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Study: To make conservation go ‘viral,’ keep it simple, social

What makes a video go “viral”? What makes people stand in line for hours to buy a new smartphone or eat at a hip restaurant?

And what does any of that have to do with conservation?

A new study suggests that some of the same features that make a new gadget popular, such as simplicity, visibility and utility, also affect the rate at which conservation initiatives are adopted and spread.

The research, published today in the journal Conservation Letters, suggests that studying how and why conservation efforts are adopted — a concept called “diffusion of innovation theory” — can help them have more rapid and longer-lasting impacts at less cost.

Human Nature spoke with Mike Mascia, senior social scientist at Conservation International and the study’s lead author.

Question: Virality isn’t something we necessarily associate with the environment — usually it’s in the context of a video on social media. How did you come up with the idea to pair the two?

Answer: In the last decade alone, billions of dollars have been invested in conservation around the world, to varying degrees of success. But occasionally, an approach to helping the environment will “go viral,” meaning it achieves widespread adoption rapidly, having a major impact on both people and the environment across a large area. So we wondered: Why those projects? If we can understand what combination of factors drive conservation at scale, we have a better shot of replicating this process in the future.

Q: What factors did you look at to determine if an approach had “gone viral”?

A: We looked at conservation efforts in Tanzania and the Pacific through the lens of “diffusion of innovation” theory and research, which has found that adoption of innovative ideas, tools and approaches is heavily influenced by three things: the characteristics of the innovation itself, the characteristics of prospective adopters of that innovation, and the broader social and environmental context. And when we looked at community-based approaches to conservation in Tanzania and the Pacific, these same factors made the difference between approaches that went viral and those that fizzled out early or just limped along.

Our research is in its early stages, but it suggests that widespread, rapid adoption of new approaches to conservation is more likely where the “innovation” is simple, superior to the status quo, observable to others, consistent with societal beliefs and values, and can be tried and tweaked to fit the local context. Moreover, diffusion is more likely where the initial adopters have high social status, are well-connected to the outside world and to each other, have the ability to innovate without interference and are competing with others. Lastly, diffusion is most likely in supportive geographic, cultural and policy contexts — or where policies are created to support the conservation intervention, if these policies aren’t already present.

Q: If we know this, isn’t it possible to make every conservation effort go viral?

A: There are too many variables to ensure everything goes viral, but certainly we can do a better job of advancing rapid, widespread adoption of new (and old) approaches to conservation.

For example, thoughtful monitoring and communication efforts can play a critical role: Measuring the benefits of a new approach, relative to the status quo, and raising awareness of these benefits among prospective adopters, would provide critical information and would help to spur adoption. Working with well-connected and highly respected leaders might overcome other barriers. And, perhaps most importantly, working with government officials to create the supportive policy environment is critical to widespread, rapid uptake. We sometimes take these steps through luck or trial-and-error, but we can be far more intentional about our approach to implementation and scaling.

Q: Can this concept be applied to existing projects or just new projects?

A: It’s easier to imagine integrating these insights into the design of a new program, as one is developing and implementing a strategy for rolling out and scaling a new approach to conservation. But it’s possible to tweak — or even overhaul — an existing strategy to accelerate uptake and expand our reach. This research is the first step in understanding exactly how to do that.

Q: What does this mean for the state of conservation efforts worldwide?

A: We have been treating the implementation and scaling of our interventions as a non-scientific arena, solely the domain of professional experience and judgment, which has led to costly and sometimes ineffective trial-and-error strategies. If we embrace the massive scientific evidence on the diffusion of innovations, we have the potential to dramatically reshape the practice of conservation — and to deliver more rapid and longer-lasting impacts at less cost.

Mike Mascia is Conservation International’s senior director of social science. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.

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