COVID-19 has disrupted, changed and in some cases, completely upended the Blue Economy as it was once understood. Previously established systems such as cruise ship routes, shipping procedures and tourism patterns are currently in flux, allowing those impacted by the industry to pause and re-imagine what it could look like moving forward.

            At the Barbados and Eastern Caribbean Accelerator Lab, it was recognized shortly after the onset of the pandemic that the structures we knew were gone, necessitating new questions, investigations and ultimately, conversations. To chart this fresh path, the Lab began by speaking with local innovators, entrepreneurs, students and community voices through a “Coffee Morning,” a now virtual and ongoing gathering in which various members of the private, public and third sectors are invited to themed discussions on the Blue Economy. During this meeting, we asked participants to share their thoughts on the industry’s “New Normal” in relation to changes, challenges and opportunities, both in the short and long-term.

Quick Pivots: Rejigging Tools for Learning

            Although the Accelerator Lab had conducted Coffee Morning sessions before, physical distancing presented the need to conduct the discussion online. To do so, we opted to use Mural, a digital workspace tool enabling remote collaboration. Due to some technical difficulties however, at the last minute this approach had to be reconsidered and as such, we pivoted and developed an analog version of the activity that could be facilitated with Zoom. This quick pivot conjured the Lean Startup model in which creative destruction is often the rule, requiring readjustment and course correction. The pandemic has made this concept even more relevant, seen in a rapid movement towards e-commerce among Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs).

Image: Coffee Morning Workshop, The Barbados “New Normal” Blue Economy Analog Whiteboard Exercise, June 26th, 2020

Tales of Perseverance

            At the opposite end of pivoting is perseverance, or the idea that through small tweaks to existing strategies, validated learning can occur. In Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Blue Economy innovators are embracing this school of thought by adapting experiments to suit delayed product shipments, closed laboratories or restricted fish market operations. In many cases, they are even looking at these COVID-19 problems as positive avenues for change.

            In Saint Lucia, Jurgen Montoute, the second-place winner of UNDP’s #IslandHack Hackathon challenge, is examining a marketplace solution as a response to compromised fish vending procedures due to the pandemic. Through a web-based offering, fisherfolk and consumers will be able to access previously unavailable options for the buying and selling of seafood, with the possibility of scaling this platform throughout the region.

            Barbados-based Kerri-Ann Bovell, one of the selected Blue Tank participants, is turning lemons into lemonade, or in her case, cassava peels and sargassum into a bioplastic alternative. While some of her plans for this non-food packaging option were derailed by restricted lab space resulting from safety and security measures, Ms. Bovell has managed to optimize the cassava starch extraction process, comparing commercial to impure cassava ingredients, the effects of washing on properties and ideal drying conditions. In collaboration with the Accelerator Lab, Bovell will now be assessing the application of seaweed extracts to create a viable prototype. A modification will also be done to use the bioplastic as potential biodegradable filament for 3D printing.

Images: Successful testing of the effects of washing on impure cassava starch (L) versus commercial cassava starch (R)

 

            Another Blue Tank finalist in Barbados called the “Blue Bot” is also continuing its progress with the proposition of using underwater robot technology to map and monitor reef species. While COVID-19 hindered access to some of the materials required for this project, founder S. Antonio Hollingsworth turned to web scraped and previously captured images to begin general training on object detection, proto-dataset exercises and the creation of a draft classification algorithm using cloud computation.  In Blue Bot’s next stage, the acquired robot is expected to yield a labelled dataset of targeted fish.

Image: Sample image from Blue Bot’s proto-dataset using underwater footage taken by S. Antonio Hollingsworth in 2018

 

Looking Ahead: Re-Imagining the Blue Economy

            These and many other Blue Economy tests and iterations occurring in the Eastern Caribbean do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they form a key part of a shifting landscape that many individuals and groups operating in different socio-economic spheres are beginning to address.

            At the grassroots level, active members of the public who joined the last Coffee Morning spoke about the importance of uniting policy with people, ensuring that those who are directly engaged in the Blue Economy are invited to make decisions on its upcoming evolution. This moment in time offers an unprecedented opportunity to do so as we have the chance to stop, rethink and as the Accelerator Labs encourage, include “unusual players” in meaningful dialogue. Depending on priorities, this could involve consultations on a regional inter-island tourism package, the use of A.I. for futureproofing against external shocks and addressing disparities in the price of local versus imported fish, all topics that were brought up during our workshop. After all, the best solutions are frequently held by those who are closest to the issue at hand.   

Leveraging Crowd Insights: The Future of the Eastern Caribbean Blue Economy

            As a result of COVID-19, do you have a unique idea for how the Eastern Caribbean Blue Economy can evolve using technology or other sources? If so, please e-mail: acceleratorlab.bb.ec@undp.org

 

By: Jordanna Tennebaum, Head of Solutions Mapping, The Accelerator Lab for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Twitter: @j_tenneb, LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jordannatennebaum

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