#XYNTEOLIFE: Saving the planet's coral reef ecosystem

8 Jun 2019

On World Oceans Day, we caught up with James Beresford (Principal and Program Manager of The Leadership Vanguard), who partnered with Mahima Sukhdev (Principal and Director of Methods and Tools), on a project aiming to turn the tide on the catastrophic loss of our global coral reef ecosystem. They won the 2018 XPrize Visioneering Award, having designed a competitive prize fund that will incentivise the development of solutions to promote coral survival around the globe.

"For the first time in history, we're facing the loss of a global ecosystem, the equivalent of losing all rainforests on the planet." This is the stark reality described by James when asked to paint a picture of the crisis facing our oceans.

So, what was the motivation behind entering the global competition to design a prize fund? "My sister is a scientist working in the Seychelles, and after watching her painstakingly restore coral reefs by hand, I realised how efforts to restore coral just can't keep pace with the rate at which coral are dying because of climate change. If we are going to keep up with the rate of coral loss, we need to restore two football fields of coral reefs every minute globally. We currently restore maybe ten football fields of coral reefs a year. Despite the best intentions of many passionate scientists and practitioners, we are completely failing to save this ecosystem of global importance. Most critically, all coral restoration efforts will be pointless unless we get the climate crisis under control by 2050 – staying within 1.5C of warming – only then do we have a fighting chance, and even still we have to actively intervene."

Mahima, like James, is an avid scuba diver, and built a deep passion for the ocean whilst snorkeling and diving around the world since she was a teenager. During her undergraduate degree, she spent a semester studying coastal ecology in Zanzibar and wrote her final thesis on coral reef management. "What gives us hope is that there are so many creative scientific ideas out there, exceptional engineers who know how to scale them, and funding from government and philanthropic organisations, that combined, have the potential to bring radical and impactful solutions to life," she said.

There's a lot of synergy between the way in which Xynteo works with clients to solve complex issues, using bespoke methods and tools like systems thinking, and the approaches required to tackle the global loss of coral reefs. "The coral reef problem is a global, systemic one – the Earth system is tipping to a state which is inhospitable for coral reefs. Even on a local scale for example, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, we are talking about a single coral system the size of Italy! Shifting a system of this kind is incredibly complex and uncertain, and requires careful testing of many levels of interventions, from the level of genes, up to whole populations of corals," James commented. "There is no silver bullet solution, as these are complex, dynamic systems.

There are a number of interventions to try, and you can only find out which will succeed by continuously monitoring the impact and evaluating and adapting the management approach over time. This relates to the systems-thinking and design-thinking approach that we are fostering through the Leadership Vanguard – developing a leadership skillset that encourages working with complex systems through multiple interventions and rapid feedback loops, rather than oversimplifying or ignoring them."

So how can systems thinking be applied to avoiding the very near extinction of the world's tropical coral reefs? "We need collaboration, cross-sector leadership and a new level of rapid experimentation, first in safe spaces where the risks are low, and then in the field only where the risks are mitigated to a higher degree, because, put simply, we won't know the impact of the solutions until we try them."

We need scientists, governments, bold philanthropists and particularly the tourism and fishing industries to come together with real determination to solve this hugely complex and urgent challenge. "There have been thousands of small experiments. What we haven't had is visionary, long term, patient investment and funding to bring these interventions to scale for meaningful impact," James added. "We have the ideas but they are currently languishing in laboratories or tiny field trials. We urgently need greater courage, imagination and creative collaboration to test and then scale these ideas to save our coral reefs."