We had the amazing chance to speak to our  Falling Walls Engage Breakthrough of the Year 2022.

What is your project about?

The project ‘Sensing for Justice’ (in short, SensJus) explores how civic environmental monitoring can turn people into ‘sentinels’ for their environment. By performing civic monitoring, people re-gain a sense of responsibility and agency towards the surrounding environment, and can gather valuable evidence for environmental law enforcement. The project addresses an urgent need to understand emerging possibilities of the practice, starting from the demands and imaginaries of people affected by environmental issues. A special focus of analysis was devoted to the poorest regions in the South of Italy, most affected by environmental issues and social inequalities, i.e., the Agri and Basento Valleys of Basilicata . A case study focused on the municipality of Rome and civic water monitoring of the main city river.

What made you start this project?

In 2019, a ground-breaking case was adjudicated in Texas, U.S., where fishers managed to prove corporate wrongdoings based on citizen-gathered evidence of plastic contamination perpetrated over years by the petrochemical giant, Formosa Ltd, in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act and in the absence of proper institutional recording of the damage. We studied this successful case in a milestone article and this inspired us to search for similar cases also in Europe, where communities affected by corporate injustices can claim them in court based on civic evidence. The SensJus project was exactly launched to research the potential of grassroots-driven environmental monitoring as a source of evidence in environmental justice litigation, and as a tool for environmental mediation across Europe.

The three key aims of the projects are, first, to explore what is the potential of introducing citizen-gathered evidence in environmental litigation across European courts, based on successful world-wide experiences. We also aim to identify which barriers need to be removed for this evidence to enter the court arena. Second, we investigate whether civic monitoring could also facilitate alternative dispute resolution, promoting environmental mediation and avoiding conflict escalation to court. Third, we wish to assess how the use of civic evidence can be legitimized on the basis of existing and new rights, for example on the basis of “the right of every human to contribute to the formation of environmental evidence”. This recognition would foster a sense of civic responsibility and protect environmental defenders.

How did Falling Walls Engage, and its community contribute to the further development of your project?

After presenting at the Falling Walls 2022 Breakthrough Day in Berlin, the social uptake of the SensJus project multiplied considerably. A number of civic actors, academic partners, policy realities and even the private sectors reached us with interest in finding forms of collaboration, and from a variety of countries spanning e.g., from Brazil to South Africa to Japan. In addition, the process of engagement with the Falling Walls Community of Engagers contributed to the development of the project in terms of offering place-specific insights into existing and new cases on which we were working on. In addition, the exposure to the Engagers enriched us with different valuable methodologies, viewpoints and networks.

Did the Falling Walls Engage format(s) facilitate the contact to other projects for collaborations? If yes, can you tell us a bit more about the collaboration and in which parts of the world they are (name of the project, country, how do you collaborate)?

The Fallings Walls Engage formats, in particular the time open for informal exchanges during the Falling Walls Science Summit, and the online and physical venues for follow-up engagement, enabled SensJus to curate and develop important bonds with other projects and realities in other parts of the world. To name a few, SensJus established collaborations with Evisight, a think tank based in the Netherlands. Together, we are exploring ways to innovate the evidence base that informs environmental decisions. SensJus also started a fruitful exchange with the RedPOP – Network for Science and Technology Popularization in Latin America and the Caribbean, thanks to the contact created by one of the Jury Members of the Fallings Walls Science Engagement competition of 2022, which concretized in an invitation to visit them in Rio in summer 2023.

Did you experience an increase in visibility and/or funding opportunities of your project through the collaboration with Falling Walls Engage? How is this noticeable?

We definitely experienced a boost in visibility and opportunities after being awarded the Breakthrough title. In 2023, for example, I won the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Young Scientist Excellence Award for ‘Spearheading (environmental) sensing for justice’. The same year SensJus was shortlisted in the category of ‘Citizen-oriented delivery’ at the European Ombudsman Award for Good Administration. In addition, SensJus featured in the ‘#SHEU LEADS’ campaign launched by Commissioner Gabriel for Innovation, Research, and Culture. SensJus also received three honorary mentions in 2023: at the EU Citizen Science Prize, at the STARTS Prize for Science, Technology & the Arts (both these prizes have been awarded at Ars Electronica 2023, Linz) and at the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Social Impact Award. Several scientific and popular news items featured SensJus over 2023. I was invited to deliver numerous keynotes in 2023, for example at the final event of the EU project TRANSFORM, Milan, at the closing webinar of the EU project CitiMeasure, virtually; and at the Panel “Diálogo y Ciudadanía” at the XVIII Congreso RedPOP, ‘Voces Diversas: diálogo entre saberes e inclusión en la popularización de la ciencia’, Museo de la Vida Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro. In terms of funding, we recently discovered to have won an ambitious, multi-partners Erasmus + project on the role that (young) civic sentinels can have in monitoring and reporting armed conflicts-induced environmental crimes.

What makes Falling Walls Engage unique to you?

To me, Falling Walls Engage is a unique space for synergic experimentation on how we can improve the way we achieve and share our scientific results, together with those most affected by them. It is also a great opportunity to care for diversity, practice active listening and constant challenge our Science Engagement approaches.

We definitely experienced a boost in visibility and opportunities after being awarded the Breakthrough title

Anna Berti Suman

What was your most emotional experience when you think about your collaboration with Falling Walls Engage?

I think the most emotional experience relates to an event I could attend thanks to the contacts gained through Falling Walls Engage. I was at the XVIII Congreso RedPOP, in the green and enjoyable campus of the Museo de la Vida Fiocruz, Rio de Janeiro. A concert was about to start, and I noticed that the concert was simultaneously translated into information for audiences with hearing impairments. In that situation, I realized that the needs of all the people around the stage were considered and this was to me truly an embodiment of how an inclusive science event should look like. I had fun, danced and learned Brazilian dance, and through the emotions that the music stimulated in me I could discover more of the country and culture that was hosting me for that time.

Anna Berti Suman is principal investigator of the project “Sensing for Justice – SensJus”, which focuses on the potential of civic monitoring as a source of evidence for environmental justice litigation and as a tool to foster environmental mediation. Previously, she led the “Sensing the Risk” PhD project aimed at investigating how civic monitoring initiatives can influence the governance of environmental health risk.

Anna is also qualified lawyer in environmental and climate law under the Bar Association of Rome, following cases at Systasis – Study Centre for the Management of Environmental Conflicts, Milan. Previously, she worked as a lawyer for Greenpeace International, Amsterdam, and for the Association of Affected People by Chevron-Texaco, Ecuador.

Further Activities to have a look at