What tech innovation teaches us about breaking down barriers to creativity in America’s conservation policies

Around the world, “regulatory sandboxes”—flexible testing grounds for new innovations—are opening the door to speedier adoption of new technology that has enabled solar energy trades among neighbors, bank accounts for homeless people, and mobile platforms to buy and track insurance for mosquito-borne disease. What makes a sandbox unique is that it grants a temporary exemption from old regulations that impede new tech, but in a way that controls the risk for consumers. We think adopting a sandbox approach to conservation could foster a creative culture to help speed up environmental restoration.

The basic premise is this: our planet is in peril but we aren’t moving fast enough to save it. Ponderous regulatory systems and older generations of bureaucrats aren’t keeping up with fast pace of new technologies, tools, and products. Rather than simply accept this regulatory status quo, we believe in the need to find, nurture, and learn from new concepts even when it means deliberately breaking old rules. 

The sandbox approach has taken off around the world, especially in financial tech and energy services. Over 20 countries have adopted some form of fintech or energy regulatory sandbox.

  • The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has two sandbox-like initiatives. They issue regulatory waivers for trials of financial disclosures that aim to improve the delivery of information. Second, they host a sandbox to allow testing of new consumer financial products and services.
  • Singapore has developed an energy regulatory sandbox that allows testing of new approaches to energy efficiency in power generation, energy storage, demand management and electricity futures.
  • The UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem, created and staffs a new sandbox for energy innovation.  An example project accepted into the sandbox involves an energy company piloting neighbor-to-neighbor trading of power using blockchain technology that allows residents in apartment buildings to buy and sell power to each other through the work of Repowering London. 
  • Most European Union countries have established ‘innovation facilitators’ for Fintech, a government office that serves as a point of contact for innovators to get non-binding guidance and problem solving assistance from the appropriate regulatory agency and where staff exclusively focus on this problem-solving and collaboration role, rather than filling both a regulatory and facilitation role.  Five of these countries have regulatory sandboxes that work in concert with the innovation facilitators. 
  • In March of 2018, Arizona became the first U.S. state to enact regulatory sandbox legislation for the fintech industry. Arizona’s first approved sandbox participant is testing technology that allows hotel and spa guests to pay for services via their bank account on a mobile phone, without credit cards.

Building on the ideas of other sandboxes, we can open the door to new conservation approaches. We can do a better job of recognizing where outdated environmental laws are lacking and look for ways to launch transformation. If the regulatory structure is not helping us restore species or habitat, testing new approaches that incorporate the latest technology, even if they don’t fit under current regulation, is worth trying. Next month we’ll share our report on Sandboxing Nature and we’ll look forward to new collaboration and discussion to bring innovation to conservation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *