For Earth Day, I will present some open innovation challenges. These challenges may be of interest to game designers, or to anyone interested in disrupting a traditional industry with a new model of user experience, or to anyone studying pheromones, and maybe even an economist studying the economics of land use.

The previous post described the concept of open innovation. Open innovation is not just a practice for companies. It is suitable for non-profit organizations and also for individuals seeking to create solutions.

I’ve been pondering a few ideas for some time that can be linked to Earth Day. If anyone is interested in working with me on these challenges, please get in touch.

I will pick a very focused theme and present three challenges in that context: let’s help bears.

Let’s start with some background information on bears and their plight.

Bear research is increasing due to technology

My knowledge of bears used to be based on what I saw from stereotypical portrayals, which are that they can be extremely dangerous and threatening.

I eventually learned that these were not at all accurate, because there is limited consensus- and scientific knowledge of bears.

For example, a search on ISI Web of Science found that between 1953 to 2002, an average of 1.8 scientific research papers on grizzly bears were published each year worldwide.  This is not enough to build any reliable understanding of grizzly bears, nor to create any policies about them that would yield long-term benefits.

From 2003 to 2012, this average increased to 5.3 research papers per year worldwide. This is a significant change. During this period, specialized research on bears became possible.

This happened because, firstly, there were meaningful advancements in new technologies such as trace chemical analysis, bioanalytical methods, genetic testing, Global Positioning System tools, and digital video. Secondly, these technologies continued to improve, which drove down their cost. These changes allowed these technologies to become important and effective tools for the study of bears.

With this critical mass of activity established, the amount of grizzly bear research surpassed an inflection point in 2013.

Since 2013, the average number of scientific research papers on grizzly bears published each year worldwide increased to 17.8, and the number continues to grow.

It seems most of the negative stereotypes of bears, such as the grizzly bear, are based not on scientific evidence, but on primal fear of a large species with great physical power, and also on some unfortunate human encounters with bears that led to injury or, in rare cases, fatalities. Another negative perspective has been economic, where farmers and ranchers lost livestock to bears, or homeowners faced property damage.

There is plenty of evidence to support that bears are very intelligent and curious. Of all wild animals, young bears are the most persistently playful. Facial communication has been observed in sun bears, and there has been other evidence of bear sociability and sentience, to feel emotions.

As new and improving technologies reveal these new surprises, we have opportunities to learn more about these majestic species and to develop a new, better relationship with them, particularly in frontier regions, and to save them from cruelty, and perhaps even to save them from habitat loss.

There are eight species of bears

This map shows the geographic range of each of the eight species of bears. Note that a koala bear is not a bear.

Each species faces their own difficulties. I won’t cover them all. I will just highlight a few.

Polar bears

Polar bears require sea ice to hunt for their food, which is almost exclusively ringed and beard seals.

Warming temperatures in the arctic have caused the coverage of sea ice to shrink. Worse is that the sea ice retreats sooner in the spring and returns later in the fall, which leaves less time for polar bears to hunt for their food.

A 2013 three-part series called The Polar Bear Family and Me followed the lives of twin super cute cubs and their mother from their birth during spring time. It showed the sea ice retreat faster than expected, before this family could hunt on the sea ice to get a good first meal after waking up from hibernation.

For the rest of the summer, the mother polar bear swam from island to island, with her two cubs in tow, in search of food that was not available.

By late fall, one of the cubs were lost, probably due to starvation.

It was heartbreaking to see the mother polar bear finding plastic garbage washed up on an island and had resorted to eating that plastic out of hunger.

They caught on film the moment when the mother bear no longer had any milk reserves to feed her remaining cub. That little cub stretched out on his back and made a sad-sounding noise.

They later deduced from GPS tracking that this second cub did not make it either.

Bears in Asia

There are three species of bears in Asia. All three face similar difficulties.

The Asiatic black bear, also called the moon bear, has a distinctive white patch on their front in the shape of a V. They are caught and enslaved for life on bear bile farms to harvest gallbladder bile for use in medicines, and also for their body parts.

The sun bear is the smallest bear. They are hunted mainly for their meat and fur and for use in medicines. They are also caught and sold as exotic pets where they endure harsh and debilitating living conditions.

