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Episode 29: Climate-Resilient Programs & Biomechanics in Vegetation Management – Part 2 w/ Dr. Anand Persad

Episode 29: Climate Resilient Programs & Biomechanics in Vegetation Management - Part 2 w/ Dr. Anand Persad

Welcome to the 29th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 29

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for part one of a two-part conversation with Anand Persad, Chair of UAA Research Committee, Director of Research at ACRT, and Affiliated Professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

You can find part one of the conversation here.

Episode 29 Transcript

Tej Singh: Did you guys get connected through, hey, there’s only five people in this industry that have a Ph.D., let’s have a cocktail party, or was it through research? How did you guys get connected? Or was it through some of Phil’s philanthropic work in Belize?

Dr. Anand Persad: Phil has been a mentor for me coming out of grad school and new in the industry. Interacting with Phil at the UAA was my first interaction with Phil. But knowing his background as well, and Phil, feel free to train me.

Philip Charlton: I guess we bumped into each other conference after conference. Both of us were oftentimes speakers and just known each other for years. I know him better now after last week or a week or so ago.

Tej Singh: What is something that you’re working on right now that you’re super excited about?

Dr. Anand Persad: We are looking at climate resilient programs. Everyone’s talking about climate ready, climate resilient. When we look at climate action, which is what I like to call it, climate action work really revolves. It’s a global phenomenon. Climate is global. Our perspectives, even here in North America, can benefit from the stories in frontline areas. I’ve been telling that story for the past three years of conferences, ranging from Sweden to New Mexico. I’ve been telling the story of what is going on globally. To help that along, there has been an informal alliance of people, of research sites, governments. I think they still call it the ITPI or International Tree Performance Initiative, which basically helps people define what am I looking for in the performance of my green space? It’s miles beyond landscaping. It takes risk elements, performs the human initiative and brings the human initiative into core focus along with the green elements as well. I’m excited about that. That’s what took me to Belize with Phil, that looking at the human interaction with green and mitigating for disasters and so forth.

Philip Charlton: The Belize project is truly an international effort. Anand went down, collected data, a group out of Sweden—you can tell us more about that—put together a planting plan. A group out of the States, our industry went down and helped start developing that, and then Anand’s planning on taking it worldwide. That was a high end recap. Anand, why don’t you tell us the details?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, and Phil mentioned worldwide, so for example, in Jaipur, my great grandfather came out of a village there, and I had the opportunity to visit that village this year, this summer, and worked with the villagers there. They’ve been planting trees for hundreds of years. We talk about tree plantings in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. We talk about tree plantings in North America, and we focus on street trees. We focus on crop trees. We focus on rigid formal planting programs. Tree planting has been going on all over the world, and there are lessons, and this brings in the cultural part. There are tree plantings going on in semi-arid regions of Rajasthan, for example, where they’re strapped for water. But there are certain species that grow there, so the villagers have identified these species, hence the tree performance. They have identified that these species do well in a dry environment, and they are planting these species, and they have done their tree selection. When we look at tree selection criteria, we look at the formal numerics and the tenets behind our planting here. It’s been done. It’s going on somewhere else in a different way but effective. They’re realizing this, and that’s what brings the global village together. Everybody wants some sort of environmental component to their daily lives.

Tej Singh: Who do you think, globally, is not just prioritizing it, but making the most headway in terms of a holistic approach to what you just mentioned?

Dr. Anand Persad: I see the folks in Europe, they have been, for some time now, innovators in some spaces. They have been looking at things a little bit before us in terms of smart planting and smart planting technology. I’ve interacted with folks in Sweden, folks in Italy, and so forth, and their questions have been a good mix of academic and a good mix of industry coming together. I think that while they have good collaboration there, there are lessons that they are learning, for example, in coastal areas from other parts of the world that they are also incorporated. I see in Europe, they do reach out a lot to the frontline areas in the Pacific. I run into a lot of researchers from Europe in the Pacific and the Caribbean when I’m out there, more so than in North America because they understand that, hey, we can take lessons from here. I think that’s happening, and it’s fettering out now into North America now, too. But then we can’t leave the Caribbean, CARICOM nations and so forth.

The opportunity here is a lot of these folks have the ability to leapfrog and bring their programs up because they’re already in these parts, changing frontline areas. They can bring their program just as equal to the ones in Europe. This is why I like the ITPI because it can do that. It can be a spaceship to transfer the nuggets back and forth.

