Thoughts on the 2015 Conservation Innovation Awards
It's been a pleasure to be part of this year's Conservation Innovation Awards since the day it launched. I've watched the momentum build, the ideas flow and the conversations spark. Most importantly, I've heard stories of people who wouldn't normally speak up and throw their hat in the ring, do just that.
When I heard WWF were planning to use Crowdicity, I was excited to see what it would bring forth. In a previous year I'd applied for the Conservation Innovation Award, but the process just seemed very stale - fill in an application form, wait for a panel to pick their favourite, and then receive a notification whether or not you'd won. It felt like it was missing the interesting trends of crowd participation, collaboration and discourse.
This year has been a different feast all together.
How it began
When I saw that the applications were open to everyone, I was excited. It broke down the "people will steal your idea" culture which is stifling innovative ideas from ever getting off the ground (it's OK, no one will steal your idea, people), and promoted the very things which will help shape those ideas and let them loose in the world - Social Capital and Critical Thinking.
So I jumped in early - I think there were about 3 other ideas at the time. I posted my first idea for Visual Reporting for Restoration Groups which I've been brewing for the best part of 3 years - having blended my personal & professional experience as a volunteer and volunteer manager, engaged others in research, explored social enterprise business models, and prototyped to gain feedback. From my experience building projects and ventures, I know it's wise to try lots of little things to help shape the idea over time, rather than building something based on a lot of assumptions and little evidence - so whilst I've been building my skills and capacity in other projects, I've been developing Volunteer Impact quietly in the background, building a crowd of interested people.
I was amazed by the feedback and very quickly my idea was propelled to the 'People's Support' milestone, comments began to flow, and then I hit the 'Originality' milestone a day or so later. I was delighted that the idea caught the imaginations of people, but the real reason I wanted to enter the innovation challenge (as well as the prize money) was the vital new connections to be made and the critical thought which comes from people who know the sector better than I.
Whilst my idea has been honed over countless discussions, surveys, observation and ethnographic methods, it sits in the context of the wider Conservation & Restoration movement, and it's intrinsically based on grassroots organisers. I wanted to reach more of them and see what they had to say.
Buoyed by the first idea's success, I launched the second big feature idea which people have been telling me they're keen to have as part of Volunteer Impact: Photopoint Monitoring.
Critical thinking began to flow
The application process has limited characters to try to keep us concise, and on point. This is helpful to give a snapshot of the idea, but not so helpful to let people dig into the detail - this is where the Comment threads were invaluable.
The first few comments allowed me to explain some of the claims I made - such as huge reductions in admin time, and increases in funding and volunteer engagement. Some people chipped in with other things they'd seen which might have a similar vein - such as graphic design tools, or apps. The next layer of comments down were the most useful ones however - they challenged me to build on my idea and hone it further into something which would create value for restoration groups and their stakeholders. They were characterised by people sharing links to existing processes and frameworks for reporting which were time consuming and largely paper-based, or built on clunky old technologies which were in need of an update.
Soon enough Volunteer Impact was across the line with some refinements, and into the pool of Finalists for judging!
Connections began to form
Through the process of these awards, I've received several great connections through the comments, through social media, and some requests on LinkedIn too! Whilst these are in the early stages, it's heartening to see that people are keen to connect, as well as suggest other projects in the awards which it would make sense to speak further with about integrations and collaboration - it makes perfect sense for services such as Volunteer Impact to team up with research teams where possible, as well as other complementary products & services.
There are several ideas which are mutually supporting such as Trap.NZ, CatchIT and my Volunteer Impact which people had a tendency to want to encourage to merge. Yet exactly what we need in the sector is diversity of ideas and approaches which are nimble and compatible - this is strength and resilience. I was led to muse about it on the CatchIT comment thread:
Through the process I've also decided to explore Citizen Science as a dimension for Volunteer Impact's future, and booked a date in the diary with Kimberley Collins who has a fair bit of experience in this topic, to do a mini hackfest to get an NZ Citizen Science directory off the ground!
Where to from here?
I see there's two main parts to this question; my project, and the WWF Conservation Innovation Awards.
For Volunteer Impact
I'm committed to seeing this project come to fruition as I now feel excellently positioned to lead and execute on the idea. 3 years ago when I first proposed it, I felt like I didn't quite have the capability to execute, but having spent the intervening time immersed in the world of design, innovation & social entreprenurship, I feel like I have the capability to bring this to life. I do hold out hope that the judges will pick out my idea as one with promise, as the money will enable me to build a tight little team of designers and developers to refine and bring the project to more restoration groups. That said, if we don't win, we will still do the same, just over a longer period of time (likely a year or two, instead of a few months). Our aim is to build a sustainable social enterprise focused on leveraging technology to enable and empower the environmental sector and the volunteers who flow through it.
It feels like this has been an exciting forray into running an open innovation challenge for WWF. Having investigated a range of models from around the world, I think there's a lot of exciting places that WWF could go from here - such as looking at setting up a more permanent environmental innovation lab (based on social lab design or programmes like Smart Energy Challenge), or running more face to face events, meetups and opportunities for people to engage meaningfully with the problems and possible solutions.
Personally, I'd like to see WWF and other innovation challenge conveners use their sector-wide relationships and insight to help to identify and focus more collaborative energy toward key areas which need addressing. This might look like naming a couple of key challenges - such as Zero Predators, increase Youth Volunteering, or Citizen Science hardware - and running engagement programmes based around these. It may also mean dropping the "idea first" style of innovation challenge, and moving to a model where ideas are co-created by participants of the challenge - something we've found extremely empowering in our work with Lifehack.
Whatever happens, let's keep our eye on the prize - thriving and flourishing biodiversity in Aotearoa!