The sloth bear feeds mostly on ants, termites, bees and fruits. They are hunted for sport and for medicine. They are also caught for use as pets or for entertainment as dancing bears on the street. When used in this way, they are fitted with a nose ring to pull them along, their teeth are pulled out to avoid injuring spectators, and they are trained by starvation and beating.

The following account of Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia, helps describe just one of the cruelties faced by these bears:

In 1993, Jill Robinson, having heard of the bear bile industry, decided to visit a bile farm with a group of tourists. What she witnessed shook her to the very core.

The cruelty and abuse that she observed as she walked through dark rooms filled with caged bears was overwhelming. So distressed by what she was seeing, Jill accidentally backed up into one of the cages.

She felt something touching her shoulder, and when she turned around, she saw a moon bear gently pushing its paw through the bars of the cage. The female bear was desperately reaching out to Robinson through the rusty bars, so she held the bear’s paws, looking into the animal’s eyes.

What Robinson saw in the bear’s eyes was complete devastation and despair, and she knew right then and there that her life would never be the same.

“Many seconds passed in that moment, as time really did stand still, and the bear I later called Hong [“bear” in Cantonese] sent the most profound message I have ever heard. As I walked out of the basement, I had a feeling I would never see her again, and I never did,” remembers Robinson.

In 1998, Jill founded Animals Asia, an animal welfare nonprofit dedicated to ending bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals throughout Asia.

To date, Animals Asia has rescued 611 bears. More than 170 bears currently live at the organization’s Bear Rescue Center.

“Every bear’s body tells a story of what they suffered and of the terrible emotional and physical trauma caused by bear bile farming,” says Jill. “But as individuals, they give us hope, too.”

The account is here, and an interview with her is here.

She founded Animals Asia to rescue these bears and to give them a peaceful home for them to live out the rest of their lives.

Grizzly bears

The grizzly bear, also called the brown bear (along with the polar bear) are most iconic.

Their distribution spans North America and Asia and small pockets in Europe.

In places in eastern Europe, these bears are kept in cages as pets or are shown outside of restaurants and amusement parks to attract customers.

Like Animals Asia, there are animal rescues in Europe.

In Canada, British Columbia banned grizzly bear hunting in late 2017. This leaves Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut as the last territories in Canada where grizzly bears can be hunted.

Now, fatalities of grizzly bears in Canada are largely due to collisions with cars or with trains. Bears apparently walk alongside train tracks to forage on grain that falls off railway cars.

In USA, the first large scale hunting of grizzly bears in 43 years outside of Alaska was about to be reopened last year, but was averted at the last minute by a court decision, at least for now.

There is a nonprofit called Vital Ground, founded in 1990, that has a model that I think is still highly innovative.

It is a land trust. It purchases land and it partners with private landowners on conservation agreements. Their projects “keep wild places wild, working lands working, and open spaces open” for the benefit of grizzly bears, people and entire communities.

Its ultimate goal is to build wildlife corridors that allow movement and genetic exchange between bear populations that were once isolated. Their patchwork of land stretches all the way into Canada at the lower Alberta and British Columbia regions.

Grizzly bears are an umbrella species. Such corridors bring benefits to all species within the ecosystem.

Challenge number 1: create a board game with scientific integrity

Donations are the main source of income for these non-profit organizations.

Their online store is a very minor source of fundraising. The gift options are quite limited. Artisan bear-themed jewelry and rustic coffee mugs appear to be the norm.

Last Christmas season, I saw a cat-themed Monopoly game being sold for fund-raising.

This was a direction that appeared to be good idea for an organization like Vital Ground. Vital Ground is, after all, a land trust that purchases tracts of land. Selling a bear themed Monopoly game would also showcase the mission of Vital Ground too. The standard Monopoly properties can be renamed after tracts of land such as the Northern Continental Divide and the Cabinet-Purcell-Selkirk linkage.

However, Monopoly has costly licensing fees. To avoid these fees and produce an even more relevant game, why not create a game from scratch? I was thinking how Settlers of Catan was a simple themed board game, also about resources, that became a massive sleeper hit.

