Global Conservation & My Disregarded To-Do Lists

Global Conservation & My Disregarded To-Do Lists

About a year ago, I had a mini-revelation about international conservation that made me feel marginally better about my seeming inability to stick to the really excellent goals I regularly set for myself.

I was once again (as many times before) growing frustrated with my tendency to craft gorgeous to-do lists, only to flippantly disregard them. It was as if part of my brain figured that creating the list was enough of an achievement to excuse me from actually adhering to it. Rationally, I knew that making more multi-colored, structured lists would not fix this tendency. I needed to figure out the deeper reasons (anxiety? lack of confidence? laziness?) for this behavior, but that seemed like it would be time- and energy-consuming. Much better to wring my hands about it, to wonder, “Why, oh why, do I keep finding myself in this situation? Well, time to make another list!”

And then, I read up on the next round of major international conservation goals being developed for 2030, and I felt comforted somehow: I am not the only one who sets overly ambitious goals without well thought-out plans for realistically achieving them.

With the flurry of planning for the next U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference, there’s been a big push for an initiative called “30×30.” For those unfamiliar with this, it is basically a commitment to protect at least 30% of the planet — ocean and land — by 2030.

We’re totally gonna do it.

It’s going to be great!

It’s totally not going to be like our goals for 2020… heh. No, this time, we really mean it!

Wait, what’s that about goals for 2020?

Well, see, there were a set of 20 goals, called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, set through the CBD to be achieved by 2020 (yes, someone somewhere seems very taken with the idea of matching numbers and year names… 20, 20, 30, 30). And here is one of the many similar headlines on how those goals were achieved: A decade ago, the world agreed to 20 biodiversity targets. It did not meet any of them (Rick Noack in Washington Post, Sept 2020). This is based on the Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 report, which concluded that, “None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met [by the end of 2020], in turn threatening the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and undermining efforts to address climate change.”


In fairness, there has been progress made toward several of these goals — and the one I’ll focus on here is the target for area-based conservation, by which areas of land, inland waters, coastal areas, and ocean are designated as conservation zones which we’d primarily think of as Protected Areas (more on this shortly). This is Aichi Target 11: “By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.”

Sounds good. But, upon closer examination, there are some qualifying statements in there that require some more soul-searching: what do “effectively” and “equitably” mean, in measurable terms? How do we measure whether a set of protected areas are “well-connected”? What is meant by “other effective area-based conservation measures” (elegantly known as OECMs)?

This latter point spurred the formation of the IUCN WCPA Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures Specialist Group, which has worked effectively to define what OECMs are and to promote the inclusion of these areas — which, while not formal Protected Areas, still are managed in a way that offers positive conservation outcomes — in reporting on global conservation progress, which should promote greater support for these areas in national and international policies (and, one hopes, less domination by the conventional Protected Area model by which local and indigenous communities have often been excluded and even harmed in the process of blocking off conservation areas — just because you’re claiming land for a “good cause” doesn’t mean you’re not stealing it…).

And it’s a good thing they did this, because these OECMs turn out to contribute substantially to progress on Aichi Target 11. With OCEMs and Protected Areas together, it is now estimated that 16.64% of terrestrial and inland water area are covered by area-based conservation efforts (Protected Planet 2020). For the ocean, around 7.5 to 7.74% is included in conservation areas (World Database on Protected Areas, Protected Planet 2020).

At this point, you might be thinking: okay, that sounds pretty close to the targets of 17% and 10%. Maybe you’re actually being a grumpy lady in this moment, Tara. But we need to remember that those targets are not for areas that are merely designated as conservation areas, but for areas that are effectively and equitably managed. And this is where my concerns lie.

We know very little about the effectiveness of these conservation areas. Very, very little. I first started learning about this maybe 7 years ago when contributing information to the Marine Conservation Institute’s Marine Protection Atlas (MPAtlas) on Marine Protected Areas for which I had on-the-ground experience. These areas had depressingly low levels of protection, blocked by corruption and lack of funding — often following ambitious international projects that did not make plans for how local institutions could feasibly continue to fund conservation activities after the project timeline was completed.

For example, the main site for my dissertation research was Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape in the Philippines. My field station there was a relic from an EU-funded project that had ended a handful of years prior, a formerly stately building now falling apart in which I felt a bit like a squatter; the solar panels and electrical system were shot, and we were only able to charge our equipment by renting power from the fish processor next door who had a generator and stringing a series of dangling extension cords between the two buildings. There had been a system for running water, but it, too, was no longer functional, and we instead had two large water barrels that we filled bucket by bucket from the community spigot. This was supposed to have been the main ranger station, but the few rangers who actually patrolled the area did not use it. Around the building and elsewhere in the village, there were faded, broken signs advertising this wonderful project, now a phantom. The rangers I met were dedicated and bright, but operating on extremely limited funds, such that it was rare that they could actually patrol — and when they did manage to apprehend illegal loggers or fishers, it often was not worth the cost they’d have to go through to go into town to file a report because these illegal harvesters were generally friends of municipal authorities (not to mention the serious risk to their own personal safety in cases of retaliation). Illegal fishing was rampant, fish stocks were declining, and the number of fishers was increasing, while a critically endangered subpopulation of Irrawaddy dolphins continued to decrease due to accidental capture in fishing gears.

And yet Malampaya Sound and other similar sites I’ve visited are listed as Protected Areas in global databases, included in that ~7% figure for ocean conservation areas. I knew that there was no monitoring of the effectiveness of these and most other areas — there was barely funding for basic management activities, let alone for evaluation of the actual level of protection. The Protected Planet 2020 report estimates that only about 18% of Protected Areas have been assessed for effectiveness (and I did not look to see whether there was any more detailed mention of when these assessments took place, which is an important consideration). The IUCN Green List is a program to certify whether protected and conserved areas are managed effectively, but it as yet is only being applied to a very small number of sites. And Marine Conservation Institute states that less than 3% of the ocean is effectively protected (I did not look into how they arrived at this number).

Monitoring of equity in conserved areas is even farther behind. From research on specific case studies, we know that there have been substantial disruptions to local communities at many conservation areas, in some (many?) cases amounting to human rights violations. The International Institute for Environment and Development has an ongoing Social Assessment of Protected Areas (SAPA) program, but this approach has not as yet been widely applied. I first learned about SAPA in 2014, and though they have worked hard and made progress over the past 7 years, it’s certainly not being taken up at a rate that makes me feel confident that things will be much different by 2030.

From my own experience, this kind of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) is often — generally — disregarded in conservation plans. It’s rare to have funding that allows for the time and effort needed to monitor effectiveness and equity, especially over sustained periods of time. In my work as an M&E consultant, I’ve run against constraints by small budgets for field teams for M&E activities, as well as rigid monitoring indicators and targets that often don’t match with meaningful change — I much prefer when I am able to direct research projects where we collect in-depth information on the links between conservation actions and social-ecological outcomes in a way that standard M&E programs do not.

I’ve gotten the sense that some folks in conservation even regard routine M&E as a nuisance — a sort of bland, bureaucratic step that lacks the zest of ambitious planning and excitement of initial implementation. Many projects receiving funding from major international projects do indeed have to have a monitoring and evaluation component, but these are usually constrained to measuring achievements by the project rather than sustained impacts to the project site, which is a subtle but critically important distinction. It’s similar to the comparison between “this is what we did” and “this is the change that our actions made.” Even for projects that claim lofty principles of equity or effectiveness in their project descriptions, and even for funding sources that require that projects adhere to lofty international goals of equity and well-being, the M&E plans rarely includes measures to collect information that would actually confirm whether these goals are meaningfully addressed in project activities. For example, gender equity is a common “guiding principle” often tucked into project descriptions, but generally this is monitored by reporting what percentage of conservation activity participants were women. That tells us very, very little about equity. Just because women are present doesn’t mean they are benefitting or being heard.

I think a large part of this, again, is because very little is invested into M&E. It is treated like a routine chore that is often reduced to ticking off checkboxes that aren’t necessarily grounded in real impacts. But, in reality, meaningful M&E can be as intensive as the biodiversity research that often gets most of the focus in conservation. It takes time. It takes resources. It takes careful design, data collection, and analysis. And it’s rare for funders to require the level of M&E that would lead to true accountability of conservation outcomes. Similarly, under the CBD’s 2020 targets, there was little accountability built into the system of reporting by countries; “The biodiversity convention’s member states have to publish biodiversity action plans — but these are often statements of a country’s ambitions, rather than records of its achievements” (Nature 2020).

This focus on ambitions versus achievements resonates a bit with me and my to-do lists, now that I’m in a relatively flexible professional setting as a freelance consultant. There’s accountability in bursts here and there in terms of the outputs I need to provide to clients, but many work items or goals (professional or personal) that are not tied to a specific project with externally imposed deadlines have tended to just drift lackadaisically past me, and I just sort of half-heartedly wave at them and wish them a happy journey to wherever they’re headed for now. It’s okay, after all — I’ll see them again on the next to-do list. I’m very comfortable viewing them as ambitions, but somehow not accountable enough to myself to turn them into achievements.

