master’s in Earth Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. She later went on to do a PhD in Ecological Engineering at University College Dublin, and being chosen for the Fulbright Scholarship, she was able to be PhD researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Urban Ecology and Technology. Nadina currently works at Green City Watch, which she is a co-founder of. She is one of Forbes 30 Under 30, a research fellow at Metabolic (an Amsterdam-based environmental consultancy firm), an Academic Director at the UvA, and an inspirational speaker.
Part 1: Job-specific questions
Could you briefly introduce yourself?
Absolutely. So my name is Nadina, I am an ecological engineer. I'm from the Netherlands originally, but I grew up in Canada. I actually came back to the Netherlands to do my Master's at the UVA, amongst also, of course, being curious about my Dutch heritage. One of the reasons why I chose to come to the University of Amsterdam is because I felt that there was a lot to learn in terms of sustainability in the Netherlands, and I was definitely right about that.
Tell us a little bit about the Internet of Nature and Green City Watch.
The Internet of Nature really came about through my background in ecology. I did Earth Sciences at UVA, and while I was still completing my master's, I was working at Metabolic, which is a sustainability consulting firm in Amsterdam. A lot of my job entailed looking at sustainability agendas for cities. One of the things I noticed was, oftentimes you would have one agenda that was for the Smart City, and one that was for the Green City. And I always thought that it was so strange that these two seem to be so disconnected from each other. So the Internet of Nature is really about bringing ‘Green Cities’ and ‘Smart Cities’ together, because I think that they have a lot that they can learn from each other.
The Internet of Nature is a framework for deploying emerging technologies to protect, restore and enhance urban ecosystems. I was seeing a lack of consistent, reliable and precise data on urban forests, and that really inspired me. There’s improper maintenance, or just a lack of soil health, or a lack of water, or invasive species. All of these things are challenging obstacles that municipal planners, urban foresters, researchers, and urban ecologists all have to deal with. That's really my main aim with the Internet of nature: to not only help better manage public green space, but to also reconnect people with the nature that's at their very doorstep.
Green City Watch is then really just an application of these Internet of Nature technologies. Green City Watch aims to explore the new up and coming field called geospatial AI, which combines machine learning techniques and remote sensing methods. This geo AI is then applied specifically to urban ecosystems. Our models are based on rapid iteration, and rapid prototyping, so we’re constantly learning and adjusting. Some of the things that we work on at Green City Watch is developing algorithms to, for example, identify tree locations in cities, but also to identify different attributes about those trees. We're using satellite imagery and other remote sensing imagery, like drones, and also plant identification apps, IoT sensor networks, virtual reality mining, and social media. So I really see myself as an ecological engineer, I get to be that person that translates these ideas from engineering and technology to the ecological field.
And all in order to improve the quality of the urban spaces that we have in cities. Right?
I wanted to ask you about Amsterdam, specifically, because you mentioned that you wanted to come back to Amsterdam because it's very prominent in the field of sustainability. Indeed, I think Amsterdam is in the top five most sustainable cities of 2020. What do you know that has been done in Amsterdam to make the city more sustainable and greener using these technologies you mentioned?
There's so many things that Amsterdam has done to become this global example for sustainability. Amsterdam is a front runner city on so many things, whether it's cycling, and urban mobility, bike share systems, public transport systems and the walkability of the city. There's things that Amsterdam does in the area of water and sustainable water management, there's things that it does in terms of startup ecosystems. Amsterdam really is one of the greenest cities in Europe.
I do hope though, that Amsterdam will in the future continue to not only invest large amounts of money in planting new trees and replacing old trees, but also being more innovative in its financing of tree management and tree care. This is most definitely one of the less sexy aspects of planting in cities - the actual planting of the tree is fun, and that gets a lot of media attention - but when it comes to the actual care of the tree, that kind of often goes by the wayside. I think applying technology in the area of green space management is still very much on the cusp, and we need to see a lot more of it in the coming years.
Amsterdam wants to become one of the first fully circular cities by 2050. Is there a way to unite, or apply these two ideas of circularity and of the Internet of nature together?
Yes, I think so. I started out my professional career in the area of industrial ecology and circular economy at Metabolic. One of the things that we often looked at is material flow analyses. This is really the starting point for any city that wants to become circular. They have to really understand, okay, what are the resources? Where are they going? What are the ins and outs of the system? One of the things that we often struggled with was figuring out what the natural ecosystem that underlays that system looked like. You really also need to take into account what are the climate patterns there? What does the weather look like? What's the soil type? What's the normal drainage system of the city? So I think there's a huge, huge opportunity to kind of bring these concepts together. A circular city is all about understanding these different flows, and you really can't manage what you don't measure. And I think technology has ample opportunity to help measure these flows, so that we may first, better understand them, and then better monitor them and eventually better improve them.
