Published 2019-10-07This post is also available in Swedish
Värmländ engineer leads drive to digitise forestry
Sverker Danielsson heads Mistra’s latest research initiative, Mistra Digital Forest. Forests are close to his heart but, for this outdoorsman from Värmländ, finding forests in the Stockholm region is by no means easy.
‘It depends what you mean by “forests”… At least there are some woodland trails,’ he says jokingly.
‘I’m from Värmland, so I don’t think there’s any real forest nearby,’ he adds.
Danielsson spends much of his spare time in forested areas: on walks and mountain hikes with his family or on a running track. And every day, as he cycles along a mainly paved 12-kilometre route from his terraced house in Bromma to the new Swedish Forest Industries Federation office in central Stockholm, he seeks out every patch of woodland he can.
‘If I have time, I try to choose a slightly more enjoyable route through wooded areas.’
Historically, culturally, economically and geographically, forests are hugely important to Sweden. For Danielsson, they mean relaxation and career at the same time.
‘The forest is a delightful place to be in. Being there makes you feel good. It feels like that’s what we’re made for. But in the back of your mind, there’s always the question of how to make best use of it…’
For the next four years, he will have plenty of time to think about this as Programme Director of Mistra Digital Forest. Danielsson has extensive experience in the forest industry, but to date his main focus has been on the challenges of the wood-processing industry. In the new programme, he will work primarily on the preceding stage: how forests are used and the timber harvested.
‘It’ll be very inspiring to get into a partly new area, and challenging of course. But you have to try out the unfamiliar. I think that’s good.’
He sees no disadvantage in his somewhat oblique entry into the programme, and talking to foresters and agronomists instead of engineers — on the contrary.
‘True, familiarising myself with the scientists’ work will take a bit longer. On the other hand, I’m not tempted to enter into their role and concern myself with details. There’s plenty of forestry expertise in the programme. I don’t need to provide it myself. My main task is to look at the big picture and move the programme towards the overall goals.’
Danielsson grew up in Hammarö, near Karlstad, so the forest was always close by. The same applies to the wood-processing industry: Skoghall Mill, one of the country’s largest pulp and paper mills, is also located in the municipality. A few years after finishing his degree in chemical engineering at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, he followed it up with a PhD thesis on how pulp mills can optimise the cooking (the initial, important process stage when timber becomes pulp) and how this can ultimately help to improve paper quality.
After a few years as a development engineer at Alfa Laval, Danielsson was attracted back to a research position at what was then the Innventia research institute and is now part of Research Institutes of Sweden (RISE).
‘I got the opportunity to work on subjects that I did my PhD on. That appealed to me then. I was able to run pretty big projects for the industry, and make use of what I did during my doctoral studies.’
Initially, he worked in research and project management. Since then, he has increasingly worked as a head and research leader.
‘In the past four years at RISE, I’ve had a managerial role and run fewer projects of my own. It’s been more about leading and understanding people. And I think that side of the research is very exciting too.’
The keynote of Mistra Digital Forest is efficient and sustainable forestry. In Sweden, we have long worked to develop forestry, and abundant knowledge is already available, Danielsson notes. But we need to better understand how to make the most of the new opportunities that digitisation entails.
‘Digitisation gives us a growing amount of high-resolution information and ever more details about forest stands and individual trees. Better data help us decide how and when it’s best to fell trees and what products they should be used for.’
What products are best for a particular forest stand and how to create efficient logistics and value chains are among the questions the programme should try to answer. Digitisation is also a matter of increasingly automating the forestry machines used for harvesting.
‘By extension, the entire digitisation process and Mistra Digital Forest are about developing new decision support. How can we best handle large amounts of data on forests?’
Danielsson himself is to lead a subproject on biorefineries. This will involve enhancing the value of forest-based products and determining how, in the future, pulp mills may also become producers of biobased adhesives, raw materials for bioplastics and more.
‘There are many suggestions and ideas in this area and it’s something I’ve worked on before. So it’ll be great fun to design and run a project connected with biorefineries.’
Many people have high expectations that forests will help us get away from today’s fossil dependence, and that by using forest raw material we will be able to produce building materials, automotive and other fuels, new innovative materials and more. The adaptation to a more biobased economy is obviously a positive challenge for the forest industry, Danielsson believes, but expectations of forest capacity are sometimes exaggerated.
‘It’s good if we can phase out plastic and single-use products in favour of more biobased materials. That’s a positive change and it’s coming more and more. But we can’t just keep on living as we’re doing today and believe we can replace all oil with forest-based products. That amount of forest doesn’t exist.’
Danielsson hopes that in the long term, Mistra Digital Forest will encourage more construction using timber. In his view, replacing concrete with wood brings significant climate benefits throughout the lifecycle of a building. He hopes that the programme will also contribute to a more nuanced public debate about forests.
‘More knowledge about forestry is needed to tackle today’s climate challenge. We’ll try to raise awareness of our results among other researchers, but also decision makers, and in public opinion, so that more people understand that forests are part of the solution.’
About Sverker Danielsson
JOB: Programme Director, Mistra Digital Forest.
FAMILY: Wife and two children aged 11 and 8.
LIVES IN: Terraced house in Bromma, Stockholm.
LEISURE: Skiing and outdoor activities; socialising with friends; and coaching his son’s football team.