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How Ruth Gates used social design to protect the coral reefs

Adapted from "The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing the Creative Potential of Social Design" by Cheryl Heller (Island Press, 2018).

Note: Dr. Ruth Gates died on October 25th of this year. She was a brilliant scientist, an indefatigable activist, and an infectious joy to be with. We trust that her pioneering work protecting the coral reefs of the world will be continued by her extraordinary team, but know life will never be the same.

With more species per square yard than the most robust tropical rain forests, coral reefs take up less than 1 percent of ocean floor but support more than 25 percent of marine life. They are the nurseries of the ocean, and without them, the entire marine ecosystem would collapse. In addition to their importance to the environment, the global financial value of coral reefs is $9.9 trillion. They provide services through tourism and recreation, coastal protection, fisheries, and biodiversity valued at $29.8 billion. Coral reefs are essential to the economies and livelihoods of 94 countries. In particular, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, when healthy, is responsible for an estimated 53,800 full-time jobs.

But the situation is dire. Fifty percent of the planet’s coral reefs, vast edifices that have persisted for more than 200 million years, have been destroyed in the past three decades by modifications in the oceans due to climate change. All indications are of escalation. There is no coordinated effort in the works at a scale that can stop the abnormal fluctuations in ocean temperature and increasing acidity that are destroying the reefs. Ruth Gates, director of the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, has discovered what may be a solution.

It requires her to prove a complicated scientific theory in a way that will gain the respect and acceptance of her exacting scientific peers, even as she goes against the deeply ingrained rules of scientific behavior. In both aspects of her endeavor, she is doing the unthinkable: breeding a "supercoral" that can withstand the effects of climate change while breaking the silos of scientific protocol to engage nonscientists in a global collaborative effort. Whereas most research scientists are satisfied with learning from their experiments, Gates has an agenda: an audacious vision to save the planet’s coral reefs.

Like all contemporary environmental scientists, Gates is preoccupied with the planetary emergency brought on by climate change — in her case, for corals: animals so mysterious and complex that they may never be fully understood, and so vital to life in the ocean that we cannot survive without them.

Climate change is the most crowded and contentious issue of the moment. It is one that governments, conservationists, business leaders, nongovernmental organizations, activist groups, politicians and millions of other scientists have taken up, each faction working independently from within the silo of its prescribed role. Gates’s own male-dominated métier of academic research is constricted by narrow rules of engagement and the carefully prescribed scientific process. It’s filled with competition among peers, storm front–sized egos and invisible boundaries intended to keep science more pure than the messy human society beyond it.

But Gates’s purpose forces her to question all of these assumptions and toss the outdated ones. In an area in which so many people are at odds, she wants to bring them together, and she is using the power of relationships and a shared vision to accomplish that. She has become a networker and somewhat of an activist. In a high-stakes balancing act, she is juggling a scientist’s responsibility to provide irrefutable evidence of what can be repeatedly proven with a social designer’s need to help people imagine possibilities that do not quite yet exist.

Gates is juggling a scientist’s responsibility to provide irrefutable evidence with a social designer’s need to help people imagine possibilities that do not quite yet exist.
Gates is asking questions here as well, not about why reefs are failing but about why some corals survive. She observed, after watching a series of severe bleaching events, or thermal anomalies, as she calls them, that not all corals died. Some were robust enough to tolerate hostile conditions better than others. Within large swaths of dead reefs, Gates discovered some hardy individuals that had survived. The question that drives her now is why this is so. "That is the story of my life," she says.

In the answers she’s finding, Gates sees an opportunity to save coral reefs — to develop a superspecies through selective breeding that can withstand the threatening conditions that will undoubtedly escalate over the next 10 years. But she also sees the larger context and knows that science is only one piece of the puzzle required to succeed. She knows that the world beyond her team and partners needs to join the effort. Her vision is to engage diverse people and align their efforts toward a higher goal, and that vision has driven her efforts as a social designer. Just as Jeffrey Brown uses a grocery empire as his way to address the systemic causes of poverty, Gates is using scientific research as the means to accomplish her goal of marshaling forces and voices well beyond the scientific world to help corals, the ocean’s most important residents, survive climate change.

Work in the water

Corals are intricate creatures: animals that have a symbiotic relationship with the tiny photosynthesizing algae, called dinoflagellates, that live within them and serve as an in-house factory for their food. A microscopic view reveals what seem like individual but synchronized personalities: during the day, the animal rests while the microalgae photosynthesize; at night, while the plants sleep, the animal comes to life — expanding its millions of armlike polyps with tentacles and stinging cells to catch anything that swims by. When ocean temperatures spike (called bleaching events), either the coral discards its algae or the algae choose to leave. Whatever the cause, without its food source, the coral dies. The result is a reef white in color instead of brown, except for the few hardy corals Gates discovered that are able to survive.

