Before founding Conservation X Labs, Dehgan served as the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development. From helping create Afghanistan’s first national park to studying lemur extinction in Madagascar, he’s spent years applying the principles of innovation to conservation challenges.
We talked to Dehgan about what makes Conservation X Labs’ approach unique, why he and his colleagues are taking on ocean health and economic sustainability with the Blue Economy Challenge, and what kind of solutions he’s hoping to see.
Tell me about your work with Conservation X Labs.
Conservation X Labs was set up to essentially apply three things [to conservation problems]. Exponential technologies– everything from mobile phones to sensors to the amazing democratisation of science and technology on our planet. Open innovation– how do we crowdsource the world for the best ideas? How do we use citizen scientists to help us address conservation problems? And entrepreneurship. Bringing those three things together to improve the speed, efficacy, scale, and sustainability of global conservation efforts. It’s a whole new model of how we actually do conservation.
You previously worked with USAID as their chief scientist, and then you pivoted to conservation. Can you talk about how your experiences working in international development have informed the work you’re now doing in conservation?
At USAID, as chief scientist, I created an organisation called the Global Development Lab. The basic idea was to create a DARPA for development, a place where we do revolutionary stuff rather than evolutionary.
Quite frankly, if you look at this question of population growth, if you look at the demands of people that are emerging in the middle class, of the needs we have as our planet is hitting the boundaries, we actually need to fundamentally change the speed and scale of our solutions. So we set up an institution at USAID to help us launch grand challenges, to partner with the scientific community, to be able to use innovators and support innovators no matter where they are, and to actually bring a whole set of innovations to scale that could transform how we actually solve development problems.
In some ways, conservation is 20 years behind where we were in development. Look at development, or one sub-section of it, global health. Global health used to be a subset of tropical medicine. It was a field of mainly physicians that thought they knew all the problems and what all the solutions were. The fact is, they didn’t, because the solutions were not just medical problems. They involved anthropology and economics and engineering. They involved changing the discipline. And what we have now, the modern field of global health, is a field where the tent is much broader.
We need to bring the same approach to conservation. We need a whole new set of solutions. We need a whole new set of solvers. And that’s why I decided, based on what I’d learned at USAID, to bring that model to Conservation X Labs.
Why is ocean health an especially important area to focus on when it comes to conservation?
We know so little about our oceans. They cover two-thirds of our planet. They’re a major source of biodiversity. And they’re a regulatory function on our overall climate systems. So if we’re looking at the threats our oceans are facing– from overfishing to the destruction of our coral reefs to ocean acidification to ocean warming to plastics and other types of marine debris that are in our oceans– we’ve got some really major challenges ahead of us.
And they’re challenges that can also become opportunities if we actually know how to grow new products within our oceans that can feed billions of people. We’ve got the ability to provide a contribution if we figure out how to protect our corals and develop types of sea lettuce that can help mitigate the effects of ocean acidification. So there is a huge challenge with our oceans in terms of the problems we need to solve, but also an amazing opportunity to build entirely new, greener economies– or I would say bluer economies– around our planet.
As the Blue Economy Challenge application period draws to a close, do you have any messages for teams that are finishing up their applications?
I want people to really push the boundaries on their ideas. We are looking for the most transformative ideas that can be implemented in the developing world.
They don’t have to be simple ideas. They don’t have to be ‘appropriate’ technology. They can be world-class technology, but it is a design factor of how it would work in the Indian Ocean, how it works in the developing world, where 90% of our aquaculture happens.
What we’re doing is not just making incremental advancements. We want to make advancements in terms of aquaculture, in terms of feed, around systems design, and around new oceans products that can revolutionise aquaculture. We want those advances to have business models behind them that allow them to be sustained and scaled, and we’ll help those innovations get to scale. So we’re looking for your best possible ideas and your most transformative ones, the ones that will actually make the most change on this planet.
Good luck to all the teams. We’ve had an amazing response so far, and one of the things we’re excited to do is get a snapshot of the innovators that are out there and see how we can support the entire community. Thank you for applying, and thank you for your best ideas.