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New Research Examines What Makes Conservation Go Viral

February 28, 2018

Led by Conservation International’s senior social scientist, Mike Mascia, the paper finds that applying “Diffusion of Innovation Theory” — which explains how and why innovations become widely adopted — has the potential to help conservation initiatives spread more rapidly with longer-lasting impacts at less cost. Diffusion of Innovation Theory has been widely applied to medicine, business, agriculture and other sectors, but the paper is the first to apply the theory to conservation.

“In the last decade alone, billions of dollars have been invested in conservation around the world, to varying degrees of success. But occasionally, an initiative 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 initiatives?” said Mascia. “If we can understand what combination of factors catalyze conservation at scale, we have a better shot of replicating this process in the future.”

Using examples of conservation initiatives launched in Tanzania and the Pacific, Mascia and co-author Morena Mills (Imperial College London) identified three key factors that can determine whether or not a conservation project goes viral.

  • Conservation initiatives are more likely to spread rapidly when the project is simple, observable to others, consistent with social beliefs and values, and is appropriate to the local context.
  • Initiatives are more likely to spread when the adopters have high social status, are well-connected to the outside world and each other, have the ability to innovate without government or industry interference and are competing with others.
  • Lastly, conservation is more likely to go viral when it’s suitable to the geographic, cultural, and policy contexts or an enabling policy environment is created.

“If we are to slow down the rampant destruction of natural resources, we have to radically change how we think about and develop conservation projects — our research helps us do that,” said Mills.

The findings provide critical new insight for conservation scientists, policymakers and donors to catalyze conservation at scale — and to do so at less cost and with longer-lasting impacts.


About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about Conservation International and its groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign, and follow Conservation International’s work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.