Alex Dehgan is the co-founder of Conservation X Labs, a new startup focused on bringing innovation to conservation. He most recently served as the chief scientist of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and founded and headed the independent Office of Science and Technology. He previously helped build Afghanistan’s first national park with the Wildlife Conservation Society and worked on science diplomacy efforts with Iran at the US Department of State.
Why is conservation in need of innovation?
Our problems are exponential, but our solutions have been linear. We need to increase the speed, scale, efficacy, and sustainability of our conservation interventions. We are in the midst of a sixth great mass extinction, the first in earth’s history that has been driven by a single species’ own actions. Its rates of loss are probably going to increase tenfold in the next few decades. By many standards, the conservation community has been quite successful—we have created new parks and enclaves at increasing rates, we have new regulations, and we have just launched the sustainable development goals with a recognition that how we do development doesn’t have to mimic the West or China’s pathways through industrialization. However, despite this success, nearly every major group of species is in decline.
These challenges look like they will only increase. By 2050, the planet will have 9.6 billion people, requiring 70 percent more food, and doubling of inputs. Humanity’s success in lifting billions out of poverty will put out more demands for meat, dairy, refrigeration, and air conditioning. Producing such food will require an increase in agricultural area equal to that of the United States, or clearance of the Congo Basin and the Amazon Basin for agriculture.
The existing set of conservation tools is increasingly insufficient to match the speed at which the changes are occurring. Moreover, conservation practice has been at times technophobic, backwards looking, uninnovative, and incremental in the face of the exponential increases in the problem. Conservation science can no longer merely catalogue the demise of the species on this planet—it has become, as Dr. Kent Redford, an eminent conservation thinker, has said, a society of mourners. Conservation science must continue its shift from being a descriptive, discovery-based science to a transdisciplinary field that seeks to also engineer solutions. While conservation science can help define the problems, it alone does not possess the solutions. However, powerful new tools for conservation exist and offer hope.
What is unique about Conservation X Labs?
Conservation X Labs proposes that we rethink our conservation model, and adopt an approach that harnesses the vast democratization of science and technology and greater interconnectivity, and new approaches to collaborative and open innovation that improve the efficacy, speed, cost, and scale of global conservation efforts with the larger goal of ending human-induced extinction.
We see three opportunities that we are focused on harnessing for conservation.
Technology has gained exponentially in processing power, memory capacity, number of sensors, pixel capacity, and storage. The power of 3D printing provides tremendous power. Current advances in molecular biology are rivaling—and in some cases overtaking—the rate of change seen in computing and information technology. A modern synthesis of biology and technology has created the entirely new field of synthetic biology, which may help accelerate adaptation to a changing environment due to climate change and increase the resilience of ecosystems against human degradation and invasive species. These tools can serve, as well as undermine, conservation. We need them to match the speed and scale of the conservation effort.
Second, greater degrees of global connectivity have created a new paradigm of Open Source Conservation, which is transforming how scientific discoveries are made and how conservation is conducted. Conservation X Labs is harnessing open source approaches to develop and/or source new ideas or products, distribute the burden for collecting and analyzing data, co-design new solutions, and share in the burdens of research, publication, and funding, while simultaneously engaging the public.
Finally, we must harness, build, and mobilize a ‘tribe’ of conservation visionaries, solvers, and doers that will bring a new wave of technological, financial, and behavioral innovation to conservation. We will build a novel community from the existing conservation movement, but also incorporate technologists, biological engineers, designers, makers, innovators, hackers, marketers, financiers, and anthropologists. Conservation X Labs is serving as a catalyst, connector, amplifier, and mobilizer within the conservation community, relying on an ecosystem of institutions and individuals that enable us to effectively understand, source, test, and accelerate conservation solutions.
What has the process of building this tribe been like?
Part of it is something we did two weeks ago—launching a USD$2.2 million prize focused on rethinking aquaculture feed. Why is aquaculture important? Half our fish is farmed. The farm systems are environmentally disastrous—we use fish to feed fish, which is not a good model of sustainability. A prize allows you to crowdsource the world without making an assumption as to where the best ideas are. Talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. We want to provide opportunity.