Part 2: Career-related Questions
Gabriel (interviewer 2):
How was the UvA a step to help you in your career and in your path as a professional?
I really like that question, because it's kind of forcing me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The UvA, for me, is where it all started. That was my introduction to the city of Amsterdam, that was my introduction to understanding the network surrounding sustainability in Amsterdam, and in the Netherlands and Europe more broadly. And I loved my program, there were only I think, 16 of us in my starting year in Earth Sciences, the vast majority of which I'm still close friends with. I had never had that kind of experience before, in my bachelor's at the University of Toronto, I was in classes with 1300 other students, especially in my first year. I mean, you were really just a number. And at the UvA, you were definitely not a number. It was also really cool opportunity to be on a first name basis with so many professors. Earth Sciences provided a platform for understanding how ecosystems truly work. I was then able to translate that knowledge through my work at Metabolic to the urban ecosystem, I think that's what really set me off for this career in ecological engineering.
You first did your Master’s, and then you decided to do a PhD. But now you're more in the business sector as an entrepreneur. Could you talk to us about how you made that transition? If that was always the plan, or was it something that happened gradually?
I don't think I would have ever been able to put it in these words, but when I was at university I had FOMO about the business world, and when I was really in the business world I had FOMO about the university. So, for me, it was a constant internal struggle of trying to balance the two. And I think that's kind of what has led me to this slightly more unconventional path, of, jumping from academia to entrepreneurship, and then back to academia, and then back again. Now with the PhD complete, I feel like I'm really able to start a career that truly has one foot in both worlds. I still have the affiliation as a postdoc researcher in academia, and on the other hand, I still have lots of time for entrepreneurial activities. And I think that's kind of ideally what I want to do.
One of the biggest inspirations for me in terms of my career path is a professor named Carlo Ratti. He founded the MIT Senseable City Lab, an academic research laboratory hosted by the university, but completely practical in nature. So they have this interesting consortium model where they work directly with cities and municipal governments and industry partners, to really make sure that, yes, it's academic research, but it is completely aligned with what the market is looking for. It was really cool to spend time at an institution like that, where, yeah, you're still in the university, but everyone that works there clearly has a foot in the real world. And that's something that I hope to continue throughout my career.
Considering everything you've achieved at a very young age, what do you see as your end goal? Where do you see yourself in your future?
Again, great, great questions, guys. So I think what I'm really focused on now, is really bringing the concept of the Internet of Nature forward. I already had the honor and the privilege of being featured by different publications, whether it was print, podcasts, radio interviews, videos, or film. But beside communicating about the Internet of Nature, I really want to be actively working on bringing that forward. So I look forward to partnering up with Internet of Nature businesses and research organizations to further develop all these different applications that I listed earlier. There's a whole breadth of possibilities here.
I just wanted to ask you, before we head on to the final part of the interview, a lot of the work you're doing is with trees and urban forests. Where did that interest for trees come from?
Yeah, it's a great question. I would love to say that, you know, it all started when I was three years old and climbed my first tree, but that's definitely not the case. I grew up in Canada, where there’s a lot of nature and wilderness. I always loved being outside and being in the outdoors, and spotting bears and moose, obviously, wildlife that you don't typically run into in the Netherlands. So I had that appreciation for the outdoors, and the conservation of it was definitely drilled into me from a young age. But I think it was growing up in a very typical suburban setting that made me start to question why is it that humans feel like we can just be an invasive species, just drive out the nature around us and continue urban sprawl in every which way. That was something that I never quite understood. I always was, like, who makes up these rules? Who says that you're just allowed to clear cut that forest and put a subdivision in, and then later come in and plant some seedlings? I don't even think it was about trees at that point, it was kind of about ecology in general. But trees really are the foundations of that urban ecology. They're really the anchors, and they're also the most ubiquitous or visible part of the urban ecosystem. When you tell a kid to draw nature in the city, more than likely they're going to draw trees. So I think that's kind of neat. It's a logical place to start. It's a familiar being.
