9 Reflections from the UN Ocean Conference

After four days of attending panels and listening to delegates debate policy, it was reassuring that everyone recognises the scale of the threat facing our oceans.

It was also clear that everyone recognises that we need to do more than just “talk the talk” and that the continued commitments need to be backed up by action. However, what I heard almost nothing about was solutions.

Despite the countless positive policy commitments and extensive talk about the need for more data and more tech solutions, I can count on one hand the number of technology innovators who were given a seat on stage to showcase their solutions and even fewer who announced funding, pilots, or engagements.

So, whilst Lisbon was successful in uniting opinion and vision – the hard work starts now. With that in mind, here are my 9 reflections from a week in the beautiful city of Lisbon:

1. Entrepreneurs are the “How”

I’m going to steal my first reflection from Sindre Østgård, Chair of Katapult, “entrepreneurs and startups are the How.”

I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek’s golden circle and starting with the Why? But in this instance, most attendees appreciate the What and Why; we need to fully protect a minimum of 30% of the oceans by 2030, alongside full monitoring and protection.

What is missing is the “How”. If I needed validation that ACUA Ocean’s vessel was part of the solution, I received it in every session.

And so, while policymakers talk the talk – entrepreneurs need to get acting. For a real and lasting change, we need scalable technology solutions and the funding to build and operate them.

2. We need more Katapults and fewer generic accelerators

This one might be controversial but I disagree with the idea that we need loads more incubators and accelerators. What we need is more Katapults'.

Early-stage startups need fewer lectures on business model canvases, fewer talks about IP and taxes – they need more investors ready to write the first cheque, they need more “tough love” and more commercial introductions. We’ve valued every accelerator we’ve been through – but Katapult Ocean was simply a class apart.

3. Scientific evidence is key to validation

Christian Lim from SWEN Capital Partners scores a double mention in this category. His focus at the 1000 Ocean Startups event on being led by science-based priorities; and using scientific evidence to validate the impact of the outcomes was spot-on.

Importantly, SWEN and the 1000 Ocean Startups team have put this into action with the Ocean Impact Navigator tool that looks to standardise the reporting of impact KPIs and metrics. As ACUA moves to implement ISO14001 and explores BCorp status we aim to incorporate the Impact Navigator into our core reporting metrics. Check it out here.

4. Corporates are not onboard

The absence of large corporations from the event was eye-opening. Out on the frontline, amongst startups, NGOs, and community projects there was not a sign of them - anywhere.

It was not a surprise to then learn that only 3 of the world’s largest tourism companies have adopted UN commitments to plastic, and almost none have SDG14-specific policies or commitments.

Analysis commissioned by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy (Ocean Panel) shows that every $1 invested in sustainable ocean solutions yields at least $5 in return. Given this ROI it is surprising to see that more capital is not spent on marine monitoring and protection, and the little that is through philanthropy and spread amongst a diaspora of NGOs operating at relatively small scale in the ocean context.

5. Policy makers obsess (and celebrate) over the micro details

With most policy-makers talking a lot about the need for less talk and more action, it was no surprise that there were alarmingly few success stories. The same story about surfboards that were to be made from sustainable materials was rolled out in event after event.

I’m not sure how big a problem surfboard waste is…but I’m pretty sure that this is not the most important solution to the ocean's biggest challenges. Where are the conversations on ghost gear? Or IUU startups and organisations who are developing solutions that could have a major impact on these large scale ocean challenges.

6. We need more platforms

A decade ago data was viewed as the “new oil”…cringe! But the problem with data has always been its relevance and the ability to process actionable insights and increasingly real-time analysis for action and intervention.

Again and again, I heard that there were not enough platforms for data. We need to move towards dual-use platforms and funding models – multi-stakeholder platforms that enable both distributed data collection, but also deterrence and data processing. Data of illegal activities that is collected blind, and processed a month later is of little use – if we are to truly offer full MPA protection we need real-time monitoring.

7. Beyond Net Zero is regeneration

There was a positive recognition of the need to move beyond simply net-zero which gets us nowhere in the long term. The need for regeneration of our oceans, and the solutions to monitor and validate biodiversity regeneration are critical but we need to unlock the funding models, and the impact measurement and scientific validation to demonstrate that protection is having a positive impact.

And for that, we need to invest in technology.

8. Enforcement is key – but how do you protect 70% of the surface of the earth?

Our ocean is large – and therefore expensive to monitor and protect. We ultimately need scalable technology solutions that offer both data collection, impact validation and stricter enforcement of the laws through:

  1. Local enforcement

  2. Supporting global collaboration. There is no point doing one thing in one area when the ocean is the world’s largest inter-connected biosphere

  3. Where outright bans on activities are not possible, then realistic renewable/ sustainable approaches should be taken, and local education provided. Better management and stewardship can come from more data that can enable better decision making and management of activities in the most impactful areas

  4. We need new financial models for incentivisation at all levels of national and local government – developing novel solutions for funding protection and economic development

9. VCs are embracing the blue economy; and ocean impact

A huge congratulations to Faber, Indico Capital, Sustainable Ocean Alliance and Future Planet Capital who have all announced new funds in recent weeks. It’s vital that more capital is deployed directly into the startups that are the answer to “How” we are going to save our oceans and although software is a part of the solution, without investment into hardware solutions we are not going to be able to overcome the challenges or true ocean protection and regeneration.

With these reflections in mind – the answer to “How do we save our ocean” is a jigsaw puzzle with multiple solutions and moving parts. No one technology is the silver bullet solution, but we have a growing belief that ACUA could play a big part of the missing puzzle. Anyone who shares our thinking, we would love to hear from you.