Image © Sergi Ferrete via Unsplash

In Focus: Internet of Elephants & Citizen Engagement

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As a child I had dozens of stuffed animals and a shelf full of Zoo Books, and my favorite toys were tiny rubber figurines I occasionally got to pick out from the Discovery Store. Playing with these toys and running around in the outdoors fed my youthful imagination and nudged me to care about animals and wildlife – it mattered to me that the Bengal tiger existed somewhere out in the jungles of India, or the killer whale swam free in the waters of Puget Sound. It came as no surprise to my parents when I chose to major in Marine Biology and later channeled that love and curiosity for animals and wildlife through a career in the corporate environmental and sustainability space.

For many children growing up today, and indeed for adults as well, it seems there is less and less of a connection with wildlife and the outdoors. It has been well-documented that children are spending less time outside  – one study showed that children 8-12 years old spend three times as many hours with computers and televisions each week as they do playing outdoors, while another showed that children today spend half as much time playing outside as their parents did. Even through our culture, our relationship with nature has changed over time, measured through one study showing a significant reduction of nature-related words used in works of popular culture today compared to sixty years ago. And while we have been distracted, ecosystems and wildlife populations around the world have continued to decline precipitously.

Gautam Shah, strongly believes that we can – and should – again bring people closer to wildlife, to care and protect our natural world, and so much that he started a company to achieve this dream. I spoke to him recently about the work that he is doing to bring wildlife back into the thoughts of people around the world.

Gautam is the founder of Internet of Elephants (IoE), a company that wants to use technology to drive citizen engagement and get people to feel connected to animals and nature again. Gautam’s ultimate goal for the company is to get people all over the world engaged and nudge them towards awareness and involvement in conservation. He dreams of a future where “the way that people are engaged with wildlife has shifted, that wildlife has become a part of everyone’s daily thoughts.”

And through IoE’s technology-driven products, we’re seeing glimpses of how this can work. IoE’s pilot project, Safari Central, is a mobile application that uses augmented reality (AR) to bring animals into your everyday surroundings. The app allows users with camera phones to view and photograph virtual wildlife superimposed on the user’s screen. When the project first launched, IoE ran a competition campaign for people to submit photos with these virtual animals, and Gautam shared with us that he was surprised and invigorated that photographs were submitted from all over the world, including parts of rural India, Vietnam, Brazil and the United States. In all, over 24,000 users participated in the competition. He says of the outcome: “It was evidence to us that using games as a channel does have the capacity to reach people that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach.” 

IoE’s next product, coming out later this October, is Wildeverse, which will have similarities with the popular app game Pokemon Go, but will be focused on bringing orangutans and chimpanzees into users’ surroundings. In keeping his goal of getting people more involved, he says of the goal of this project: “There may be a limited amount of things you can do for orangutans and chimpanzees on the other side of the world, but with Wildeverse we want to show people that what you CAN do is get involved with conservation work in your area, and help connect them to these conservation groups and local zoos.”

Gautam sees this all as an exciting experiment to see how engagement can drive positive change and help reverse the plight of wildlife and biodiversity. He hopes that these games, while engaging and fun, can also drive more responsible behavior by citizens. Gautam shares with us: “I want to see how relationship with wildlife on a day to day basis can impact consumer decisions, how it can impact the market.” And thinking even bigger-picture, he wonders, “How does that change how government policy is done, and how does it change the available financing for conservation?” 

With technology comes new and improved solutions for solving social and environmental problems, as long as the developers and designers are doing it with social benefit in mind. SustainAbility recently published a report, AI & the Sustainable Development Goals: The State of Play, with multi-stakeholder organization 2030Vision, to highlight the ways that technology, Artificial Intelligence in particular, will need to be harnessed in the right way to continue, rather than hinder, societal progress. Technology is going to grow in importance in the overall fight for conservation as well. When we spoke with Gautam, he noted the growing use of satellites, data visualization, AR, 3D scanning of environments and observed: “Across all of those areas, we’re starting to see a hockey stick curve in terms of use of technology for biodiversity, and I would expect that to continue and to become the norm… I don’t think it’s slowing down anytime soon.”

And beyond citizen action, the private sector is another crucial actor that has the potential to make significant positive impacts on biodiversity. Large companies, through their global supply chains, are increasingly being scrutinized for their impacts on social and environmental impacts, and biodiversity is an important aspect of this. While companies are taking various approaches on addressing biodiversity, such as participating or achieving certification in the Rainforest Alliance and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, there is plenty of opportunity for companies to be engaging with innovative enterprises such as Gautam’s IoE. Corporates’ unparalleled reach and influence are critical if Gautam is going to achieve his goal to create massive citizen engagement with wildlife conservation. Companies could also learn something about innovative ways to engage customers.

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