Scope of Research

Our future as the human species is fundamentally entwined with the fate of the world’s biodiversity as we are beholden to the ecosystem services which sustain our lives and societies (Figgis et al, 2012 [19]).

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Rachel Carson, Environmental Activist & Author of Silent Spring [20]

I spent 7 years involved in various roles in the environmental sector in Malaysia, Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Having spent time and energy immersed in the sector, I was acutely aware of the sense of inertia that so many people involved in conservation felt - that despite investing so much energy, we were not winning the struggle to save and restore biodiversity.

The current state of biodiversity loss in New Zealand is acknowledged by the Department of Conservation as continuing on a downward trend despite the Biodiversity Strategy 2000-2020 [21].

“Despite the importance of biodiversity and a range of actions under the current strategy, our management methods have not halted the decline. Over 4000 indigenous species are now threatened or at risk of extinction.”

Figure 1

Australia’s efforts are no better. In the Australian Government’s 2016 State of the Environment Report [22], it was found:

“The outlook for Australian biodiversity is generally poor, given the current overall poor status, deteriorating trends and increasing pressures. Our current investments in biodiversity management are not keeping pace with the scale and magnitude of current pressures.”

At the frontlines of the effort to conserve and restore biodiversity in Australia and New Zealand is the environmental conservation sector. The sector is made up of people in public, private, NGO and community organisations and individuals, actively involved in restoration planting, predator control, species translocation, weed control, breeding programs, environmental education and more. Whilst this sector is not the only one which has responsibilities and resources to tackle biodiversity loss, it is the one which has the strongest mandate to explicitly address it, and thus is where I have focused the majority of my research.

I focus initially on community-based conservation responses for two main reasons; firstly, there is evidence to suggest that community-based responses are more resilient than institutional responses(Schleicher et al, 2017 [23]; Brooks et al, 2013 [24]). Secondly, community-based responses tend towards greater citizen participation, which also addresses some of the additional challenges around nature disconnection and physical separation.

The findings of New Zealand Researcher and Practitioner, Dr. Monica Peters, have been particularly influential. Peters’ PhD thesis on the ecology of community environmental groups [25] provided both baseline information and provocation for lines of enquiry into increasing the impact of conservation projects

As evidenced by the ‘New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy 2000-2020’ and ‘Australia State of the Environment 2016’ reports, despite progress in various aspects of environmental management such as species trans-locations, improved predator control traps, and ecological restoration planning, the conservation sector has become a stuck system which is not meeting the local or global scale of the problem, including addressing the underlying causes of the challenges we face.

To address the sprawling, and seemingly intractable challenges outlined here, my project focused on developing a targeted systems change initiative which identifies systemic causes and barriers to change, and devises interventions to improve the health and outcomes of the system.

In the RSA’s recent report “From Design Thinking to Systems Change[26], they outline various barriers to diffusion of design-led projects into existing systems. The report finds that “Social innovators should be constantly looking to supplement market making activities... with other interventions aimed at preparing the system to support the innovation”. To that end, I concentrate on practical outcomes which have the possibility for immediate adoption, and the potential for sustaining the outcomes long enough to realise impact.

My approach is targeted systems change, not transformational systems change.

The idea of targeted systems change was introduced in a 2018 article by Odin Mühlenbein [27], as small, yet systematically-focused contributors to ‘big vision’ transformational change. Mühlenbein indicates these activities as easier to develop strategies for, and potentially more effective when working towards larger transformational change. This perspective is also mirrored in arguments put forward in “Against Big Bets” (Kramer, 2017 [28]) and “Wheeling in the Trojan Mice” (Mahendra, 2016 [29]), which represent a shifting narrative about how we understand systems change in society.

The ‘Design for Interactions Framework’ introduced by Carnegie Mellon Design School weaves complexity science, systems and social change, into a proposed spectrum of emerging design disciplines. Given my approach of targeted systems change to affect significant change, I locate my work in the Design for Social Innovation discipline.