Such is the risk of focusing on the outward appearance of the goal itself — the 30% or the manuscript I’ll finally submit or the level of fluency with a language I’m studying — especially if failing to achieve that goal by a stated deadline carries no prompt, substantial accountability mechanism. Yes, as 30×30 proponents warn forebodingly, if we fail to protect 30% of the planet, we risk serious losses to biodiversity and ecosystem services. That’s an awfully big and abstract concept, and as such not easy to translate into serious motivation for individual countries to achieve that goal in a meaningful way (not just designating conserved areas, but actually conserving them in an ethical manner) (and then there’s the issue of who is in positions of power to designate and recognize conserved areas, and who is most at risk from environmental change, and how these are often not the same people, i.e. the feedback loop of risk-to-action is fairly weak).

I am also concerned that setting such large, splashy goals — focusing on the number 30 (or whatever the number of choice is) — tends to obscure the complex social-ecological context that underlie the numbers. The rush to achieve these numbers on paper has, in the past, drowned out meaningful conversations about what is actually meant by these numbers and how, really, they are going to be achieved. We can consider these the “why” and “how” of the goals. The “why” might seem obvious (to save nature!), but actually, it needs to be more specific and it needs to be regularly revisited to assess if the actions of achieving the goal are still rooted in fulfilling the drivers of that goal. So, if part of the “why” is that we want to maintain important ecosystem services to support human well-being, it’s not enough to just track the percentage of areas we’re calling “conserved,” because that does not actually tell us if those ecosystem services are truly being protected in a way that truly helps people.

And the “how” similarly requires greater specificity. Yes, there are established pathways by which countries develop action plans in accordance with international agreements, but beyond that, there’s a big gap in how those plans are implemented and usefully reported on. So, I’m seeing a lot of, “We’re going to push for this big goal!” and not very much of, “here’s how we’re going to ensure that this goal is meaningfully — and ethically — achieved.” The mechanisms for evaluation should be a goal alongside these numbers; not only “oh, X% will be managed well!” but also “ecological and social monitoring of conserved area impacts will be integrated into operations of Y% of sites.”

We need to take accountability more seriously (we need accountability accountability). I hope that the trend toward more diverse voices being included in major conservation conversations will promote greater accountability of conservation impacts to communities. I hope that M&E is increasingly seen as a central component of conservation rather than an onerous requirement to be filled, and I hope that the structure of conservation funding will better allow for the implementation of meaningful M&E activities.

My view of the 30×30 initiative is shaped by more than the topics discussed here, and I’m not absolutely opposed to it. There are many brilliant people working on the international conservation stage, and more and more recognition is being paid to OECMs and to the voices of indigenous groups (…much more is still needed). Lessons from the failure to achieve 2020’s targets are also being incorporated, e.g. in the formulation of (hopefully) more measurable goals. If we can truly achieve 30% protection by 2030 in a way that is effective and equitable, I would be thrilled. Grumpy tone aside, I would absolutely, genuinely love to celebrate a world where we are confident that at least 30% of the planet managed in a way that protects biodiversity and human well-being.

And maybe I’ll think: “You know what, if global conservation can achieve its goals, so can I!” and will emerge as the zen polyglot who has finally published her backlog of scientific manuscripts (as well as a suite of personal essays) and can hold a handstand and tune up her own bike.

Posted in Conservation Realist

Journey Mapping: A research tool for empathy

Journey Mapping: A research tool for empathy

Originally posted on Leo in Bloom Issue 01: From Awareness to Acceptance and in Bootcamp on Medium

As a conservation researcher whose work focuses on the interactions between conservation efforts and communities, a critically important part of my job is to better understand people. Those who aren’t particularly familiar with conservation might be surprised to learn that there is often conflict between conservationists and communities. This is generally because conservationists want to save XYZ species at any cost, which often involves substantial disruptions to the way of life, livelihoods, and well-being of people whose activities happen to impact – or even just overlap with – the species in question. Conservationists also, unfortunately, tend to come from “outside,” often from wealthier countries, and impose their beliefs and values on local people without bothering to understand, let alone respect, the experiences, perspectives, knowledge, and needs of those people. It is not uncommon to have a situation where communities view conservationists as intruders who don’t care about them and who threaten their continued existence, while conservationists might view uncooperative communities as ignorant, inconvenient obstacles (or, worse, as environment-hating villains).

The reality is generally more nuanced (though of course there are individuals who fit both of those extreme descriptions), and I – and many others – could write on and on about these dynamics. What I’ve learned, through conducting and overseeing thousands of interviews with villagers over the past ten years, is that people’s values and perceptions are not as divided as one might expect, and that where important differences do exist, it is illuminating to delve into why these differences exist.

