Exactly ten years ago, I met Eric Stackpole. We were introduced by a mutual friend who suspected we’d get along due to our overlapping interests in ocean exploration and technology:
“You should meet a friend of mine who is building a submarine robot in his garage.” he said.
The meeting sparked a fire. Eric and I became fast friends and we’ve been making things together ever since, projects that would eventually become OpenROV, Open Explorer, and (with a much larger team) Sofar Ocean. The story of that adventure is now well documented. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. But it’s time for something new.
I’m stepping back from a day-to-day role Sofar to begin again. The team there is world class — bold and pragmatic on a mission to connect the world’s ocean. I’m excited and bullish about the business, and I will continue to be involved in an advisory role.
My favorite part of that decade-long chapter was the beginning: the early days in the garage when we weren’t sure if anything would work, the time spent at TechShop learning how to use new machines, the thrill of meeting others who were in a similar mode of exploration. Of course, that period was hard, too. Worries about money and future prospects were constant. But those constraints were part of what fueled our determination, and they certainly added a sense of urgency. It helped that we weren’t alone. We were a part of a whole maker movement — inventors, entrepreneurs, and tinkerers with idealistic hopes and sudden access to powerful new tools and platforms. They were heady times.
I’m going back into that experimental mode, towards the communities and people I see gathering around new ideas, techniques, and a determination to build something better. Here is a rough outline of the road ahead:
Breaking Science Out of the Ivory Tower
From the early days of OpenROV, we were swept up in a growing awareness that amateurs were playing an increasingly important role in the process of discovery: the rise of citizen science. Over the years, these dots connected to others who were facilitating a more open scientific framework by freely sharing data and access to publications. Others have been on a mission to democratize and decolonize science. Different terms and grievances, but common themes. More recently, I’ve noticed an emergence of independent researchers and scientists-turned-entrepreneurs who are similarly rejecting the “publish or perish” rigidity of academia. Due to increasing pressures on university scientists and a widening rift between science and society, I expect these trends to coalesce and continue.
- I’ve started a video podcast called Science Better, where I interview researchers about their techniques and ideas for improving the scientific enterprise. It’s been fun so far. I’m a middling interviewer, but the results have been good enough to continue.
- I’m joining Experiment as an advisor, and I plan to be actively involved in helping to imagine and build the next chapter for the platform — the future of scientific patronage.
Conservation Technology & Rewilding
We’re in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. It’s a problem sometimes overlooked and obfuscated by climate change, but it’s infinitely related and intertwined. Leaving a bio-abundant and wild world — or whatever’s salvageable — to future generations is a moral obligation. Over the years, we’ve worked with scientists and communities to address conservation challenges using the tools we’d developed. Those experiences made two things clear. First, not enough people, especially engineers, are focusing their time and talent here. Second, the personal experience of participating in a rewilding project — on any scale — is deeply meaningful and energizing. It’s an antidote to the malaise felt by consuming too much bad news on social media. Better tools can help, mostly by augmenting and connecting the people on the front lines. The world needs much more of this.
- I’m joining Aqualink as an advisor. They’re building tools to help coral reef managers and communities better monitor and respond to the threats facing reefs, starting with ocean heat stress. There’s a mountain of good science being done on potential interventions. Aqualink is building the bridge between those innovations and the front line communities who need them.
- Advising other planet positive companies on conservation strategy.
- Facilitating Challenge Grants on Experiment to support environmental citizen science, conservation technology, and beyond.
Open Ocean Technology
Ten years ago, marine technology was exquisite and expensive. We’ve proven that thoughtful designs, shared openly, can make these tools more available. We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. The ocean plays an outsized and under-appreciated role in our lives, including by maintaining a habitable climate. That realization is driving a shift from an extractive to a regenerative blue economy, and these changing sentiments are driving demand for new tools. We’re on the cusp of an ocean tech renaissance.
Related: Smart Oceans 2020 Plenary
- Staying involved at Sofar as an advisor.
- Advising other ocean tech companies and projects, especially where they overlap with conservation.
Transitions, done well, are both terrifying and thrilling. They present you with visions of dazzling new futures and dig up all your deepest insecurities. There’s a tendency to rush through them — to fill the empty space with something, anything to avoid the confusion and in-betweenness of an ending without a clear new beginning. But these periods are important and necessary. William Bridges calls this the neutral zone.
As with the maker movement ten years ago, I’m not alone in this experimental phase. COVID has thrown the world into a fallow period. No one seems to have a clear idea what this new world will look like. There is no choice but to build back. And I’m excited to be there in the trenches with everyone, especially the pragmatic idealists who believe that we can do better.