Conservation Technology: Navigating the Hype

By Jonathan Palmer | April 8, 2022

Conservation drones are used today to extend the range of law enforcement monitoring efforts, among other purposes. Photo credit: Jared Brashier on Unsplash.

Technology investments are inherently risky. For a quarter of a century, the Standish Group — an IT advisory firm — has produced the Chaos Report, an evaluation of IT project success rates. Much has changed in technology over 25 years, but one thing has remained the same: 25 percent of technology projects deliver their expected functionality on time and within budget.

This measure of success is for projects in well-resourced organizations. The success rate is likely to be significantly lower in the field of nature conservation, where the latest cutting-edge innovations face the obstacles common in remote and resource-challenged environments.

Do conservation leaders have the tools they need to assess risk, balancing their technology investments between high risk/high yield and low-risk/low yield investments? There are no global assessments of the success rate of conservation technology projects and no specific tools to help conservation leaders differentiate between the next great innovation, a reliable return, and snake oil.

“Conservation is like many other industries when it comes to technology investments. ‘Shiny toys’ and promises of panaceas have risks that we have to carefully evaluate.”

Yet all is not lost. Around the same time that the Standish Group produced the Chaos Report, another tech advisory firm, Gartner, developed a concept called the Hype Cycle to allow IT leaders to understand expectations and hype by how we perceive a given technology over five distinct phases in time.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle.

The first phase they call the “Technology Trigger,” our first brush with a new tech idea, which leads immediately into a period of “Inflated Expectations.” Upon realizing a solution is not a silver bullet, we hit the “Trough of Disillusionment,” when nearly everyone wants to walk away. Then a few enlightened souls identify real-use cases that deliver affordable and sustainable outcomes. That leads to the final phase, the “Plateau of Productivity,” where the tool has well-understood value and becomes one of the many solutions in our technology toolbox.

The hype cycle is not an argument against investing in early-stage development of technology, but a tool to help leaders choose to invest at the right stage of development to deliver on their own specific goals. That has particular utility in a conservation context.

“Paradoxically, when criticism of a technology starts reaching a crescendo, it’s often the best time to start investing in partnerships with academia and others to identify scalable use cases with clear value propositions.”

Most conservation practitioners are very familiar with this cycle, both personally and professionally. Conservation drones are a good recent example. A decade ago, there were promises of drones transforming all aspects of field conservation. An “Animals’ Air Force” was on its way. Drones were going to monitor national fisheries and revolutionize conservation and save scientists’ lives.

Conservation drones have been successfully deployed to conduct aerial censuses of seabird and other animal colonies. Photo credit: Graham Harris/WCS.

But it turned out that most high-impact use cases required military-grade solutions and millions of dollars. Conservation organizations put their heads together to develop a small but valuable set of affordable-use cases for drones began emerging: to extend the range of law enforcement monitoring efforts, to conduct aerial censuses of seabird and other animal colonies, to ground-truth habitat classification, and to help rangers avoid direct contact with illegal or dangerous situations.

While there is no annual assessment of the maturity of conservation technologies, it’s fairly easy to assess where many solutions fall on the Hype Cycle. Early on, there is a huge amount of buzz, with a vocal group calling to include the tool in every project plan and funding proposal. This is the Peak of Inflated Expectations, inviting skepticism about investing in speculative moonshots.

“In the final phase of the hype curve, the ‘Plateau of Productivity,’ the tool has well-understood value and becomes one of the many solutions in our technology toolbox.”

Most of the solutions selected during this period will fail. Unless you have very specific insight on what will scale and have lasting impact, the best advice is to avoid investing conservation dollars until the technology has matured.

Paradoxically, when criticism of a technology starts reaching a crescendo, you are entering the Trough of Disillusionment. Despite its name, this is the right time for conservation organizations to start investing in partnerships with academia and others to identify scalable use cases with clear value propositions. Once — or if — we hit the Slope of Enlightenment, we start seeing proposals to scale the technology to 10s, 100s and 1,000s of deployments.

SMART technology is used by WCS conservationists in Mongolia and elsewhere. Photo credit: WCS Mongolia.

Proposals don’t guarantee progress and it is only rarely that we reach this scale and hit the Plateau of Productivity. At this phase, disillusioned investors are long gone, replaced by those who understand how scale drives impact. Now we face a new dilemma: to invest in new technologies that disrupt the market or focus on tried-and-tested solutions.

“Conservation leaders need to apply rigor when investing in conservation technology and one of the first steps is clarify how your organization wants to balance risks and returns.”

The Hype Cycle helps us frame our technology investments. Like many useful concepts, it’s somewhat intuitive once we’re exposed to it — one of those ideas that, once explained, we realize we already knew.

In many ways, conservation is like many other industries when it comes to technology investments. “Shiny toys” and promises of panaceas have risks that we have to carefully evaluate. Conservation leaders need to apply the same rigor when investing in conservation technology as with any other investment, and one of the first steps is clarify how your organization wants to balance risks and returns.

The Hype Cycle is a useful lens for non-technologists to make this assessment and to deliberately decide whether to speculate on, innovate, or capitalize on proven, scalable solutions.

Jonathan Palmer is Executive Director for Conservation Technology at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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Wildlife Conservation Society

Wildlife Conservation Society

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.