Guiding data-driven solutions to ocean plastic pollution

August 31, 2020
BY ArOuthwaite

What’s the situation and solutions to ocean plastic pollution in South East Asia?

It’s a question being simultaneously asked by: locals living with the situation, international marine conservation organisations, corporations concerned about the source and destination of their products and packaging, and people like me in Australia who are conscious that often our plastic waste ends up in Asia, then in the ocean to flow back south!

I’ve spent past three months as a Guide and mentor for The Plastics Data Challenge. This post gives an overview of the challenge, program and two startup social ventures I worked with. I also share reflections in the context of my prior experience using incubation of innovations to solve systemic challenges.

We know that annually about 8 million tons of plastic waste enters our ocean, equating to 5 full rubbish bags along every inch of coastline, worldwide. We also know that more 60% of ocean plastics enter the seas from mismanaged waste in five Asian nations. Beyond that are a lot of unknowns, so improving the data available is necessary to improve land-based plastic waste management.

Data and data-driven solutions are the focus of The Incubation Network and Plastics Data Challenge. Both initiatives are driven by The Circulate Initiative and SecondMuse who, together, are acting as catalysts for action and investment in the circular economy and prevention of flow of plastic waste into the world’s ocean.No alt text provided for this image

The Plastics Data Challenge (PDC) invited innovators from across the world (including academic institutions, startups, companies, and data scientists) to submit solutions to address one of three challenge areas. Of the more than ninety submissions received in March, ten were selected as semi-finalists.

The semi-finalists are diverse in every way: geography, gender, solutions, and stages: global approaches to certification based in San Francisco, swarms of trash-collecting robots from Singapore, demand-driven markets for recycled plastics driven from Australia, and consumer products in refillable containers emerging from Indonesia.

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Being a Guide is a fantastic role, especially in such a well-designed program. My role included baseline assessment of venture’s pilot-readiness, facilitating stakeholder mapping, risk assessment and design-thinking exercises, sharing my experience and tools, and coordinating the input from a support team of subject-matter experts and mentors.

After the final six weeks of intense mentoring, fundraising workshops, storytelling training and a fair amount of pivoting and testing, all the teams have now submitted their final proposals. The Finalists will be announced soon and will win support in the form of additional funding, mentoring and technical support to implement their pilots.

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Kabadiwalla Connect, based in Chennai, India is a champion for decentralised waste management solutions and technology for cities in the developing world, powered by the informal sector. They have a range of solutions for business and municipalities and have completed pilot projects across Asia and with corporates such as Unilever and Veolia. Kabadiwalla Connect and their CEO, Siddarth Hande, have been recognised globally as leaders in the data, policy and practical approach to working with the informal sector.

CityCollection, based in Colombo, Sri Lanka uses scalable data-driven technology, including innovative hardware, to incentivise and gamify responsible plastic waste management. They are developing apps, analytics, marketplaces and bins that address gaps and challenges within the existing formal and informal waste management systems. The founding team has been extremely impressive in their technical capabilities, commitment to finding appropriate solutions, and ability to learn and iterate quickly.

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Reflecting on my role and the program, the first thing to say is how rewarding it is to work with talented, driven, ethical innovators in different parts of the Indian Ocean, and how glad I am that things like this are supported. PDC, Ocean Plastic Prevention Accelerator and other programs are inspirational, international and seem effective. Congratulations to the companies and governments, including Australian and Canadian, who fund the programs.

Secondly, I love the intelligent approach to: finding solutions within a well-defined scope, and focusing support on the pilot projects at the same time as the ventures themselves, and using a collaborative, pilot-focused approach grows the intelligence of a whole sector. While this wider system-scale learning is often an aspiration of other accelerator, challenge or hackathon programs, TIN and PDC actually operationalise this well. The design, focus of support, structure of activities, and ethic of engaging with innovators and other stakeholders all enable this wider learning, and document it for sharing more widely.

Thirdly, much of the design and facilitation reminded me of "Spark Challenge" and "EQUAL Invest" which I worked on in 2009. The point being that some lessons about 'what makes a good one' don't change much over time: the article I wrote in 2009, still seems true, demonstrably so in PDC and yet is still often not a design feature of other similar programs:

"...these programs work best when they encourage collaboration rather than competition, and where unfamiliar allies must cooperate, or at least be aware of each other’s role, if they are to affect a shift in strategies across a sector. This type of change is not simply about changing what things are done, but for what purpose, by whom, how, and at what scale."

The approach to finding where each innovation may best fit in the supply chain and geographically also aligns with more abstract principles of 'incubation facilitation' as I articulated more recently in this conference paper.

Through For Blue we are working on several aligned collaborative initiatives to grow innovations for our oceans, from Western Australia. Please get in touch if you’d like to:

  • Connect with the team from PDC, TIN or any of the semi-finalists,
  • Connect with local people and initiatives in this area in WA,
  • Discuss how a "Guide" can help grow your, or your sectors, ocean innovations,
  • Get assistance designing programs to accelerate solutions to systemic challenges.
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