TNC scientist Lauren Alleman, in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Reserve, New York, USA.
TNC scientist Lauren Alleman at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve, New York, USA. © Kevin Arnold

Global Insights | Perspectives

Smart Solutions for Sustainability

How the tech industry can accelerate progress on some of the most pressing issues facing people and nature

TNC's President, Brian McPeek at the Worldwide Office.

As President of The Nature Conservancy, Brian McPeek sets the vision and strategy that guides the organization’s conservation, science, external affairs, development and marketing priorities across 72 countries to tackle the most pressing global challenges facing nature and people.

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The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has embarked on an ambitious new vision for the planet aimed at solving the greatest challenges facing people and nature today. That’s a very heady sounding statement—but it has very real implications for TNC’s work. Implementing an ambitious new vision requires ambitious new strategies: we need to find the best new ideas for saving the planet, and we need to bring them to scale—now.

A little context: The global population is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050.  If we stay on our current path, this growth and the accompanying demand on our natural resources could lead to major biodiversity loss, catastrophic climate change and a growing number of other environmental challenges. “Business as usual” is no longer an option—if we are to protect nature and have enough food, water and energy to sustain our planet, we must choose a more sustainable path. 

“Business as usual” is no longer an option—if we are to protect nature and have enough food, water and energy to sustain our planet, we must choose a more sustainable path.

Still, there is hope. Earlier this week, TNC released a science paper that shows us that a brighter future is possible, one where nature is protected and we have enough food, water and energy to sustain us—but only if we make significant progress on the path to sustainability in the next 10 years. Just last week, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report underscoring the urgent need to accelerate action across all sectors and countries if we are feasibly achieve the goals set down in the Paris Agreement and successfully restrict global warming to a maximum of 1.5C in the next dozen years.

The question, though, is whether 10 years is actually enough time to make these systemic changes—and is there any way to accelerate our progress right now? It was with this in our minds that Techstars co-founder Brad Feld, TNC CEO Mark Tercek, and I first sat down last summer to envision how the tech sector could accelerate our efforts.

With the challenges facing people and nature so pressing, we decided that applying the tech sector’s culture of rapid innovation in our work, as well as engaging both technologists and entrepreneurs in conservation more broadly, are important pathways to success. How could we work together to quickly find and scale the best commercially viable ideas to advance sustainability and protect nature?  

The promise of leveraging innovative technology and investing in smart solutions was already evident from current TNC projects. For example, in Micronesia, our “Fishface” project is using facial recognition software to identify fish species, radically lowering the cost of on-board monitoring of tuna fishing vessels and helping tuna fisheries achieve sustainability. Meanwhile, in the US Midwest, TNC has partnered with a start-up that has figured out how to measure soil health from satellite data, enabling farmers to switch from managing their lands for annual productivity to managing for soil health, ensuring their harvests are sustainable and significantly reducing pollution of rivers and streams.

A worker scans a fish noting the length, weight and species before it is processed.
Scanning fish in Indonesia Electronic scanners document a fish's length, weight and species before it is processed. © Ed Wray

Fast forward to today—or rather to yesterday, when The Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, in Partnership with TNC, graduated its first class of start-up entrepreneurs. These companies are developing smart solutions to tackle pressing challenges, like making fisheries more sustainable, quantifying the economic benefits of nature, creating better software to support battery storage for renewable energy, and improving water quality and quantity.

TNC has already initiated projects with several of the start-ups from the first class of the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, such as a collaboration with StormSensor to create smart urban watersheds, using their sensors to establish baseline flow conditions and measure the impact of green infrastructure. This smart solution provides information needed to track, predict and prevent stormwater pollution and flooding in real time, allowing cities to better manage water resources.

We’re also working with FlyWire, a company that is addressing seafood traceability by working with fishers and seafood suppliers to provide at-sea verification of sustainable fishing efforts. FlyWire has developed a low-cost electronic monitoring system that can record HD video, is linked to GPS, and has the ability to obtain quality data where there is currently no data collection.  

Techstars is making us smarter about relevant technologies and helping us bring more technologists to the problems we’re trying to solve.

Across all our work, the partnership with Techstars is making us smarter about relevant technologies, helping us bring more technologists to the problems we’re trying to solve, and driving investment in promising companies that can rapidly achieve commercial success and positive environmental impact. We are also finding that we have something to offer the tech sector—an opportunity to make a tangible, substantial difference for the planet.

I’m optimistic about our progress—and realistic about the road still ahead of us. But most of all I’m ready to start meeting more tech entrepreneurs who can play a pivotal role in helping solve the great challenges facing humanity this century. 

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Twitter: @bcmcpeek

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I encourage all entrepreneurs with commercially viable sustainable technologies to apply to our next Techstars Sustainability Accelerator class when the application process kicks off again on January 7, 2019.

Because our research makes clear that if we invest in nature and smart solutions, itis possible to achieve a sustainable future for people and nature, ensuring our children and grandchildren inherit a world in which people and nature can thrive.

Watch the 2018 Demo Day for the inaugural class of the Techstars Sustainability Accelerator, where all ten companies showcased their technologies to potential investors at the end of the three-month program. 

Techstars/TNC Sustainability Accelerator Demo Day The first class of graduates in the Techstars/TNC Sustainability Accelerator demonstrate their products.
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TNC's President, Brian McPeek at the Worldwide Office.

As President of The Nature Conservancy, Brian McPeek sets the vision and strategy that guides the organization’s conservation, science, external affairs, development and marketing priorities across 72 countries to tackle the most pressing global challenges facing nature and people.

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