So, research that helps cultivate greater understanding of different parties’ (or, as we’d call it in the field, “stakeholders”) perspectives, values, and experiences can help foster stronger mutual respect and future cooperation to devise solutions that achieve conservation goals without violating human rights and dignity.

There are many tools that researchers use for this purpose – interviews, group discussions, games. I’d like to share a tool that I first learned about five years ago, when I started collaborating with Point B Design + Training, a Design Thinking research and training lab in Myanmar. One of their recent graduates, Wint Hte, was just starting as my field assistant to study fisher experiences in the market chain. As we outlined our research questions and our approach, he suggested Journey Mapping. I’d never heard of it.

It turns out that Journey Mapping is a tool commonly used by User Experience (UX) designers (so, people who work to design products that align with what a user needs and can use). Basically, in designing a product, you would select your potential users/customers, and chart out their experience through a relevant process. It could be a person’s typical weekday, or a more specific process, such as buying groceries, or commuting, or choosing a new surfboard – whatever would inform how they might benefit from and be able to incorporate a given product in their lives. That process is broken down into discrete stages, and questions are asked about each stage: what are the person’s actions during this stage? How do they feel about it? What’s challenging to them during this stage? What works well?

Though it is indeed a very results-oriented, success-driven exercise when used in business, this approach cultivates an understanding of who the target users are, what they experience, what they need, and how they feel. This is the foundation of empathy!

For our purposes, we decided to divide the fisheries market chain process into these stages: fishing; unloading the catch; processing the fish and shrimp; selling the freshly caught and/or processed products. For each stage, we asked: What do you do? How do you feel about it (with options from very negative to very positive, and room for explanation)? Why do you feel that way? What would you like to change about it?

We brought our Journey Map templates – with each stage illustrated by the talented Sein Sein Lin, an artist who collaborates closely with Point B – to our field site, a small fishing village at the end of a locally popular beach spot. Over a handful of days, we interviewed both men and women, since labor in the local fisheries tends to be clearly divided by gender (and since, regardless of labor, the lived experiences of men and women tend to be vastly different).

We heard of the women waking up early, early, early to prepare food for the fishing crews to bring on the boats; men enjoying the feeling of being outside, on the water, but also juggling intense stress if the catch wasn’t good, or fear if the weather turned bad; the demanding workload and stress handled by the women who worked to dry fish products, fighting pests, mold, and greedy pigs and dogs to keep the fish safe while also hoping for continuously dry weather; the challenges in getting fair prices for their products, and the stress of debt to moneylenders, some of whom were exploitative, while others were more like family.

One moment really stood out to me, because I learned something so specific and small that I never would have thought to ask about before. We were interviewing a lovely family of women – several sisters – and when we asked, “How do you feel?” for the processing stage, they all immediately looked to their fingers. “They hurt! They get raw because we’re working with salt. We can’t even eat our rice when it’s freshly cooked because it’s too hot and it hurts our fingers too much!” (as in many countries, it’s common for people to eat with their hands).

It’s not the most stunningly important revelation – it doesn’t hold great implications for sustainable fishing or conservation. But it did point to a part of these women’s lives that could be improved, fairly easily. And I don’t think that any of the interview methods I’d used previously would have elicited that information, certainly not within just ten to twenty minutes of interviewing someone.

I’m definitely a Journey Map enthusiast now. Wherever relevant, I encourage my mentees to incorporate it – or elements of it – into their research. I use it myself, less formally, to plan training activities and programs for young researchers. And I do actually use it in my personal life, when I’m realizing I need to pause and cultivate more empathy for any given person in my life.

It’s certainly not the only tool that achieves the goals of cultivating greater awareness and understanding of stakeholders – far from it. But I like that it’s a fairly simple method – though good note-taking and interviewing skills are important – and the visual nature of the template (like a table, with the columns representing each stage, and the rows representing each question) is helpful for research teams and interview respondents alike. I highly recommend anyone who needs to work to better understand user, stakeholder, human experiences consider incorporating this into their toolbox if they haven’t already!

Here are some additional references on Journey Mapping:

Using Journey Mapping within Extension: A Tool for Supporting Behavior-Change Programs

Four Customer Journey Maps (And Why You Might Need Them All)

A Beginner’s Guide to User Journey Mapping

Why we need conservation realism

Why we need conservation realism

The rationale behind my new Conservation Realist series

Welcome to the Conservation Realist publication! I am a conservation researcher who specializes in studying the interactions between conservation and communities. I’ve worked as an academic and as a conservation practitioner, and currently am a consultant for various conservation projects, including as a monitoring and evaluation specialist to understand the processes and impacts of conservation activities. I am deeply motivated to work for more effective, ethical, and equitable conservation, driven by practical lessons learned from extensive on-the-ground work.

