Conservation 3.0?

I have just returned from ICCB2015, the bi-annual International Congress for Conservation Biology, which gathered over 2000 people in the beautiful city of Montpellier (southern France) around a common interest in biodiversity conservation. I really enjoyed it, and as usual from such a forum, it was the place to meet old friends, forge new alliances and spark fresh ideas.

This year, I was positively surprised by the amount of attention given to the use of technology in conservation, which is a topic of direct relevance for me. This included several symposia, for example on the applications of new technologies to the study of primates, on satellite remote sensing for conservation, and an aspirational one suggestively named “Conservation 3.0”. Speakers talked about a variety of technological innovations, including nano-satellites, Implanted Radio Telemetry, automated passive acoustic monitoring, apps to unleash the power of citizen science… and of course, drones!

I left with two clear ideas in mind. The first one reinforces my impression that we really are on the brink of a technological revolution, with great potential to become a game-changer in conservation (and I’d extend this to ecology too!). The second idea is a sobering reminder that it’s all too easy to get over-excited by gadgets and technology, and as an engineer, I certain do! (Is this a male trait, given the line-out of speakers? *).

But not all conservation problems will benefit from technology –after all we’ll still rely on brave people patrolling national parks, or on providing alternative likelihoods to populations that would otherwise rely on threatened species and habitats. The classic narratives of conservation will not magically vanish with the technology wand. Technology shouldn’t be the reason itself, but the means to an end, an enabler of conservation science and action.

Furthermore, nor all emerging technological promises will deliver in practice. Two speakers showed the terribly interesting “hype cycle” curve of technology, a graphic representation of maturity and adoption of technologies and applications. Experience says that every technological development skyrockets through a phase of over-excitement and media visibility (peak of inflated expectations), followed by a crash when it fails to fulfil overinflated expectations (trough of disillusionment). After that, some technologies will become obsolete while others will mature through a slope of enlightenment to their full potential in a plateau of productivity– this is where we can reap the full benefits of a well-understood technology, while pioneers will have benefited from early (and more risky) opportunity gaps. This plot, produced annually by analysts in Gartner, shows the phase at which different emerging and novel technologies are.

The plot is not specific to conservation and not all technologies assessed will be relevant for us. Nevertheless, a couple of points deserve a quick note. Drones are reaching the peak of inflated expectations (as discussed in this article from 2013). For the last years, everyone and its dog got excited by drones. It was supercool to fly one and record video footage from the sky. But it is now that we’re starting to get realistic with this technology as more and more programs use them, comment on their limitations and usefulness. Drones can be fantastic tools for wildlife monitoring and vigilance, but we should better understand their limitations and have a clear idea of what a program will do with the data collected from drones, otherwise we’re just wasting money in expensive toys.

Two other emerging technologies are sliding towards “disillusionment”. I’ll talk about “Big Data” in Ecology in more detail in a future blog post, because I’ve got a strong interest in this topic. You may or may not have heard about the other one, the “Internet of Things” (IoT), the connection of objects and electronic devices through the internet. That is, you could tweet your coffee machine to have your coffee ready when you get home, get an email from your fridge warning you’re running low on milk, or you could command your washing machine from your phone to start a cycle (alas, clothes still won’t get marchin’ into the machine yet…). Technologists and society got really excited about IoT a few years back but it may not be terribly useful for conservation problems, which commonly happen away from internet connectivity. Although you never know, we’re already hearing about bringing internet connectivity to remote areas from the sky using drones! In any case, we are definitely going to witness the creation of local networks of environmental sensors that “talk” to each other.

I leave you with a (popular?) quote, which is very fitting here: it’s not about the technology, but what you do with it.

(*) I got the impression (and this is just an impression, not a statistic!) that there were more men than women hyper-excited by technology … the boy’s toys?? Is this another area to target to improve gender bias? Women out there developing or using novel technologies for conservation: shout out, make your voice heard!!

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