I spoke to the folks at Vital Ground. They like the idea, but they do not have the resources to pay someone to design such a game.

So I need a board game designer.

If you develop a good game, you will make money from the sale of this game.

The initial sales channel will be Vital Ground and a number of other bear conservation organizations. Polar Bears International is another example of an aligned interest in this channel.

For these organizations, it is not just about selling a good product, but also about distributing products that can create a new generation of supporters by educating them on an important issue by using a game that is fun, engaging, and educational.

What does this game look like?

I saw exactly such an example that was profiled in the New York Times recently:

She Invented a Board Game With Scientific Integrity. It’s Taking Off.

How Elizabeth Hargrave turned a passion for ornithology and spreadsheets into a popular game about birds.

I spoke with her too. It appears that game designers are driven by passion for their own game ideas. The game design industry, as big as it is, still has not evolved into a model where designers do contract work.

So that’s why I’m seeking a game designer interested in working together with me and with bear experts to develop a scientifically accurate and educational game.

Challenge number 2: reinvent the concept of the zoo

When was the last time you went to a zoo?

The long walk around the grounds can be exhausting. Depending on the season, the heat or the cold can be uncomfortable. The areas around the most popular animals are often crowded, making it difficult to see anything. Having children in tow adds to the logistical challenges.

How often do you go to the zoo?

Most businesses would like to have loyal customers, but frequent visitors to a zoo are rare.

How about the animals?

I feel sorry for some of them who are kept in captivity. A polar bear in a zoo during a summer heat wave is probably not very comfortable. To be fair, animals in good zoos are treated well, they don’t have to worry about food and predators, and most of them were not captured from the wild to be exhibited in a zoo. However, the premise of exhibiting animals is a tired one.

As for the zoo itself, the grounds and infrastructure are expensive.

I was also surprised to learn that the grizzly bear can be the most expensive animal in a zoo because of the food cost. I guess the exception is if there is a giant panda bear, because the licensing fees and the cost to fly bamboo in to feed them is even higher.

We need a more engaging experience with animals.

Perhaps it can be a mobile, virtual, or augmented experience or, more likely, a combination of live and digital.

This may not even be a “supermarket model” where many animals are in this new zoo.

We need something to bring people back, such as to check on the progress of an animal.

Technology is now allowing ordinary people to engage safely with bears and animals. This amount of engagement is increasing, not just in viewing, but in other ways such as citizen science.

For example, is the world’s leading live nature cam network. Visitors to the website can watch a diverse selection of animals in their habitat in different places around the world, streamed by video live to the comfort of their home or mobile device. The grizzly bear cam on is the website’s most popular live stream. It gets hundreds of thousands of viewers in a matter of hours and several million hits per season. Some viewers spend hours on end watching the bears on this live stream.

This example shows that grizzly bears stimulate an emotional connection with many viewers. What new engagement can we develop that creates a beneficial interaction with the animal’s ecosystem?

The concept of video streaming will probably not be what we want unless it is from a national park.’s bear cam is at Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Otherwise, streaming will be controlled by land rights. Whoever owns the land will own the video streaming rights. This becomes the modern version — the digital version — of a resource extraction business. It’s essentially just a bear (or other animal) viewing business over the internet. I don’t know how such a business model will improve the ecosystem and the environment beyond the land title. An economist looking at how value can be created beyond the land title can add some fundamental insights here. Please get in touch.

We need to be creative and develop a very different model of a “zoo.”

What’s the next better concept? Let’s work on this idea.

The model might not even be of a zoo anymore. It could be in support of an animal rescue facility… or something else.

Challenge number 3: pheromones for animal care or insect control

In a previous post about fragrances, I noted that the biological origin of fragrances is attraction. In some few cases, it is also repulsion. What about applying this to other animals?

I originally thought about pheromones for insect control or to guide beneficial insects to areas where they can do their work. That is still an application.

Since then, I found out about something else, that is sad and disturbing.

There are bear attractant products now sold commercially for hunters to bait bears. Elsewhere in the world, poachers have been reported to be hacking GPS collars to track animals for capture.

How do we help these bears?

Open innovation challenges for Earth Day
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