And that is precisely why I have very little patience for unproductive and even unethical narratives, assumptions, and approaches in conservation. Unfortunately, these are found in great abundance.

In the conservation world, there are often starry-eyed calls for optimism. “Hope spots” and “bright spots.” A common rallying cry: “We have to show that it’s not all doom and gloom!”

What’s often ignored is that there is a vast and rich middle ground between optimism and doom. It’s realism. And we need more of it to be incorporated in mainstream conservation conversations and actions.

Candidly, conservation is not doing so well. That’s a kind understatement. There are, thankfully, wonderful successes that should absolutely be celebrated and learned from (though I internally roll my eyes each time I hear someone breathlessly speak the words “hope spots” in a way that brings to mind “live, laugh, love!”). There are, sadly, many more failures. And instead of being swept under the rug, they must also be learned from. They must be examined through a pragmatic lens to learn what went wrong, how, and why, and to inform future efforts. This is how we can still gain something productive from the tens to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars spent on each of the multitude of failed conservation efforts.

With any challenge, we are neither served by brightly plastered optimism nor defeatist pessimism. Neither approach brings about healthy, necessary change. Focusing on the successes while ignoring the failures skews our understanding of what’s actually happening. It leaves us unprepared to deal with reality. It’s like how I sometimes (often) (almost always) delay looking at my credit card statement until the day the payment is due. Ignorance is bliss, and I definitely need to purchase (“invest in”) a new pair of good quality and ethically produced shoes for my post-pandemic work trips to Southeast Asia right now despite having no actual travel plans yet. But the balance needs to be paid off, or else there will be interest and late fees to pay. And if I simply monitor my spending throughout the month, I am much better able to curb my spending and avoid that awful pit-in-stomach “I spent how much?!?!” moment at the end of each month.

Closely linked to this ostrich-head-in-sand perspective (though I have learned that ostriches don’t actually do this, which is a credit to their mental and emotional strength and we should all learn from them) is the widespread, unquestioning acceptance of how conservation as a field goes about achieving its goals. It seems to be generally assumed that, because our mission is positive — saving nature! — our mindsets and actions are inherently good and beyond reproach. This is nonsense. Conservation is conceived of and implemented by humans, and is tightly linked to control over resources and people’s activities. This means that conservation is steeped in all of the human follies, foibles, and flaws that infiltrate other human endeavors, especially where power and control are involved.

I know that I and others who hold similar views are at times viewed as killjoys. If you’re not an optimist, you must be a pessimist — and you’re definitely not a team player. Maybe, if you’re a venerable, grey-bearded elder (male), you can get away with it. But if — like me — you’re a youngish (decreasingly so…), petite woman with a soft voice, then perhaps you’re just unpleasant.

So, I will often qualify my pragmatic comments with, “This might just be me being a grumpy lady” to soften the awkwardness of questioning or contradicting problematic conservation norms. And I was going to call this publication “Grumpy Lady Conservationist,” until a kindred spirit in pragmatic conservation womanhood thoughtfully cautioned that such a label would allow for the perspectives shared here to be more easily dismissed as peevish rantings, as with a curmudgeony older relative (“oh, that’s just her way, don’t mind her!”).

The aforementioned sister in pragmatism also inadvertently came up with a fantastic tagline for the original title: “I say ‘grumpy,’ but really, I’m incensed.” I love this. Our views on conservation are not a product of inherently grumpy characters; rather, we’re often driven to frustration by prevailing narratives in mainstream conservation.

So, here we have it. Conservation Realist. Topics will include: conservation’s colonial roots and ongoing neocolonial attitudes; the urgent need for meaningful monitoring and evaluation (and not just because I want job security as a conservation M&E specialist); different facets of inequity in the conservation field; and, on the positive side, the exciting diversity of experiences, forms of knowledge, and efforts that exist out of the mainstream conservation spotlight.

I hope you enjoy, learn, discuss, share!

Two intrepid researchers walking through a small fishing village, with thatch huts and wooden fencing, in a torrential downpour.
Accepting the soggy reality of southeastern Myanmar’s rainy season, equipping ourselves appropriately with raingear, and forging on with what we need to do. Is this a forced analogy to conservation realism? Perhaps. (photo: Wint Hte)

Design Thinking & Conservation

I’ll be very candid. When I first learned about Design Thinking, I internally rolled my eyes. “This is just… common sense. Why does it need a flashy label?”

And then I thought it over, and remembered – to quote many elderly people in my life – “common sense isn’t very common.”