Philip Charlton: You’re not talking just vegetation for climate purposes. A lot of what we talk about is the other benefits.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, habitat, biodiversity; there is big emphasis on biodiversity worldwide. How biodiverse do we have to be to survive in the future? Do we need to get back to what it was 80 years ago, 100 years ago? Do we need to have a resilient plan that, hey, this is what we want to see and this is what we want to realize? The latter is what’s coming up more and more where we talk about rewilding and where we talk about creating habitat for an ecosystem approach. More and more and more, we are part of that ecosystem. Close-cropped lawns and so forth are gradually giving way to more growth areas, probably need the beds and so forth here in North America. But this is something that we see in the island nations and in frontline areas where they don’t have as many acres of close-cropped lawn, so they’ve been doing that forever, it seems. They have been planting edible– we are looking at edible spaces in our ornamental world and edible crops and so forth. They’ve been doing that all along. They plant a tree to get shade, but maybe some fruit as well in some of the global areas. That’s something that we can learn from. In fact, that’s some of the stories that we’re taking from the Pacific areas back-to-back to Sweden as well.

Tej Singh: In Europe, is some of the progress a function of support from governments and coalitions, or is a lot of these initiatives supported by the utility?

Dr. Anand Persad: I think that’s a good question. It’s really community based, a call to action from people who are in touch and who are in some ways influential on them, local media, etc. It’s hugely important. In Europe, you’ll find a model of the community being very powerful. Community-based organizations have been in protest and reach into political arena very quickly. There is a mechanism for that. I see a whole lot more than in some other areas of the world where the communities have a long winding road ahead of them to realize some initiative. That’s one. I think that’s changing now. I think the politicians the world over are realizing, and I see more of them. I’ve been invited to some forums whereby, hey, can we have you speak on the green plan? Can we help you attach some policy to this decision-making process?

It’s happening in other areas, but they are ahead when it comes to that community base. That’s some of what we need here. We need to listen to the communities. I think the utilities in North America are doing that really well because they are listening to the neighbors. They are listening to the landholders, the metroparks, the Audubon groups, the eco-sensitive agencies and so forth that own land that have bought to the right of ways there. They’re working more and more in tandem than they would, the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, etc. We see that interaction with the utilities a whole lot more. That’s a good sign.

Tej Singh: That is a really good sign. That’s awesome. 

Philip Charlton: How are you using technology in your research? We’ve seen so much change in recent years what’s available to us. What are you doing?

Dr. Anand Persad: We are seeing the use of technologies to get data faster. What we do with the data is really divergent. We can have 100 people look at the same data set and come up with 100 interpretations. The challenge is really, for me personally, is getting that artificial intelligent product that’s human infused. This is something that I spoke about in Albuquerque, New Mexico about using artificial intelligence in literally a smart way. That’s the thing about technology is we can’t just jump on the bandwagon because it’s all new, and it’s glossy, it looks good, and it gives us the results faster. We want to have that interpretation that is meaningful and can realize what I call a good EROI or economic return on investment, but also an ecological return on investment. We are building satellites as a core industry offering. We look at Lidar. We are looking at the way in which we can work smarter and not harder, maybe put less people physically on the right of way. But these are things that we do need to realize needs a balance. We are never going to, I think, lose the need for classically-trained arborists or foresters. This is something that we’re going to have to realize. It’s a tool that we’re going to need to make sure we have that human hybrid and that human input in there at all times.

Tej Singh: Dr. Persad, since you’re doing so many things, what do you think you’re most known for in the industry?

Dr. Anand Persad: You know, Tej, that’s a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that.

Tej Singh: You’re like, we’ll discuss this in part three. 

Dr. Anand Persad: I’ve been elected to some roles along the way. I’ve been president of the Arboricultural Research and Education Academy at ISA. I’ve been chair of the UAA Research Association, and I currently chair the ISA Science Research Committee. But I see these roles as being connected. I see myself as a connector coming from the Caribbean and coming from a very connected place. Growing up on an island, you are connected, brother. You know everybody, and who you don’t know knows you or know your parents. You grow up knowing that connection and connectivity and networking. When I tell people loosely, I know about 200 urban foresters that I can call in the North America, and I have about 2,000 people that I know in the business. These are people that I can call by their first name, and some of them are leadership. But knowing from the roots to the C-suite is important for me, and mixing and being able to network, I think is– and I look for the products of the work I do to deliver on that premise that it could at some point, whether it’s safety, it shouldn’t be just keeping workers safe. It should be the C-suite recognizing that this is a policy we need to implement. Being able to traverse spherically I think is important to me. I hope that at the end of the day, that’s what I’m known for as a connector.

Philip Charlton: I also think of you in relation to biomechanics week. Biomechanics has been an area you’ve been focused on.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yeah, this started in Ohio by a group of folks with the ISA and the Ohio Independent Arborists Association who got together and they started. I helped in the group, and then it’s mushroomed into– during the pandemic, people couldn’t travel, so tree biomechanics became a question. Can we do it internationally? Can we look at it without people having to necessarily travel to one location? Can we do it locally? That’s one of the things that I look at is influencing research groups internationally to start looking at their own risk and how their trees are behaving on the lawns and so forth.

