IUCN at 60 finally crosses the ‘Other Digital Divide’…

This news just came in, from IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature:
“Gland, Switzerland, 29 January 2009 (IUCN) – The world’s oldest and largest environmental organization is launching a new opinion page on its website, starting today with an article on President Obama written by IUCN’s President, Mr. Ashok Khosla.”

The press release quoted Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN as saying: “Because we are a science-based organization and because we are also a membership organization, we tend to avoid controversies. While we, as an organization, will maintain our scientific rigor and strict neutrality in defending nature conservation, we wanted to provide our experts and members a space to freely express themselves, get feedback from a wide audience and generate informed debates around the big issues of our time.”

Intrigued, I quickly looked up the new Opinion page, and found this welcome note from Mario Laguë, its Head of Global Communications: “IUCN is an organization that built its enviable reputation on science and on the contributions of all its members. This combination of the need for both accuracy and democratic legitimacy can at times slow down our capacity to react to current events or to express opinions that are not ‘official positions’. While it is clear that the views expressed on this page are not necessarily those of IUCN, we expect them to be in accordance with its vision of ‘a just world that values and conserves nature’.

This isn't quite what IUCN would approve, but still an interesting idea...
Not quite what IUCN would approve, but still an interesting idea...
This is what I would call cautious engagement, but it’s certainly a welcome move. The first contribution to the Opinions page is an article by Dr Ashok Khosla, President of IUCN, titled ‘A new President for the United States: We have a dream’. In his characteristic analytical and perceptive style, Ashok sums up the promise the new US administration holds for pursuing the conservation agenda worldwide.

The opinions page allows comments by readers — moderated, and limited to 300 characters per comment, just enough to make a point briefly. Two days after the Khosla essay was posted online, it had attracted four comments…or at least that many were approved by people at IUCN headquarters who review comments.

Beyond these specifics, the launch of an interactive opinions page marks a new era for IUCN which brings together over 1,000 governments, state agencies and non-governmental organisations committed to preserving life on Earth. It signifies that the alliance as a whole is finally crossing what I have called the ‘Other Digital Divide’ — the one that separates the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

I’m delighted to see IUCN belatedly crossing this divide, which I’ve been advocating for some time. In September 2007, participating in IUCN’s Fourth Asian Conservation Forum in Kathmandu, Nepal, I argued that scientific merit and rational (and often very articulate) reasoning alone won’t win them enough new converts to achieve significant changes in lifestyles, attitudes and practices needed to change business as usual.

I said: “To be heard and heeded in the real world outside the charmed development and conservation circles, we need to employ a multitude of platforms, media and ICT tools.”

I added: “IUCN and other conservationists, with their rigorous scientific analysis expressed in technical papers, print publications and the occasional op ed article in broadsheet newspapers, have to navigate in this whirlpool (of new media) — and it’s not easy. But their choice is between engagement and marginalisation. The planet cannot afford the latter.

“I’m not suggesting that conservation scientists and organisations must drop their traditional advocacy methods and rush to embrace the new ICT tools. But they need to survey the new media landscape with an open mind and identify opportunities to join the myriad global conversations.”

It takes time to turn around a large ship like IUCN, but they have been trying. For example, in September 2008, days before its World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain, IUCN launched its own YouTube channel to share its videos online. Four months later, viewing numbers for the three dozen short videos posted are still in double digits, but a start has been made.

So it’s good to have the grand old lady of global conservation enter the endlessly chatty, cacophonic world of web 2.0. Let’s hope she won’t remain too aloof or elite (what I call the ‘broadsheet newspaper mentality’ when much of the world has gone tabloid or ‘compact’), or try to be too prim and proper in expressing her own views. The conversations online tend to evolve fast, and can sometimes be rough, spontaneous or unpredictable. Excessive moderating can leave out the passion and rhetoric that drive some discussions – sanitising is not recommended except to avoid libel and slander. These attributes can be very disconcerting to well-established organisations that have so far carefully managed their corporate communications. Engaging new media requires losing a good part of that control.

But as our friends in Gland have now recognised, it’s no longer a choice – but an imperative.

September 2007 blog post: Crossing the Other Digital Divide – Challenge to Conservation Community

August 2008 blog post: Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0!

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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