Upon further consideration, I realized that Design Thinking (DT) is actually a very compelling approach that encompasses important processes and mindsets that are often missing in conservation research and implementation. I don’t think that DT is particularly novel or groundbreaking in and of itself, but I do firmly believe that it is a useful framework that brings many effective, and often tried and true, approaches together, linking them in a relatively neat (in theory) package.

It’s certainly not a silver bullet, nor a fixed set of directives that can guarantee a specific outcome. Its strengths, from my perspective, lie in its foundational values and mindsets, which – if implemented thoughtfully – lead to more inclusive, participatory, and transdisciplinary processes, linked to practical considerations for on-the-ground action.

Like many other toolkits/frameworks/approaches, it can yield wonderful outcomes if used thoughtfully and responsibly. I firmly believe that, with such thoughtful and responsible use, DT approaches can substantially contribute to more effective, equitable, and ethical conservation practices.

What it is

Design Thinking is an approach that seeks to develop practicable, accessible solutions that address real needs for real people. It was originally applied to product design, focusing on developing products that aligned with user needs – hence the term user-centered designed. DT is now applied more broadly, moving beyond product design to more general development of solutions in a diverse array of sectors, where “human-centered” (rather than “user-centered”) work focuses on a collaborative co-creation process of solutions.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation

There are a number of different outlines for the DT process, but generally, it involves: setting the intention/focal problem on which to work, including the “users” of any potential solution; gathering information about the users, the problem, and the context of the problem; synthesizing or analyzing the gathered information; ideating possible approaches to solutions; and protyping models of possible solutions, including testing and adapting them (including gathering additional information) until a workable solution emerges. There is a lot of iteration in the process, and the value comes not from rigidly following a given pathway of steps, but by mindfully using these steps as a guideline to help structure work on complex, dynamic issues.

Overview of the DT process used at Point B Design + Training

This process has been called a “dumbed down” version of the scientific method, but – as a scientist – I don’t agree with that interpretation, at least based on what I’ve experienced. It’s a larger process in which the scientific method can – should – be deployed in the Needs Finding phase, along with more grounded theory approaches, bringing natural and social science methods and ways of working together to inform the same process.

Speaking of disciplinary mindsets and approaches, DT involves “waves” or undulations between divergent and convergent thinking, branching out to embrace broad sets of ideas and possibilities, then narrowing down to focus on a workable portion of those ideas and possibilities, then branching out to explore the potential of ideas in that workable portion, then narrowing again. This is a nice “convergence” (ha!) of two different ways of thinking that are complementary, but often framed as opposites (e.g., convergent thinking is often thought of as a natural science way of thinking, while aspects of several social science approaches tend toward divergent thinking).

What I like more than the process, and what I believe must be preserved to ensure that the process remains true to its goals of meaningful co-creation, are the central mindsets of DT. Again, this list varies depending on which particular school of DT you work with, but common traits on these lists are: mindfulness, empathy, optimism, collaboration, and experimentation. Other important attributes include systems thinking and beginner’s mind (humility and curiosity). These mindsets shape the DT process to be truly participatory, ideally through each step, and that the process is responsive to real-world conditions.

Link to Conservation

Conservation issues are generally complex, even intractable, and I do not preach that DT will somehow help us find all the answers. But going through the DT process, and integrating DT mindsets, will certainly help us improve our work toward whatever solutions might exist.

Even early in my career, as a student conducting research on conservation efforts, I was struck by three realizations:


Moving into the complex issue of marine megafauna bycatch in small-scale fisheries, including evaluation of conservation efforts to reduce this problem, I saw that designing effective, ethical conservation actions requires practical planning, consideration of the social-ecological system, and meaningful inclusion of diverse stakeholders. However, these elements are often not realized in conservation. This prevents application of conservation research to real-world, practicable conservation solutions.

Conservation problems can be considered “wicked problems.”4 They are generally linked to complex, dynamic social and ecological systems1, and cannot be solved by simple, straightforward solutions. Efforts to address conservation problems can trigger reactions throughout these systems, including negative impacts to human communities. Wicked problems can be complicated by diverse stakeholder values and conflict among stakeholders. The process of developing and implementing conservation actions can exacerbate conflict; for example, non-inclusive processes might spark resentment among marginalized groups, and any negative social impacts of conservation actions will fuel resistance to conservation.

Where conservation planning, decision-making, and actions do not adopt a truly inclusive, holistic approach, opportunities for achieving the desired conservation outcome could well be diminished – and human rights might be violated in the process. Without carefully considering these complex systems and interactions, and the links between actions and outcomes, conservation efforts might actually end up being ineffective, or even counterproductive.

