Giovanni Montagnani is an Italian engineer who is – and this is a euphemism – passionate about nature. An alumnus of the Politecnica di Milano, he has developed a lot of ideas to restore the beautiful forests of Northern Italy. In between a trek competition and a week out camping in the forest, we found a slot to discover more about this green engineer techpreneur extraordinaire…
Buongiorno Giovanni, And thank you for taking a moment to answer those questions. Your answers can be as short or as long as you want them to be. Let’s talk about you and the road that led you to create and lead Crowdforest and its crowdfunding campaign.
Can you tell us a bit more about who you are and where you come from?
We are a group of 5 people located in the Milan area. The group is composed of three engineers, a reforestation expert and a communication manager. I am a person who believes in doing the right things. I love being outside in the place where I live in Italy near the Alps. I’ve always looked at the snow on our mountains thinking “Gosh, this could be the last time I see it”. When I was in first grade I liked writing songs, and I perfectly remember these lines “When there will be no snow falling on trees in January, praying will serve you no good”. It’s been years now that I’m concerned about how climate change is modifying our planet and the places I love. My daughter Nora was born in November 2018, and this event has made me even more worried: will she see the same beautiful world I saw when I was a child? I fear not. And I can’t stand not doing anything.
What is your area of expertise?
Working with nature and maintaining an engineering approach makes you face an enormous knowledge gap. We can say that individually we handle very well hardware design, data analysis and reforestation strategies. Let’s see how these strengths will help in a project challenging them all.
You are a great sport and mountain trekker. What is the influence of these passions on your work and objectives in life?
I would say it is a bidirectional influence: if you manage to force yourself in a 24 hour run alone in the mountains you are likely capable of maintaining concentration and motivation for weeks while working on a project.
I love to speed-climb mountains in summer and practising ski mountaineering races in spring. Glaciers are disappearing at a “Kilian Jornet speed” and I’m witnessing just that every summer [Ed: if you don’t know who this Kilian Jornet is, check this out]. Entire ecosystems have been modified within the span of 20 years. So I have been thinking to put some practical effort to tackle climate change, creating a business on it.
Why are you concerned about deforestation? What has happened in Italy or in your region in recent years that made you decide to act on this problem?
Except for wildfires, that are more likely to happen due to droughts, Italy does not have a huge forests issue. In reality, they are actually growing in coverage for now. Crowdforest project has a more global target even if we are based in Milan: we are working locally on a small scale and controlled scenario to export our technology on a global scale.
Crowdforest uses seeder drones to plant entire forests in record times, even in craggy, steep or abrupt terrain. Can you tell us more about the technology you use and what are its advantages against traditional techniques?
Oh man, this needs a really long answer. High costs mean inertia, revenue and high economic margins provide action. This is at the base of consumerism and it is the key problem in climate change action and introduction of the circular economy. Engineering the reforestation processes aiming to lower the prices means to find the trade-off between naturally redundant seeding and human brute force tree planting. We are developing an enclosure capable of giving to the seeds the right nutrients and water for successful germination. Dropping these enclosures from a drone in the right places thanks to machine vision optimization and smartly planning the seeding time and species could drop the cost of reforestation by 75% at least. We are currently testing the technique in different locations and we will increase the test areas by the end of 2019.
How did you come up with this idea?
Reforestation is essential to stock the CO2 we keep on producing, but the costs are still too high. Plus, in 2018 in Italy, we’ve had wildfires and floods, and many of them happened in areas that are difficult to reach. So I started thinking about how technology could help to make it easier: accessing remote areas and taking down processes. And there came the idea: seeding with a drone!
Where do you act and why? How far do you want to take this idea?
Our guess is that our world is driven by business: so the basic idea is to boost the validation of the technology thanks to the planA crowdfunding and then create a startup based on the idea. We will make real carbon offsetting convenient even for Donald Trump.
You want to make reforestation free for landowners. What are the costs incurred by reforestation? What is the main difficulty for landowners who want to help the planet by planting new forests?
The minimum cost of reforestation is around 400 dollars per hectare. We are designing our seeding technique to cost at a maximum price of 100 dollars. China has spent 83,000,000,000 dollars in 5 years to improve its forest area by 3% and is planning to add another 3% by 2035. With our technology, they could save a lot, and basically invest the savings in other useful things like converting coal-based power plants.
We’ve heard that Italy was OK at cooking food. What’s your favourite dish and why do we need the planet for it?
Yes, we have OK food on our menus… If I really must pick one plate, then it’ll be pizza. But when I’m at home, my favourite dinners are made of vegetables from the local greengrocer, cooked in simple ways so that you can appreciate their taste.
What would you say to people who would want to support Crowdforest?
We are basically a company that aims to save the world! To be practical, every euro received will help us to seed almost 10 trees. So, a little donation of 10 euro can basically offset one-third of your co2 emissions for one year.
What would you say to younger people who don’t know what to do about climate change but know it’s happening to them anyway?
Study and learn. Brace yourself, be sure that you are in the resilient part of the world and be prepared for an incredible ride. For sure the future won’t be boring.
After a Master of Science thesis centred on UAV instrumentation, entitled “Low power instrument for vegetation inspection through single photon time of flight remote detection”, Giovanni Montagnani worked 3 years as a researcher in Politecnico di Milano. With a PhD in information technology, he decided to take a green turn in his career. The CROWDFOREST startup idea has been there for years, a successful funding campaign could make it a reality.