As we all grapple with a public health crisis unlike any we’ve experienced in recent memory, we at The Nature Conservancy are doing our best to carry forward with our mission: to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. It’s an audacious goal to say the least – one that is facing a high-pressure timeline. As climate change and biodiversity loss accelerate, we must also accelerate our collaboration to build solutions to these challenges.
One of TNC’s core competencies is our world-class science. We investigate problems, pilot potential solutions and then work to scale up those solutions where they best apply within the 70+ countries where we are active.
Our science is strong, and we do build effective solutions. But our theory of change isn’t playing out the way it should be—we’re not keeping up with the acceleration of the problems we’re trying to solve.
There are a number of reasons for this, but one critical reason is that conservation has yet to utilize the disruptive power of technology to help us rapidly scale our solutions.
If we are realistically going to create the change we work so hard to see in the world, we must leverage technology in these four main areas to significantly improve our conservation:
1. We Need More and Better Quality Data
We need to know more about what is happening to our planet in order to build more effective solutions. We know more about the status of traffic on our route home from work than we do about the source of the pollution flooding into our waterways. We need to harness the advancements in sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) devices and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to better understand where we should be focusing our efforts and resources. Imagine a world where local authorities received real-time notifications when satellites detected illegal logging? How much more effective could we be in reversing deforestation?
2. Automate Data Aggregation and Analysis for Faster Results
Data alone doesn’t solve problems—it must be analyzed and applied to become actionable. There’s an opportunity to get much faster at analyzing all this data if we leverage technology to automate these processes. Banking and identity monitoring companies have leveraged AI and ML to detect fraud from streams of real-time data. We can apply similar technologies to detect abnormal signals in conservation-related data. For instance, analyzing a stream of audio signals coming from a network of biosensors in a large forest has the potential to detect human encroachment, poaching as well as shifting animal behaviors.
3. Develop Tools to Influence Decision-Makers
The world needs decisions that are informed by science. With technology, we can better package and translate the insights from our science into products that can be understood by key decision-makers – the people who manage our natural resources and drive policies that affect our food, water and climate. Currently, we are lacking effective decision-support platforms for these key groups, the farmers, fishermen, utility managers as well as CEOs and government officials whose decisions impact the health of our planet.
4. Measure the Impact of Conservation Decisions
Once decision-makers have taken action, we need better tools to measure the impact of those decisions on planetary health. We also need tools to better measure the impact of our conservation efforts. For example, when we work with different farmers who are all utilizing different agricultural practices to reduce nutrient runoff, we need solutions to identify which practices are effectively decreasing runoff and can be scaled. In answering these and the many other conservation impact questions we have, we can focus on advancing practices that work and stop investing in solutions that do not work.
It’s 2020—but when it comes to technology, the conservation sector hasn’t been acting like it. If we’re going to make a real difference for people and the planet, we need to be more intentional about partnering with technologists and entrepreneurs to build the sustainable future we know is possible.
At TNC, we are working to bridge the gap between technologists and conservationists. We launched a partnership with Techstars, our Sustainability Accelerator, to help scale promising for-profit tech startups who have built technology to solve our food, water and climate challenges. Applications are open for our 2020 program. We encourage all start-ups to apply now.
Nature Tech in Action
Here are examples of companies from the 2019 Techstars Sustainability Accelerator that are addressing these conservation pain points. Click the company name to watch them pitch their ideas at the 2019 Demo Day, or check out Demo Day in its entirety at the bottom of the page:
Quality Data and Measuring Impact
Combines satellite imagery and proprietary ground-based hardware to provide low-cost, real-time, water quality information at the watershed level.
Why we care: As TNC works to shift land management practices, it is helpful to better understand where to focus these efforts and to better determine the impact of these conservation initiatives on improving water quality.
A software application that helps farmers monitor groundwater pumping, track and trade water allocations, submit regulatory compliance documentation, and quantify conservation practices.
Why we care: Groundwater pumping is the main cause of aquafer depletion. We need cost-effective ways to better monitor this activity.
Data Automation and Analysis
A platform that provides automated water-risk analytics in California with expansion to four other Western U.S states.
Why we care: As companies and especially capital providers (banks), implement programs that build a water resilient future, toolsets that automate water data aggregation, visualization, and analytics, save time, money and achieve better conservation outcomes.
Tools to Influence Decision-Makers
A marketplace for carbon sequestration, enabling companies and individuals to pay farmers for removing CO2 from the atmosphere through more sustainable farming practices that improve soil conditions.
Why we care: Market based incentives could provide a pathway for greater adoption of Natural Climate Solutions.
Stormwater compliance and management software.
Why we care: The software helps cities a) identify where the best opportunities are for improving stormwater management and b) demonstrate the power of green infrastructure to improve water quality.
An agroforestry investment platform focused on helping farmers integrate trees into agricultural lands by meeting their capital and operational needs.
Why we care: Adding trees to agricultural lands has benefits for carbon sequestration, soil health, biodiversity and the financial security of farmers.
Is building a digital platform that connects farmers, brands, and institutions to make regenerative ecological agreements based on verifiable data - decreasing the transaction costs of these agreements.
Why we care: Providing financial incentives to land managers for changing practices is a proven strategy to achieve conservation outcomes. The transaction cost of these agreements often poses a barrier to scaling-up these initiatives.