Conservation meets innovation

Complex technologies used to be found only in modern aircraft, manufacturing plants, hospitals and things that went into space. Today, the very latest technology is all around us, dominating our daily lives and filling our homes. Mobile phones, tablet computers, electronic book readers, satellite navigation systems, high-definition cameras, solar panels, 3D televisions, gaming consoles – you name it – have not only become smarter but also a lot cheaper. Today, even the most basic mobile phone has more processing power than the computers that sent Apollo 11 to the moon just over forty years ago. Things have come a long way, and the pace of innovation is only increasing.

These new technologies are not only making our work and leisure time more efficient or fun; they’re also presenting new opportunities for conservation and development organisations working around the world. Mobile phones, satellite imagery, real-time data collection, tracking technologies and even unmanned aerial surveillance systems (commonly referred to as drones) are being increasingly deployed by non-profit organisations seeking to help communities deal with health, agriculture, education, human rights and natural resource issues, among many others.

As internet access and mobile phone coverage expand further into more and more remote parts of the developing world, and smart phones, tablet computers and other consumer electronics devices begin to work their way into the hands of the urban and rural communities that live there, opportunities to use them as conservation tools will only increase.

There are now almost as many mobile phones on the planet as people. Credit Ken Banks,

There are now almost as many mobile phones on the planet as people. Credit Ken Banks/

Conservation slow off the mark

That said, while the broader development community has made great strides in using new kinds of technology in its work, the conservation community has historically been a little slower off the mark.

Few conservation organisations have the capacity or technical capability to investigate, adapt and implement often complex new technologies, and conservationists tend to work in the more remote, challenging regions of the developing world. This can often limit their access to and knowledge of new technologies. There remains considerable untapped potential, and a growing need for dedicated technical expertise to help the conservation community understand, adapt and deploy new and appropriate technologies in their work.

Innovation is the buzzword of the day.

Leading the pack

FFI is no stranger to innovation. As far back as the early 1900’s we were devising and applying innovative models of conservation which helped create some of the earliest protected areas in Africa, including South Africa’s Kruger National Park in 1926. FFI was also one of the earliest conservation organisations to electronically tag and track wildlife, and has helped rescue countless species from the verge of extinction, including the Arabian Oryx.

More recently, FFI created the world’s first mobile phone-based conservation news and information site. The portal, called wildlive!, was developed and launched in 2003 under a partnership with the Vodafone Group Foundation. It provided conservation-themed games and live field diaries, animal ringtones and wallpaper images to Vodafone customers across Europe.

Just some of over forty high-quality wildlife wallpaper background images sold on the wildlive! Service. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Just some of over forty high-quality wildlife wallpaper background images sold on the wildlive! Service. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

FFI also produced one of the earliest reports on the potential of mobile technology in the conservation and development sectors, and developed a technology portal to highlight the use of a range of technologies by conservationists around the world.

I was fortunate to have worked as a contractor on both of those initiatives ten years ago, and since then I’ve continued my work looking at how technology can be used to solve some of the bigger social and environmental problems of our time. I’m now back at FFI working on a new initiative exploring ways to apply the very latest technological innovations in the global conservation effort.

Conservation Labs

The flagship product will be a new community-driven website, Conservation Labs, which will encourage the open sharing of ideas among the technology and conservation sectors, and the development of appropriate solutions. The overall objective of Conservation Labs is fivefold:

1. To track the development of new technologies in the commercial sector

Even though few commercially-focused technologies are developed with conservation uses in mind, it doesn’t mean conservationists aren’t able to find a use for them. We can only assess the potential if we know what exists.

2. To assess the potential of these new technologies for global conservation

News of new technologies will be shared with the Conservation Labs community – technologists, innovators and conservationists – where we can share ideas on possible uses, adaptations and deployments in a conservation setting.

3. To develop new tools and resources with conservation benefit

Conservation Labs will seek to form strategic partnerships with industry, and use this combined expertise to adapt and apply these technology solutions to conservation projects.

4. To encourage local technology hubs in the developing world to focus on conservation problems

Other sectors have done a great job at organising ‘hackathons’ (intensive collaboration on software projects) and mobile app competitions with technology communities to help develop solutions to major health, agriculture and governance challenges. Conservation Labs will engage similar communities to foster the development of solutions geared towards conservation.

5. To crowd source ideas and solutions to today’s tough conservation and environmental challenges

Conservation Labs will convene annual innovation competitions to reward some of the best problem solvers with the finances, support and resources they need to launch their technology solution. Online discussion forums will allow conservationists and technologists to openly discuss challenges, needs and issues in order to foster an environment of collaborative thinking.

Today is an exciting time to be working in the technology sector. That said, we need to ensure that we don’t get carried away and develop overly complex solutions to things which may not be problems at all. At FFI we remain focused on the challenges faced by our staff, conservation partners in the field and communities we work with, and if any of the latest technologies can positively affect conservation outcomes in these places, we’re excited to see how Conservation Labs can be a part of it.