When tech companies push creative boundaries, sometimes our lives are changed for the better. (For example, I'm typing this from a cozy Airbnb as I roadtrip up the California coast.) But not all tech ideas are genius — some of them seem useless, ridiculous or both.
What if we could harness the kind of thinking that brought us Lyft rides and one-click grocery shopping and use it for more pressing issues — like saving endangered species?
Enter Conservation X Labs (CXL), which conservationist Alex Dehgan launched in 2015. CXL aims to use the tech startup model to work on challenges in the difficult and complex space of environmental protection. How does it work? Much like any tech accelerator does: by bringing people together who have various skills and talents, providing a challenge, and letting them suggest — and test out — new ideas.
The 2016 Blue Economy Challenge, which looked at how to create more sustainable fisheries, is a good example. A joint project between CXL, the Australian Government, the World Wildlife Fund and Second Muse opened the challenge to innovations to make fishing more sustainable. They received entries from people in 220 countries, and they picked 10 winners that will receive support to develop their ideas and test them out in real life.
From new types of natural fish feed for fish farms to household aquaponics systems, learn more about the winners in the video below:
Calling all conservation nerds
CXL has hosted other competitions, but it wants to go even further to speed up the process of figuring out smart environmental solutions. “We would go through the exercise and get 500, maybe 1,000 submissions to the same challenge, and just a handful of winners,” Dehgan told Fast Company. “Some of the hundreds of ideas that don’t make it forward may be a bit rougher, but they could potentially be more instrumental in getting to a real breakthrough.”
So now CXL has launched a collaborative online platform, Digital Makerspace — like a Reddit for conservation nerds (or people who like to problem-solve real-life challenges). Anyone can join in the conversation, and people from various disciplines are encouraged to work together and learn from each other. Challenges will be posed from groups like the WWF and the U.S. Department of the Interior that need solutions to specific issues, such as how to develop sensor systems to detect wildlife or ways to fight animal trafficking.
“We need people from all different disciplines — engineering, design, economics, even marketing — to turn ideas into functioning prototypes and test them on the ground," says Paul Bunje, chief scientist at the XPrize Foundation, who is part of CXL's leadership.
Sure beats another takeout delivery service startup.