On Moku o Lo'e (Coconut Island), in O'ahu’s Kāne'ohe Bay, Gates and her team at Gates Coral Lab search for the biological dynamics that cause this massive variation. By sequencing the genomes of the bay’s five principal coral species, they hope to identify the genes that determine adaptability. As with humans, Gates says, coral’s vitality depends on its own genes, the genes of its partner (the algae) and the environmental context in which it lives.

Within all these variables, the quest is to cultivate, through selective breeding, a supercoral that can withstand warmer, more acidic conditions. The next task is to determine whether these supercorals can be used to restore damaged and fragmented reefs, increase the resilience of vulnerable reefs, and "green" the enormous seawalls formed by cement being poured into the oceans in an effort to protect shores from the escalating impact of tropical storms (the work that healthy reefs used to do).

She and her team use 'tools drawn from the fields of molecular biology, developmental genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, organismal physiology and ecology.'
Even in her rigorous scientific experimentation, Gates steps over traditional boundaries, thinking like a social designer as well as a scientist. She and her team use "tools drawn from the fields of molecular biology, developmental genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, organismal physiology and ecology."

Twenty researchers in her lab create tens of thousands of corals, taking the very fittest individuals on the reef and deliberately creating unions. A severe bleaching event in the bay provided real-time evidence of hardiness and allowed them to tag thousands of corals that didn’t respond negatively to stress. Now the lab’s nurseries contain juvenile corals selectively bred from the most robust parentage. The researchers induce acclimatization based on the principle that "what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger," in the hope of causing epigenetic change (changes in gene function that don’t involve change in DNA sequence) in future generations. Gates thinks of it as bumping it up, giving the corals a bit of stress, making them run on a treadmill. The researchers use simulated future ocean conditions to evaluate tolerance. Against the accelerating clock of climate change, they race to work with generations of a species that releases its eggs and sperm to reproduce only once a year.

Gates reached her transformational moment after years of relatively isolated intellectual freedom in academia, which she extended through four postdoctoral research fellowships. It came in the form of a wake-up call to the hollowness of a claim she (and many of her colleagues) automatically tacked onto the closing of their research papers but never bothered to investigate.

She recognized and questioned the assumptions that had been automatic and invisible: one of the first stages in the process of social design.
"I was writing this expression over and over again," she said: "This work has direct relevance to conservation and management of coral reefs." "How many times, really, Ruth," she asked herself, "have you written that statement? And do you really have any idea what research would be relevant?" In that moment, she knew it was time to leave the theoretical realm of academia and step out into the real world. "Scientists are really good at observing," she says, "but not good at acting." She recognized and questioned the assumptions that had been automatic and invisible: one of the first stages in the process of social design.

Since childhood, Gates has been drawn to the mysteries of the ocean. Her fascination with the televised world of star diver Jacques Cousteau triggered a desire to conduct her own exploration of the seas, and that grew into a relentless quest for deeper knowledge of them. For all that she has accomplished in a lifetime of scientific study, though, it is her compulsion to turn her knowledge into action that drives her to take on the challenge of convincing people from other milieus to join her cause.

Work on the ground

Gates’s next act illustrates a key principle of social design: collaboration and net-worked cocreation. In late September 2012, with the help of some academic friends and drawing on an idea she had, to use networks to activate science, she put together a workshop of unusual participants. In addition to scientists, she invited a group of managers and conservation professionals, challenging them to arrive at a common answer to the question she posed: "What should science be doing in the conservation of coral reefs?"

It was a learning experience for everyone, beginning with how much about the other participants’ ways of thinking they didn’t know. Gates says she didn’t understand the language of conservation, or of management, the decision trees and timelines that were so different from those she used. As it always does in social design, the process became the strategy: mapping and listening, uncovering divergent perspectives, was in itself the beginning of the solution.

In their time together, group members discovered they had conflicting needs regarding how to balance urgency with action, given that, in their respective fields,  different certainties of outcome are required in advance. Where scientists learn to be comfortable not knowing how an experiment will go (the reason why, after all, it’s called an experiment), people whose job is to manage the expectations of others within an organization, or among the public, need to be certain of what they can deliver before they promise it.

Therefore, some in the group argued for immediate action to acquire the necessary evidence to take the next step, and others wanted hard evidence before they would act or would even be comfortable talking about it.

Different habits of language surfaced that distorted understanding and, in turn, complicated collaboration.
Different habits of language surfaced that distorted understanding and, in turn, complicated collaboration. For example, "assisted evolution" makes sense to scientists but leaves conservationists cold; "building resilience" makes sense to conservationists but is too vague for scientists and managers. Bureaucrats can get behind only the idea of "climate optimization." In communicating openly and comparing their different habits of language, the participants identified the values they share.

By the end of the workshop, the group had created a vision composed of eight projects critical to the conservation and management of coral reefs. Gates took on the most audacious one, and the riskiest, even though it was also the one based on a proven theory from Charles Darwin himself.

As Darwin argued when making the case for his theory of evolution through natural selection, whether it’s for sweeter corn, blight-free tomatoes, faster horses, fancier chickens or better bird dogs, humans have been selectively breeding plants and domesticated animals since we traded hunting and gathering for agriculture, perhaps before. Where Gates’s research differs from what has become common practice is in the application of selective breeding to "wild nature."