The second part is: how do you create opportunities for people to co-create and co-solve problems? Conservationists understand the problem, but don’t necessarily have the solutions. The solution sets need to be bigger. Can we create a way of crowdsourcing expertise, and create platforms that allow people to design and collaborate on open hardware? These are things we’re building right now, with the goal of a product called a “DNA Barcode Scanner,” that allows us to understand illegal wildlife trade—help a customs officer deal with a biological sample that doesn’t look like an Asiatic bear, but may be a gall bladder of that bear in powdered form; or help a store assess whether the fish they’re buying is sustainably sourced tilapia, and actually tilapia—30 percent of seafood is mislabeled, if not higher; or help prevent illegal timber trade from the forests that maintain the Amur leopard and Siberian tiger.
We’d like to have a conference focused on optimism that shifts us from backwards looking to the future. Let’s bring together hackers, solvers, makers, engineers, anthropologists, economists, and conservation biologists to rethink solutions together.
I’m getting the sense that conservation is a much larger world than I, and I’m sure many others, would imagine. What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about conservation?
Part of what I wish people knew are the tradeoffs—GMOs are a great example of that. We’ve seen productivity per plant level off, we’re unable to coax more out of plants than we have been. A large part of the world are subsistence farmers—there are political problems if we get them off farms, but it’s hard for them to be sustainable, particularly in light of climate change. The worst thing we can do is expect to keep doing what we’re doing and get a different result. We have to change the approach, we have to change who’s part of the approach.
You left a position as the chief scientist for USAID to open this lab. Why did you feel that Conservation X is a more effective launch pad for your work?
People think I’m a little crazy, because I built what became the global development lab at USAID from scratch. I realized what I had done at USAID could be applicable to conservation, which is even more entrenched in traditional ways of looking at problems than development. I wanted to see us launch a set of grand challenges for conservation, to see us develop. Silicon Valley has been incredibly good at improving dinner reservations for people; how do we actually harness and solve big problems?
You have to measure your life. You only get so much effort over your lifespan to effect change. I want to maximize how I’m trying to do that. This seemed like the best alternative, at the time, to make the biggest difference in this field. Conservation is in a state of flux, and I want to have the chance to direct the trajectory.
In your attempt to maximize your efforts, how do you see public and private sectors interacting?
There are three ways we can act. One is as an entrepreneur—you start a business that can bring about change. You can be an intrepreneur—transform the public and private institutions that bring change from inside. And, you can be an extrapreneur, which asks: how do you transform other industries, and encourage other industries to change?
The private sector is absolutely necessary for these solutions. We need the public sector to fund the research, take the first loss, and unlock additional capital to help these solutions get to scale. Both have important roles to play, and it’s crazy to not use all elements of our society.
Do you see their interaction as one that’s in need of an evolution?
They’re different worlds. There’s a lot of talk about private-public partnerships, but not a lot of true partnerships that harness the best of both, because it takes substantial investment. There are ways that public-private partnerships work really well—governments support universities, but it’s not enough to do research and publish a paper, how do we translate that knowledge in service to society? That takes another partnership with the private sector, universities, NGOs, and organizations to take those ideas to innovation, to enterprise, and help those enterprises get to scale. It calls for a new model. NGOs need to act more like private sector companies. Companies need to be driven by impact beyond corporate social responsibility. Governments need to learn how to unlock the private sector.
If you were to envision a future in which all correct decisions have been made, what would that look like and what were the key decisions?
We would have a much greater partnership and sourcing of solutions from universities, industry, government, and the developing world that help us rethink replacements for products that are driving species, ecosystems, and our own species extinct. We would restore degraded territories, so instead of losing rainforests, we’re gaining them; instead of having to clear new forests for land, we’re going to degraded land and growing more food. We’re helping build resilience into our coral reef systems, our natural systems, and engineering our microbiology. It’s a proactive approach. It’s a world where billions of people are lifted out of poverty not because of donor aid, but because of their own innovation, which the major donors and corporations have worked together to unlock. It’s a world where we use tools that we used to put this Volkswagen-sized rover on the surface of Mars to address the challenges of conservation and development, and we stop losing species because of our own actions.