What makes conservation go viral?


A green iguana on palm leaves

New research probes how some conservation schemes achieve success, ensuring they are taken up by local populations.

Despite billions of dollars invested, getting conservation projects to take off remains a challenge for donors and practitioners.

In a new paper published today in Conservation Letters, scientists from Imperial College London and Conservation International examined what makes some conservation projects take off, while others falter.

The team found that applying 'diffusion of innovation theory' - which explains how and why innovations become widely adopted - can help conservation initiatives spread more rapidly.

Diffusion of innovation theory has been applied widely applied to medicine, business, agriculture and other sectors, but the paper is the first to apply the theory to the spread of conservation projects.

Coauthor Dr Mike Mascia, Conservation International's senior social scientist, said: "In the last decade alone, billions of dollars have been invested in conservation projects around the world, to varying degrees of success. But occasionally, a project 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 lead to success on that scale, we have a better shot of replicating it in the future."

The team looked at examples of conversation projects in Tanzania, involving forest and wildlife management, and locally managed marine management projects in the Pacific. They identified three key factors that can determine whether or not a conservation project goes viral. A project is more likely to spread if:

  • it is simple, observable to others, consistent with social beliefs and values, and is appropriate to the local context;
  • 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; and
  • it is suitable to the geographic, cultural, and policy contexts or an enabling policy environment is created.  

Coauthor Dr Morena Mills from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial said: "Many organisations promoting sustainability and biodiversity conservation interventions struggle to get them implemented, but we believe we can learn from past interventions to accelerate the spread of new ones.

"We hope our research will help make biodiversity conservation projects simpler to engage with, more attuned to people's desires, and more responsive to their cultural and political environment."

The authors say that 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.


'When conservation goes viral: The diffusion of innovative biodiversity conservation policies and practices' by Mascia MB, and Mills M., is published in Conservation Letters.

See the press release of this article


Hayley Dunning

Hayley Dunning
Communications Division

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2412
Email: h.dunning@imperial.ac.uk

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