Philip Charlton: When you mentioned your linkage with safety to the C-suite, I think about the work you’ve been pushing to link it throughout the world, but local level research. I think that’s really intriguing.

Tej Singh: I don’t know if you mentioned this already, but where did you grow up in the Caribbean?

Dr. Anand Persad: In the South Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago.

Tej Singh: Do you still have family there? 

Dr. Anand Persad: I’ll be back in a few weeks. I’ll be there for Christmas. 

Tej Singh: You mentioned the island culture. Are you pretty plugged in to the decision makers on the island which allows you to do the work that you’re doing here in North America and the rest of the world? Has that allowed you to use the island as also an incubator of testing out things and trying to contribute to the Caribbean?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the work started there actually, the need to take information, the need to borrow information from there as well has been foremost, I think. One of the first ITPI sites I was thinking about looking at performance upgrades was in Trinidad and Tobago. The good news there is I do have the support from the community to the government. I’ve been working with the government there at the highest levels to exact programs. They have some very historical places. They have some parks that go back 200 years there. It’s been a breath of fresh air, I think, when you have that openness. Being able to work around the world but then go back home with the same message is for me a good piece of that legacy I want to build.

Tej Singh: Has your work in Trinidad and Tobago, Belize made it easier for you to work in other Caribbean countries, or every country has its own complications and it hasn’t translated as easily?

Dr. Anand Persad: Well, you learn lessons. At the end of the day, people are all the same. Whether you’re in Europe or you’re in the Pacific Island, people want what’s best for themselves and what’s best for their kids, everybody, at the end of the day. You’ll find that traded throughout is they– again, I want to get back to the connected piece is that they read a lot about what’s going on elsewhere, and then they notice a lot of folks when they realized how good a job they are doing. That’s one of the things that I try to bring to the table as a connector. You’re doing a really good job here. You want to do so and so, or maybe you want to do more of this and less of that. That’s always the power of positive thinking and helping the community. I help the communities learn from others, and I help them even within themselves to take their game to the next level. There are lessons everywhere, I’d like to say, Tej.

Tej Singh: Are you mentoring some other researchers like PhDs? Are there other Dr. Persads in the pipeline that are coming up that’ll be able to build on your work?

Dr. Anand Persad: There are several students here. I’m here at the UF right now. We have a couple of PhD students I’m helping mentor, and I’ve mentored several in the past. I do maintain connectivity with the academic world and recently PhDs and people in postdocs. I’ve been able to do some symposium at some graduate schools, and that helps.

Tej Singh: What I found interesting about this conversation and where I think it can continue to go is you touch a lot of different things. Your perspective is quite unique. You are very unique in the fact that you’re a practitioner slash researcher. You’re not just one. My engagement with often just researchers are how disconnected they can be from the practical realities. It’s like, hey, great idea; I’ll see you in 15 years when this can actually be implemented. I do think you’re very unique in that way. I love the fact that you’re doing this work and drawing from different parts of the world. Not being from this industry or growing up in this industry, I think getting a diverse lens with people that are leading ideas in Europe and Asia and the Caribbean and reincorporating that back into North America is very important. As you go from west to east, it’s like every state is its own little country with its own set of problems. There could be a state in the U.S. that needs to completely talk to the Caribbean, and that’s where their focus should be.

Dr. Anand Persad: Well, if you think about it, Tej, there’s a lot of North American utilities down in South America, for example. I was in Colombia, and there are trucks there from utilities that are in the Midwest that are down in Colombia doing infrastructure work there on contract. So then they’re investments made from North America here in some renewable projects that’s going on in other parts of the world. So some utilities here are looking at extending their portfolio into these developing areas because it’s where the tourism is and so forth. I think it’s not going to be lost. But in the defense of this conversation, we only spoke about three things. I have a slide I’ll send that connects everything we talked about. It’s really green, culture, and technology. Everything I work on comes from something green, something cultural, and something technology. In every project, I try to weave the GCT because I don’t want to be that person who’s trying to pound, it may appear so, that you pound 100 needles in a board and not do any one of them through. My entire legacy is based on the GCT complex. It’s green, culture, and technology. I look at ways in which– so safety for example, in our green industry, a lot of it is cultural and how can we use technology to be safer? We can draw from the three realms that I work in. A lot of the green thing that I work on is really cultural. It could distill into some cultural discussions.

Tej Singh: When it’s all said and done for you, what will your particular focus and then contribution have been in the green side of this business?

