Disruptive technologies and conservation:
Overcoming mindset barriers

Petr / AdobeStock
10 May 2023

An insight piece by Gal Zanir, Digital Innovation Consultant for the Unearthodox Digital Disruption and the Future of Conservation project, Land Conservation Manager for TiME - This-is-My-Earth, a Wildlife Biologist and Conservation Innovator. Gal draws on his experience as the co-founder of Wild Biotech Ltd, his MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge, and ongoing research on the intersection of Web 3.0 and conservation, to offer new perspectives on conservation innovation.

The world has seen significant growth in disruptive technologies such as Web 3.0, blockchain, and AI in recent years. However, the introduction of such new technologies often elicits scepticism and resistance, rooted in fear of how they might change our established ways of doing things. This scepticism tends to manifest as a focus on the hurdles, adverse consequences, risks, and current failures associated with these technologies. As a result, such scepticism and resistance can limit the diversity of perspectives and ideas and may discourage innovation. These phenomena can be seen as mindset barriers - thought processes that hinder progress towards a goal.

According to the renowned environmentalist and systems scientist Donnella Meadows, changing our mindsets, our own ways of thinking on issues, is one of the most challenging ways to influence a system to change. However, it is also the one that has the most profound impact once you do1. In the case of conservation innovation, actively working to overcome these mindset barriers can foster an environment that encourages familiarity with and exploration of emerging technologies, ultimately leading to their adoption for nature conservation.

Despite clear potential benefits, conservation NGOs often appear hesitant to embrace emerging technologies, struggling to identify new opportunities and to innovate at pace. As a result, the conservation community might lose its role in leading the responsible implementation of these technologies for nature, thereby ceding that opportunity to new, less experienced actors. Today, as we navigate the impact of emerging technologies, it is worth considering how we can acknowledge and understand the root of our resistance to embrace a mindset of experimentation, while still safeguarding and upholding the values that are essential to conservation work.

Drawing on two years of research at the intersection of conservation and digital disruption, I propose three areas for change, particularly at the mindset level, to improve the sector's absorptive capacity and surmount the challenges of leveraging new technologies for nature.

1. Focus on opportunities first

Focusing mostly on the risks of emerging technologies2 can lead to a narrow perspective and hinder the identification of potential opportunities. While it is important to identify potential risks and unintended consequences, conservation organisations can first identify the opportunities at stake. Adopting a mindset which implies starting with identifying the opportunities, will help mitigate inherent tendencies to over-focus on flaws, risks, and adverse consequences, which can be counter-productive for conservation purposes and discourage innovation. Additionally, framing "risks" as challenges and opportunities can help maintain an open and pragmatic mindset, allowing for the possibility that some challenges can be overcome through further ideation. Lastly, risks and unintended consequences can actually be seen as reasons to adopt a new technology early on, as they emphasise the need for decent, trusted actors to guide the technology's development towards a more responsible use.

2. Understand innovation theory and life-cycle

Whether it be the internet, cars, or other revolutionary advancements, innovations tend to undergo similar and somewhat foreseeable patterns of social rejection and adoption. People in conservation who are familiar with innovation theory and such patterns can better evaluate emerging technologies and anticipate opportunities, without being swayed by portrayals from the media and public. Tools like the Gartner Hype Cycle, which map where different technologies are along these cycles, can assist conservationists in assessing their potential impact and planning for adoption while excluding external factors from their considerations.

3. Adopt a forward-looking mindset

Lastly, instead of focusing on present limitations, people in conservation could ask ‘What will be possible in five years time?’. This approach allows organisations to anticipate how a new technology will grow and develop, and to envision larger opportunities. It involves considering factors such as how regulatory frameworks, security mechanisms, accessibility, investment, and adoption will develop in the future, rather than today. Critiques of new technologies often overlook the fact that talented innovators and governments are working relentlessly to solve surfaced challenges, and that the ecosystem and its network effects are constantly growing and accelerating such solutions. By looking at present limitations we run the risk of dismissing useful technology, even though some limitations may be solved and become irrelevant within a short period of time.

The case of Web 3.0 and blockchain technology

Although some people in conservation have hesitated to explore blockchain due to concerns over its environmental impact, unintended social consequences, and regulation, others have chosen to focus on the opportunities it presents and recognised its potential to support conservation efforts. By doing so, these innovators were able to identify which limitations were at the time inherent, and which were inaccurate messages repeated by the media. They anticipated the energy efficiency improvements that migrating the second-largest blockchain (Ethereum) to a Proof-of-Stake (PoS) mechanism would bring, demonstrating that technological progress can give concrete and effective answers to environmental concerns. They have been able to influence the use of blockchain towards positive outcomes while shaping its development to be more socially and environmentally responsible.

While many more mindset-level barriers to the adoption of new technologies in conservation can be discussed, embracing these three insights: focusing on opportunities first, understanding innovation theory, and adopting forward-thinking could pave the way for a future where conservationists lead the charge with emerging technologies for nature.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of Unearthodox nor the Digital Disruption and the Future of Conservation Project.

To learn more about the opportunities within disruptive technologies for conservation, and the other aspects of barriers to adoption, visit the new version of our Digital Disruption for Conservation Toolkit.

1 Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System by Donella Meadows
2 The perceived risks in the adoption of emerging technologies vary, and often include reputational, financial, environmental and social challenges.

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