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Global Ideas

Can love and technology save global biodiversity?

A new inspirational way to engage people to become environmentally active has emerged. Instead of sending messages of loss and destruction, companies are trying to inspire the next generation with positive messages.

Australien World Parks Congress in Sydney

In Sydney's Olympic Park convention center, AstroTurf, an artificial grass surface, provides the indoor greenery for the world's largest gathering of conservationists. And it’s not out of place. If anything, it captures well the pragmatic approaches to saving nature being explored at the World Parks Congress taking place on Australia's East coast this week. Organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), some 5,000 park rangers, NGO workers, activists but also politicians and business representatives are discussing the future of the Earth's protected areas.

With humanity relentlessly tightening its grip on the planet's resources, national parks, forest conservation areas and protected maritime zones are coming increasingly under siege. To save them new ideas are needed where old ways have not worked. Or not well enough. Half-way through the Sydney gathering, a few trends are emerging.

A message of 'love not loss'

If so far stark images of environmental destruction have been the strategy of choice to stir people into action, it now gives way to stressing the treasures we still have. "It's a message of love not loss that inspires people to take action for change," says Ed Gillespie, who runs a communications agency in London focusing on sustainability. Positive storytelling, or engaging people through promises of fun instead of calls for action are among the approaches being explored in some of the sessions.

"Inspiring Solutions" is the motto of this years' jamboree that only takes place once every decade. This idea of positively inspiring people must therefore set the tone for more than just a few years. At least that’s what the organizers hope. We want the ideas emerging from the congress to become a lasting legacy that inspires and informs the way the next generation of conservationists approaches their work, says Trevor Sandwith, director of the global protected areas program for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) who organized the event.

In line with the congress motto, the organizers have launched the “Green List of Protected Areas.” As opposed to the Red List of Endangered Species, the new index lists exemplary conservation efforts around the world.

Yet, unease about the new approach echoed around the venue. “To send an all positive and inspirational call for protecting what is still left of nature should not mean we neglect talking openly about the dire situation of protected areas around the world,” says an NGO project manager who preferred not to be named.

Business and tech exploring role in conservation

And while critiques of capitalism as a driver of the planet's destruction are never far in environmental debates, at the World Parks Congress business and technology companies are exploring new opportunities to support – and profit from saving nature. Within a decade this is a remarkable change, say participants who also attended the last meeting in Durban in 2003, where business representatives were invited but shunned by many. Now, there are daily talks and presentations in pavilions dedicated to "Business and Biodiversity," or large scale financing initiatives. And the US space agency NASA as well as tech companies HP and Google are presenting their products which provide conservationists and the general public with interactive access to satellite and remote sensing imagery.

Google's Earth engine also powers the Map of Life, a project based out of Yale University that aims to put all information about the world's biodiversity – from satellite imagery of forest canopies or snow cover to remote sensing data of animal populations to information from species databases – on an interactive map and at the fingertips of the ordinary public.

The trend towards tech- based conservation is visible on smaller scales, too. If people can't forsake their smart phones for a walk in the (national) park, nature has to come to their mobile screens instead. For instance in the guise of GPS- based or even augmented reality apps which interactively provide information about special sites in national parks or landmarks along hiking paths.

As Australia breaks into summer, there will be plenty of opportunity for everyone there to test drive these smart phone apps in the country's national parks and beyond. But will the inspirational approach to conservation pay off in the end? That’s anyone’s guess.