Achieving Moonshots: Advancing Humankind and Preserving Nature

Katherine Chou, Product Lead at Google[x] Labs, sees technology as a way to make the impossible, possible. She explores differences in how wildlife NGOs and the tech sector think and plan, and what the conservation community can learn from Silicon Valley when it comes to developing solutions with big impacts for people and wildlife.

Date published: 2015/12/22

In her talk at the 2015 Fuller Symposium, Achieving Moonshots: Advancing Humankind and Preserving Nature, Katherine Chou, Product Lead at Google[x] Labs, discusses technology as a way to achieve 'moonshots' -- big results for big questions and challenges. Ms. Chou presents conservation case studies from Kenya to highlight how NGOs are currently using technology to tackle major problems. She challenges the conservation community to learn from tech sector approaches to thinking and planning.

Two-thirds of the world’s population lacks internet access today. In order to address this challenge, Google is pioneering the use of balloons to extend connectivity around the globe. 'Moonshots' focus on making this kind of order-of-magnitude impact, versus incremental ones.

In the context of conservation, poaching and habitat destruction are enormous threats. 'Moonshot' approaches could help to deliver solutions. Technology is increasingly supporting conservation advances in the field.  Mobile phones are enhancing communication in ways that help humans and wildlife to thrive. Facebook has been used as an avenue for detecting poaching and illegal wildlfie trade. Satellites are tracking animal movements in near real-time, enabling groups such as Save the Elephants to monitor bull elephant movements between Mt. Kenya and Mt. Marsabit to anticipate and prevent human-wildlife conflict. Data from this process has helped to create the Mt. Kenya corridor, which allows for elephant movements with minimal impacts to farmers. In the anti-poaching space, WWF is developing thermal cameras with human recognition software that can send real-time alerts when incursions are detected in protected areas.

In the 1990’s, rhino populations fell to an all-time low in Kenya and in 1995 the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was founded and allied itself with the Northern Rangelands Trust. Ms. Chou notes that Lewa and Northern Rangelands Trust have become hotbeds for testing new conservation technologies in Kenya. Such field testing environments are essential to the design of robust systems.

Ms. Chou encourages members of the conservation community who are pursuing 'moonshots' to remember to first carefully define a problem before developing big solutions. Leveraging technology can help, but it is important to start small before scaling up. “To conserve is to believe in tomorrow, and engineers like to build tech for tomorrow," she reminds us. "It's time for communities to come together to strive for these moonshots that can save the planet."

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