Dr. Anand Persad: It has a lot to do, at the end of the day, with the nexus of energy, the needs for energy, the needs for human safety, and aesthetics, obviously. We want that green space to promote a sense of well-being as well. When we look at it from an ecosystem perspective and we look at the green within the confines of ecosystems, the utility right of way is an ecosystem. I talk about this in the talk circuit all the time. What we do under the wire influences the edge. The stability of the edge trees come into play, hence you have tree biomechanics. What are we doing here? Our prudent practices on the edge trees. We no longer say trim; we say prune. That tells us that we are raising the bar on how we treat green. In our space, in our right to way, and in our energy industry, we really want to reduce and mitigate against trees and green spaces being a conflict. It should be a complement to our energy needs. That’s the goal for me really is to find the sweet spot for our green space, whether it’s trees or under wire biodiverse material that we want to keep in early succession, quite rightfully so, to be a nexus for us that it’s no longer a conflict, but it’s managed to be a complement to our energy needs.

Tej Singh: On that specifically, is it a conflict because it is viewed as a negative impact on power delivery? Because it is the number one cause of outages in the country, the response is an aggressive one rather than one that says, hey, we can still achieve stable power delivery while maintaining an eco-friendly or biodiverse community. Is that a fair statement?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yes, it is.

Tej Singh: The work that I know Phil has championed in the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council and some of these initiatives, is that something you’re involved with? Because it feels to me like that is one of those things that I’ve learned about that would set, and there’s only maybe six, seven, eight utilities, Phil, that have gone through that rigor.

Philip Charlton: Yeah, eight or nine now, I think, that are certified.

Tej Singh: But it sounds like the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council is one that emphasizes that level of right of way biodiversity as a key piece to the heartbeat of that initiative. Is that something that you feel is a good leverage for your work and being able to continue to have utilities buy into that?

Dr. Anand Persad: Yes, I think it showcases the need for it. How much of a leverage? One would hope that if there is a leverage. But on the showcase front, it used to be if you are a good steward, that was good enough. But it goes beyond a little bit now to the point of what are we doing with also on EROI? What is our ecological return on the investment because we have the monetary component as well. Being on the stewardship accreditation, that helps. It’s an ROI. It shows that you’ve been able to achieve this much benefits with the money, with the investment, rather not knowing what you’re doing. Now you have metrics that guide you, and that helps.

Tej Singh: The C part of it, the culture, is something I guess we touched on which is digging into the why in helping people. Is this part of your adaptive approach? Not just hammering the people with content, but making sure that they can connect dots so that when they’re in a position to make a decision, they’re making an informed decision is really, I feel like, the heartbeat of your cultural contribution.

Dr. Anand Persad: Yes, I think so. Learning to, first of all, listen and assimilate as many perspectives as you can helps the product at the end of the day. But certainly, being able to infuse change, infuse what’s going to come after we talk today into the process is where it’s an amount of understanding that emerging perspectives or emerging nuances are important to incorporate into any decision you make today.

Tej Singh: Dr. Persad, maybe you can tailor a manual for my nine- and four-year-old son, and we can get them to listen more because I can’t figure that out. This was a great chat. We could definitely go on.

Philip Charlton: You get the record for the longest, Tej. We could just keep going.

Tej Singh: Yeah, we could keep going because you’ve done a lot, and it’s interesting. It’s fascinating. I’d love to have you back on and maybe take a piece of one of the conversations, maybe a complete focus on Trinidad and Tobago, and maybe we can really do a discussion just entirely on the Caribbean, the culture, your home country, and some of the more– everybody who listens to this, a lot of our conversation is very U.S. centric, very North American centric. I think it would be pretty fascinating to have an entire episode dedicated to Trinidad and Tobago, the place that you came from and some of those cultural nuances; I think it would be cool. We should do that. 

Philip Charlton: I like that.

Dr. Anand Persad: I get a lot of that from Europe. I spoke at the ISA National in Malmö, Sweden. I had Norwegian, Finland, Swedish, and French people who were really intrigued and wanted to learn more about it, so I did a separate, as you said, Caribbean talk for them, for the folks there, and they locked it up. People in the developed world want to know that, hey, I could plant a tree somewhere else, so I can help in a lot of mitigation efforts somewhere else. Besides, I don’t see why my government does not give you all some money to do that as part of our global remediation because we have done what we can do here. We have filled the bucket. Why don’t we give Belize some money? Belize falls into the CARICOM plan, really. I’ve talked to the minister of growth at Belmopan, Belize. I’m trying to actually bring in the two ministers together, one from Trinidad and Tobago and one from Belize. I’m trying a brand new board to them so I’m trying to bring both of them to have a conversation, and that’s where the connector part plays a role, right, Tej?

Tej Singh: Agreed. We’ll put it on the docket, and we’ll get that going as well. 

Dr. Anand Persad: We could call one CARICOM Green, Pacific Islands Green—that would be cool—Asian, Southeast Asia.

Tej Singh: Yeah, that’d be great.

Philip Charlton: That’s it for this episode of the Trees and Lines podcast brought to you by Iapetus Infrastructure Services. If you like the show, please give us a rating of five stars on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at treesandlines@iapetusllc.com. We’ll chat with you soon.

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