In the worst cases, conservation efforts might be seen as part of a “misanthropocene” movement – i.e., conservation that is against humans, does not consider implications for environmental justice and human rights, and is essentially neocolonial. Patrick Christie distills this idea in this talk for the Bevan Series, outlining misanthropocene tendencies and proposing humanistic conservation as an alternative. I present some of the characteristics of humanistic conservations along with elements of DT that nicely align with them:

“Humanistic Conservation”Relevant elements of DT
“Facilitate, build capacity”   “Curious”, “humble”, “service-oriented”   “Inclusive of various types of people & forms of knowledge”Focus on user needs   Beginner’s mind, empathy, user-centered view Co-creation, human-centered, participatory  
Humanistic conservation concepts from Patrick Christie’s Bevan Series talk

For conservation that is more effective and ethical, many have made a call for more such humanistic approaches. Key elements including considering conservation in the context of social-ecological or human-natural systems, incorporating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches and diverse forms of knowledge, and improving monitoring and evaluation to understand how actions link to outcomes (including negative social impacts). The rights and values of diverse stakeholders must be considered, e.g. as in human rights-based approaches. Furthermore, the human elements of conservation must be incorporated throughout the planning and implementation process, including diverse values, respectful interactions, conflict transformation, and transparent, clear communication.

From the literature, and from my own conversations and experiences, we can be fairly confident that conservation would benefit from greater integration of:

  • Systems Thinking: to map out complex social-ecological systems and linkages
  • Understanding & sharing mindsets and values: to respectfully integrate perspectives and experiences of diverse groups, and to identify avenues for accessible, respectful engagement
  • Mindfulness around interactions: Paying attention to history, mindsets, and values while monitoring how different stakeholder groups interact
  • Participation and inclusion: Ensuring that stakeholders are meaningfully included in research and conservation processes as an integral part of the team, not as an afterthought
  • Communication: to clearly share, in accessible ways, information, ideas, and plans across stakeholders
  • Diverse forms of knowledge: Not only across disciplines or sectors, but also across cultures and ways of knowing.
  • Creativity: Building off of diverse forms of knowledge and collaborative energy to look for new solutions, or new applications of existing solutions
  • Evaluation and Adaptation: To learn and implement lessons from failure and success

These all fall within a DT approach. DT is not the only way to achieve these; many projects already embrace meaningful inclusion, collaboration, and evaluation, without calling it DT (this is why I am an advocate for academics listening more to practitioners, but that is a conversation for another time). But, again, it is a framework in which all of these elements are incorporated.

Many ways of working in conservation implementation, and even academic research, fit nicely in a DT approach. These include: stakeholder and institutional analysis; participatory appraisals and assessments; social-ecological monitoring and evaluation (though this is not widely implemented); and Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge surveys. Really, any form of research – if undertaken in a thoughtful, inclusive, ethical manner! – fits in the “information gathering” phase of the DT process outlined above. And, by emphasizing empathy and collecting rich information from users, DT can provide insights about people’s decisions, motivations, and hopes.  These insights are critically important – yet chronically overlooked – in conservation.

How we use it

Yes, we us a lot of sticky notes – such is the cliche of DT. But that’s quite a small component of our DT work!

Through our work at Keiruna Inc., the DT process is used as a guide, not a strict, pre-defined series of steps, and DT mindsets are integrated in all of our activities. In some of our activities, the whole process might not be necessary – e.g., when we are conducting project evaluations but with no concrete “solution” needed at the end of the evaluation other than a series of recommendations (though these recommendations are based on our informed ideas of possibly productive and important intervention points, and could be the basis for future prototyping and testing).

Most of our familiarity with DT in theory and practice come from our ongoing work with Point B Design + Training, a Design Thinking research and training lab in Myanmar. Together, we’ve applied DT mindsets and approaches to conduct diverse research projects on environmental issues and coastal communities in the Gulf of Mottama, as well as to develop effective, responsive training programs for youths interested in conservation. Current projects include working on plastic waste awareness (including communicating knowledge from villages to urban areas, a flipping of the common narrative that “we must spread awareness to passive communities”) and the complex problem of marine mammal bycatch in coastal fisheries.

Our general approach is to work with an initial group of contacts to map out the social-ecological system and to get a preliminary grasp of the issue to be studied and/or addressed. From there, we identify additional stakeholders to include (as well as an open-ended “look for anyone who hasn’t come up yet due to marginalization” directive), key topics for which information needs to be gathered, and feasible means of engaging stakeholders in the process. We work to understand the history and interactions between stakeholders, as well as their values, needs, and hopes, and elicit their ideas on enablers and barriers to ethical and effective conservation, as well as their ideas for future directions. This is matched with rigorous natural and social science research.