Gaining acceptance and active participation to put her discoveries to work requires the skills and principles of social design. Gates imagines, and is building, a collaboration among diverse stakeholders, a supernetwork with the capacity to act on what she is learning. She hopes the network can contribute not only to the scientific research needed to save coral reefs but also to the social and political capital needed to reach global scale.

Her network is diverse. It includes scientists within and outside her own field and some unexpected allies: members of the hospitality industry, whose reliance on tourism will, she hopes, provide impetus for their participation; and politicians and government agents whose legislation either addresses or denies climate change. She includes indigenous people, whose wisdom and reverence for nature she trusts, to implement the ideas she and her partners are developing, and schoolchildren, who may learn to live with nature more respectfully than their parents do. Journalists and filmmakers who can bring visibility and, she hopes, support to the cause are also important pieces of the puzzle.

Her vision includes the formation of a supportive social architecture: a coordinated vertical network of diverse teams in every part of the world affected by coral reef collapse.
Her vision includes the formation of a supportive social architecture: a coordinated vertical network of diverse teams in every part of the world affected by coral reef collapse. A win will come, she believes, not from accruing resources for herself and her colleagues in Hawai'i but by inspiring teams in every affected country to apply their shared learning in the places where they live. She imagines engaged communities connected simultaneously to each other, the larger scientific and environmental communities, and the world.

Communicating social design

Like every good social designer, Gates has become a master communicator. She recognizes the communication challenges her efforts face, not least because outside of scientific and conservation communities, people don’t understand how essential coral reefs are to life on the planet. They can seem like something "nice to have," like a pretty home aquarium, tended only for the purpose of entertainment. Reefs are largely unobserved in the wild, save by island vacationers in snorkels, fins or glass-bottom boats and a relatively small fellowship of shiny black–suited diving enthusiasts. One way she addresses this challenge is by both telling and showing the story of corals. Her website is a rich source of imagery, of "baby" corals on trays being moved from one tank to another or to a different spot in the ocean. From her room-sized microscope come stunning close-up views of what look like colorful arms waving for attention.

As Interface’s Ray Anderson did in his mission to stop the carpet manufacturing industry’s assault on the environment, Gates addresses what she sees as an urgent need for transparency and awareness. She has an almost nonstop schedule of media and public appearances, "talking to everyone who will listen about the urgency and importance of this mission." It’s a show-and-tell carefully calculated to convince audiences — from powerful policy makers and her peers to schoolchildren.

One way she addresses this challenge is by both telling and showing the story of corals.
Gates says she knows, at this point in her research, that science will not be the limiting factor (meaning, of course, that her theory works). She also knows the kinds of controversies that could prevent us from saving coral: resistance from those who believe the problem will go away on its own (if we just ignore it) or who believe that some radical new technology just around the corner will solve all the world’s climate problems concurrently. Some pushback will come from people who believe that nature will heal herself as she has in the past. Resistance will also come from those who believe that regardless of what is happening and the likely outcome, humans should not interfere in wild nature.

This last argument is one that Gates finds particularly curious, since human activity has already interfered with every ecosystem on the planet in one way or another. And, as she says, "people who vehemently make this argument have no qualms about clear-cutting their yard."

Her work frightens people, raising concerns that it will create another freak invasive species, like the lionfish from Indo-Pacific waters that now live in the Atlantic Ocean and eat more than 40 other species, or the emerald ash borer, an Asian beetle that has destroyed entire forests in the northern United States. Others worry that Gates is opening the door to a monster corporation like Monsanto, this time of the sea, that will brand and trademark genetically modified organisms for corals, making designer reefs and causing genetic narrowing. Still others worry that her work is merely fixing symptoms, distracting us from the daunting challenge of stopping the lethal behavior causing climate change in the first place.

Confident in the grounding of her scientific research, and with an understanding of the role that lack of transparency and coordinated efforts has played in past failures, Gates is not intimidated. She welcomes criticism because it means people are talking to her about her work, and talking about it, she knows, is the only path to coordinated action. In the past, she says, with her hands wide apart, "science has been over here and the implementers were over here. The Army Corps of Engineers was doing something unconnected to the science. That’s when mistakes are made." She reasons that scientists bring a piece to the jigsaw puzzle, and every other part of the community has an important role to play as well. "It has to be a level playing field; they have to be concordant contributions," she says. "People have to listen to each other and collaborate, because the minute egos take over, the level playing field is gone."

If courage is measured by the enormity of the challenge undertaken, Ruth Gates is one of our most intrepid heroes. She has contributed immeasurably to our knowledge of coral biology, and her vision for the future of reefs is one of the few plausible scenarios we have. Beyond that are the important lessons her work holds for anyone with the ambition to take on large-scale challenges that require society and science to collaborate in aligned action in service to the planet and its inhabitants. It is cause for hope that Gates is showing us what’s possible if we can overcome the false boundaries that prevent us from working together.

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