Accounting for environmental, social, and economic impacts is an increasing priority for many organisations and understanding and measuring natural capital, as part of this, is key. The Natural Capital Laboratory (NCL), set up in 2019 by AECOM and the Lifescape Project, is a unique project to do just this: a live environment for identifying, quantifying and valuing the impacts of re-wilding.

Located in the Scottish Highlands, near Loch Ness, for the next five years the NCL is restoring 100 acres of forest and reintroducing lost species.
New digital tools and techniques have been adopted to track and communicate the complex data at scale, showcase the changes on the site and create solutions which help tackle two of the biggest challenges of our times: climate change and biodiversity loss.

Unlocking the environment through technology

Artificial intelligence (AI), drone technology, automated robot rovers, earth observation data, GIS data and thermal imaging. All these tools are used to increase the accuracy of tracking the live environment at the NCL and reduce the cost of the repetitive processes needed to acquire and analyse data. For example, drones are flown regularly over the site along a series of automated routes. These flyovers collect a consistent set of data on the extent and condition of habitats, which has helped build digital models of the site. The subsequent models can then be replicated and used for testing and monitoring changes over time.

Over the next five years of the project, until 2024, we will capture the data in a natural capital accounting tool – a web-based digital twin (a digital replica of the actual site). This platform stores and correlates different elements of the environment from soil or water quality to the increase or decrease of species, and carbon measurements. The findings are also supported by GIS data, audio, videos, virtual reality tools and time lapse footage. All this information is available to view online in the natural capital accounting tool.

Natural capital accounting tool

The accounting tool is an online platform designed to clearly navigate land and infrastructure owners through their natural assets. The data is made accessible through a digital dashboard drawing together complex elements such as the numbers and locations of plants and wildlife and records how these change over time. The platform can be used for monitoring changes in soil, air, or water quality and the movement and growth of animal populations.

Financial values are provided for ecosystem services such as the amount of carbon captured on site. This enables better measurement of offsetting activities, as well as the number of biodiversity units held, allowing organisations to meet their carbon net zero and biodiversity net gain targets.
Where data is not available in terms of habitat types and condition on a site, machine learning is used to remotely collect and analyse this information using satellite data.

Enhancing the value of natural assets

The new technologies developed through the NCL have enabled clearer understanding of the social, environmental, and economic benefits provided by the natural environment, and the value they generate to business and society. These technologies also decrease the cost and complexity of collecting and analysing the data needed to understand and measure these impacts – making it easier to integrate them into each stage of decision making.

This could be from early optioneering (using remote sensing to assess and quantify changes in habitat extent, condition and carbon storage), through to monitoring and evaluation (collecting data on-site and presenting year on year change in an accessible manner). Ultimately, these methods will transform infrastructure and urban development projects – allowing for design to better anticipate the full range of impacts and deliver both reductions in carbon and gains in biodiversity.

The team: collaboration and innovation

The project is being undertaken in collaboration with the landowners, local advisors, university research partners and local communities. It has also pulled together a vast range of technical specialist services – aquatic ecology, soil quality, social engagement, conservation, economics, virtual reality, AI, remote sensing, and drone piloting – which has in itself delivered insights and innovations.

The project and the team are also working to be carbon negative through:

  • Tree planting and peatland restoration (to actively sequester and store carbon)
  • The use of site-generated renewable energy (solar and woodfuel)
  • Purchasing carbon offsets (from a REDD+ Gold Standard project)
  • The adoption of a plant-based diet while on site.

NCL: the five year plan

Year one results

The data and results collected in the first year of the NCL have supported and informed the re-wilding plan for the site. Presenting data on baseline water quality, the condition of different habitats, and the ecosystem services of the highest value has ensured the site management plan is evidence-led. These results can be accessed via the natural capital accounting tool which allows users to take a virtual tour of the site and better understand the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project. This includes the amount of carbon stored, the number of biodiversity units generated, the location and abundance of wildlife, and the health and wellbeing benefits of accessing the site.

Year two plans

AECOM and the Lifescape Project will continue to share the data, results and learnings of the NCL for broader engagement and knowledge. This includes setting up a PhD and Masters research programme with conservation scientists from the University of Kent, as well as working with the University of Cumbria to pioneer new approaches to conservation science.

Workstreams include:

  • Developing a remote, AI-led camera trap monitoring system, using drones to survey habitat extent and condition
  • Developing a virtual reality programme to allow users to visualise different ecological futures on site
  • Assessing the aquatic biodiversity on site using environmental DNA analysis.

Going forward

The NCL will continue to work with partner organisations to design and execute ambitious research projects to better understand and measure environmental, social and economic change. We will focus on tackling specific key challenging issues such as monitoring change in biodiversity, along with understanding and measuring changes in soil quality.