Ideally, stakeholders are involved from the beginning, though usually the work involves a pre-defined set of issues and goals identified by an organization or donor; in this case, we work to bring stakeholder perspectives into the process as soon as possible and to understand their perspectives on the externally defined project at hand. We are eager to continue exploring how DT can deepen mutual understanding and respect, as well as collaboration, among stakeholders, and contribute to more ethical, productive, and long-lasting outcomes in the conservation realm.

Notes on critiques of DT

There are a number of critiques of DT, many of which I find to be specific to a very constrained view of DT, and others which I find to be relevant to the misuse of DT (e.g., as a flashy buzzphrase to tick a box without meaningful links to real impacts). There are concerns that it is “fundamentally conservative” and privileges those already in power; that its promotion is overblown (which I do agree with, generally); that it is a privileged way of thinking. I’ve also read thoughtful analyses of how to minimize or even avoid these problems, including here and here .

Again, it’s an approach, not a pre-packaged solution, and its outputs and outcomes will only be inclusive, effective, and sustainable if it is used mindfully (again, mindfulness is a key mindset of DT) and as part of a longer-term process of monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation.


1Knight AT, Cowling RM, Rouget M, et al. 2008. Knowing But Not Doing: Selecting Priority Conservation Areas and the Research–Implementation Gap. Conserv Biol 22: 610–7.

2Ostrom E. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325: 419–22.

3Biggs D, Abel N, Knight AT, et al. 2011. The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could “mental models” help?: Mental models in conservation planning. Conserv Lett 4: 169–83.

4Brechin SR, Wilshusen PR, Fortwangler CL, and West PC. 2002. Beyond the Square Wheel: Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding of Biodiversity Conservation as Social and Political Process. Soc Nat Resour 15: 41–64.

Developing an Innovative Conservation Training Program

At the Myanmar Coastal Conservation Lab (MCCL) at Point B Design + Training, we’ve developed a thoughtful, remarkably effective training program to build research and conservation skills and knowledge and to cultivate the passion that many youths have for environmental work.

We designed this as part of the Gulf of Mottama Project’s (GoMP) Conservation and Research Training Program, which I developed while working for IUCN to help meaningfully achieve my pre-set work duties of “building local capacity for research.”

This program’s core is the MCCL internship program, where we work with three sets of interns: (1) full-time interns who are recent graduates; (2) graduate student interns from Mawlamyine and Bago Universities; (3) undergraduate student interns from those same universities. We are open to students from any department, as long as their application and interview shows genuine passion for environmental issues and an eagerness to learn. This is implemented alongside a program for supporting and guiding university research teams (faculty and graduate students), as well as joint workshops that are open to interested participants beyond our internship cohort.

We built this program to address three concerns that had arisen during previous pre-defined efforts to build research skills at local universities:

  1. How to meaningfully engage a cohort of participants through a curriculum of foundational and specific trainings?
  2. How to (quickly!) fill some of the critical gaps of the existing educational system and build skills and mindsets needed to underpin thoughtful, high-quality research (and application of that research)?
  3. How to set participants up for sustained growth and success beyond the lifespan of our project?

The internship program is built on a training curriculum that covers 3 levels of skills:

  1. Foundational mindset: Establishing critical thinking, systems thinking, and mindfulness as core ways of thinking
  2. Enabling tools: Building at least basic computer skills (perhaps even starting with typing trainings), and also practice skills for general communication (including reading research papers in English) and career logistics (e.g., how to write a CV)
  3. Research-specific skills: This includes general, cross-cutting skills (proposal writing, project design, preparing budgets, research ethics), as well as more specific methodologies for data collection and analysis, and how to present findings to stakeholders

These skills are learned through regular skills seminars, specific trainings, and intensive workshops, as well as field experience and participation in ongoing research projects and outreach activities. We sequentially increase the responsibilities of the full-time and graduate student interns, transferring program management, training, and leadership skills to them over time. I (or another external expert) directly train the MCCL staff, developing trainings and research methodologies together, and then they implement these activities as a sort of “training of trainers.” The senior interns initially pick up some co-training duties, and then are able to lead the trainings and field activities on their own, allowing us to make the most of our relatively small team.

I’m very proud of this program, which has been running since 2018 and has trained at least 20 interns thus far. We added two Research Assistant positions for former full-time interns, and extended the program from 6 months to 1 year based on the most common “negative” feedback from our end-of-internship evaluations, which was that 6 months was too short.

These evaluations indicate that our interns gain substantial skills, and – most resoundingly for me – confidence. “Confidence” was not an option I’d put in our evaluation surveys; it was written in by several interns under the “Other: Specify” option. And this represents what I love so much about our program: the intangible outcomes – the happy little (but growing) community of youths building confidence and skills together, and who take the tools and information from our trainings and make magic out of them.