A lot of the inspiration behind the Internet of nature actually comes from a lot of research which has been done to show that trees in the wild communicate and talk with each other via this underground network of fungal fibers called mycorrhiza. And that's something that always inspired me, that trees were connected underground, and were communicating with each other. And then when I started kind of formulating the Internet of nature. I started thinking, well, what happens when you plant trees in cities? Are they still able to simply talk to each other in these situations where their mycorrhizal fungal fibers might have been disrupted? And some of my empirical research, PhD is actually focused on that. Of the 300 or so soil samples that I took in my fieldwork in Boston, not one of those had enough mycorrhizal associations, as they call it. This is some evidence to show that those communication fibers, well, they don't have those.
When you think about trees talking, you kind of are able to better relate it to yourself and think, well, trees talk, I talk. And if you can better relate to something, it also means typically, as a human being, you're also in a better position to be a better steward for that ecosystem as well. So anyways, that was a very long answer to a short question. But I think trees are absolutely these amazing kinds of relatable beings that I think in certain city areas where nature is definitely sparse. Seeing a tree can make you feel quite differently about that.
Yeah, I completely agree. I'm looking at the tree outside my window with a whole different perspective now.
Good, that's exactly what I aim to do.
Part 3: General Opinion and Advice:
So now branching out into the broader topic of the environment and the climate crisis: given the fact that cities are one of the major contributors to climate change, do you think that with better technology, better monitoring, and better research, cities can truly become the frontrunners in climate change action? Even though they're really the antagonists in the story.
Yeah, it's interesting, because depending on how you frame cities, they are, indeed either the antagonists or the protagonist of the story. On the one hand, cities are these economic powerhouses where a lot of innovation lives. And I truly believe innovation holds a lot of the answers that we need to at least alleviate some of the problems that climate change is causing. I feel like they will also be the frontrunners simply because they will be some of the most impacted, also economically. So this is where people are going to be working the hardest to protect their areas. And if you're forced to protect an area, you're going to work incredibly, incredibly hard, but also incredibly creatively, to come to new solutions quicker to be able to do that. So I do think the challenges and the constraints of urban living, will also lead to the most creative climate solutions.
Yeah, I think it's definitely true that when we are forced into a corner, we start to think more creatively.
So how would you envision cities in the future? What do you think the cities will look like by 2050?
What I hope to see is that we don't necessarily move towards these bigger and bigger mega cities where everything is very concentrated in one city center. But I hope what we'll see is more of a decentralized approach where we'll see even suburban areas becoming a lot more walkable, so not having all these residential areas, and then all these roads that go towards where you have to get your supplies. Really creating a more, decentralized, “mixed use” urban development.
On top of that because of an increase in heat, in natural disasters, and a decrease in air quality, I think we will be forced to look at every surface of the city as an opportunity for filtering the air or soaking up extra storm water or even just providing aesthetic beauty or value. I think we're going to start looking at gray infrastructure very differently in the cities of this future and see them as opportunities to bring in more and more green, not only for its ecological benefits, and not only because it makes us feel better, and makes us less stressed and makes us healthier individuals. There’s also an economic incentive for doing that, it's going to cost us more to keep gray infrastructure, than it will to transition those to greener surfaces. And I think that that economic shift is already happening. But I'm very excited to see it really advance in the next 30 years.
To finish off, I wanted to ask you, what advice would you give a Bachelor’s student or a Master’s student that wants to have an impact and doesn't quite know where to start or what to do next?
I think what I would say is, don't think too long. I think the best is to just try to pick one thing, become really good at it and do that. And then from there, you know, it's almost like what I was just saying about rapid prototyping and rapid iteration - apply those kinds of scientific method principles to your life! Don't think too long - if you're really interested in solar panels, for example, go work at a solar panel company, if you're really interested in what policy can do for biodiversity conservation go work at an agency that focuses on that. Or if you're really interested in the innovation side of things, start your own climate tech startup. I think the key word here is don’t think too long, but do. Because only really through doing to do you learn and you learn things that you might never otherwise have come across. So rapidly iterate your life, rapidly prototype your life, that is my advice.
We would like to thank Dr. Nadina Galle for her time, her inspiring work, and the insightful conversation we had the opportunity of having with her.
To learn more about Nadina and her work check out the following links:
· Nadina’s Website: https://www.nadinagalle.com
· Green City Watch Website: https://www.greencitywatch.org
· Nadina’s Tedx Talk on the Internet of Nature: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbZkqSukAwc
· A tour of Amsterdam’s arboreal wonders with UvA Summer School: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMJA0_WMMm8
And a massive thank you to our interviewers: Gabriel Rivas (left) & Evanna Corona (right)