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Your Backyard at Night: What the Critters Can Teach Us with Topher White (Episode #135)

This chat, with conservation innovator Topher White, will give you a feeling of celebration and wonder. In 2013, he created the ingenious Rainforest Connection, a nonprofit which is helping to preserve biodiversity in 34 countries and counting. And now, he is launching another pioneering technology! But this time, it’s one we can all bring to our own backyards, neighborhoods, and even on vacation. All of that, in the service of making a personal connection with the natural world around us, in fascinating and delightful ways.  

About Our Guest:

With all the doom and gloom about climate change, it is so refreshing to hear about innovators whose ingenious ideas are actually making progress when it comes to healing our environment. 

Topher White has one of those stories. He is a Conservation Technologist and the Founder of two enviro-tech startups: Rainforest Connection and Squibbon

As an inventor, field engineer and social entrepreneur, he has been honored with such titles as 

  • World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, 
  • Rolex Laureate, 
  • National Geographic Explorer, 
  • and IEEE Engineering Hero

As CEO of Rainforest Connection from its founding in 2013 until 2022, Topher grew an idea into a far-flung company, giving our world the data it needs to study and make progress in biodiversity.  And the Rainforest Connection (RFCx) is now the world’s foremost creator and deployer of acoustic listening) technology for environmental protection and high-definition biodiversity monitoring. 

His novel realization was that governments, companies, and people were investing heavily in capturing our world on camera and in video, when in fact capturing the sounds in our world can give us a much clearer “picture” of what’s actually going on in nature all around us.  

Topher’s zone of genius is in combining leaps in technology (AI, machine learning, and listening) in ways that help us understand and protect the natural world. And with the topic of our interview today — his new tech start-up Squibbon — we will all be able to connect with this particular leap in innovation.

Squibbon’s “Delta” unit is a revolutionary device for our homes — backyards, balconies or windowsills in urban environments — to help us discover unseen universes just outside our front doors. 

The Delta has three state-of-the-art microphones that can detect even the faintest animal sounds, up to five times higher in pitch than any human can hear, and it can also trace a myriad of creatures’ movements in your outdoor space, giving us access to the sounds of nature in three dimensions. 

You’ll love this interview for the sense of possibility it brings to mind, from all directions. 

Topher is the best kind of tech-mind turned social Innovator to chat with. He tells a good story, can talk about complex ideas in “ordinary people” language, and he is quick to share what he’s learned from mistakes and setbacks. 

Most importantly, he believes that the next era of conservation — healing our planet — must be led by individuals, neighborhoods and communities. Experience tells him that the power of scientists, governments, and industry will not hold a candle to what can be done by individuals who can be suddenly and deeply connected with a part of the world around them that was once hidden. 

This interview will give you the inspiration to help you recognize and work around your own limiting beliefs, and remind us to be fearless when it comes to imagining possible futures.

Resources Mentioned:

Show Notes

00:00 Preview

00:54 Intro & Welcome

02:02 Topher’s Bio

  • Topher is a conservation technologist & founder of Rainforest Connection (RFCx).
  • His new project launched in 2022, Squibbon, is a product that allows us to connect with our environment by listening.
  • His accolades include:
    • National Geographic Explorer
    • Rolex Laureate
    • World Economic Forum Young Global Leader

04:42 Topher as an innovator

  • “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea” –  Peter H. Diamandis
  • Many of the best ideas in the best space sound bad at first.
  • Getting to the point that something actually works or is executed is a long journey.
  • Best ideas are in high competition spaces.

05:49 High Rainforest Connection

  • The idea originated from listening in rainforests.
  • There’s a lot of sounds originating in the rainforests outside of just animals.
  • The lives and expressions of animals and the way they interact with each other provides rich data.
  • New tools and approached were adopted to use bio acoustics to understand entire ecosystems.
  • Tune into Episode 124 with Rainforest Connection (RFCx) CEO Bourhan Yassin for more on the work being done to connect rainforests in the world.
  • You can listen to the vibrant and amazing sounds of the rainforests via the Rainforest Connection App, available for download in the app stores.
  • Listening to the sounds of nature may be the best but least utilized tool to protect the environment.

07:07 The Squibbon Journey

  • Squibbon is designed to bring the sounds of nature to the consumer market and make what was previously only available for conservationists available to any household.
  • People typically think of the sounds of nature as serenity and relaxation but there’s much more insights available that can matter to the average person’s everyday life.
  • Humans usually interact with nature primarily visually, but now Squibbon offers the opportunity to interact audibly and add much more interaction as hidden creatures & tiny creatures that we may not be able to see can become part of the experience with nature.
  • Human listening is also limited and Squibbon will unlock more sounds that will give much more insights into nature e.g.
    • Prey vs Predator
    • How animals feel
    • Animal movement
    • How animals interact with each other

11:58 Nature isn’t some place we have to go to

  • It’s great for us to enjoy when nature overlaps with us.
  • Wildlife is already part of our day to day lives and we may not notice them while they notice us.
  • The only real conservation is local conservation.
  • Top down approaches to conservation are still dependent on people who are on the ground committed to preservation.
  • Conservation of the environment in your backyard may be more powerful than conservation efforts at the Government, State or Corporate level.
  • Lives can also be enriched by deeper interaction with and conservation of local environments and neighbourhoods.

14:50 Break

17:26 Who is Squibbon for?

  • Squibbon is for anybody with homes, balconies or anything that allows you to interact remotely with nature.
  • The Delta is the name of the device that allows us to interact with nature.
  • A Kickstarter for Delta has already launched, please join us!
  • Delta is an outdoor computer that is set up on the ground and a mobile app is used to take a panoramic view of your surroundings.
  • Delta allows us to hear more than 5 times what humans can hear through an array of microphones.
  • Features includes the ability to:
    • Know what animals showed up
    • Get real time alerts for what’s there
    • Learn about interactions between animals
    • Name animals 
    • Use AI to generate and tell stories about the animals in your environment
  • Stories can be generated for children e.g. bedtime stories.
  • Stories can also be generated for adults or friend groups in the form of romance etc.
  • We can get creative and build characters for the animals in our own backyards.
  • This can lead to a more harmonious relationship with nature.
  • This is positioned to be an extension of your senses and allows you to personalize your environment.
  • Missed interactions with our environment, even those that might be seen as negative, are a missed opportunity to connect with animals.
  • The Delta device is also battery operated and solar panels are available so it can be used for hiking or in environments outside of your backyard.

29:28 The unknowns in our backyards

  • Once humans show up some animals will not show themselves while others might make themselves present.
  • Squibbon allows us to expand your experience with nature to learn what happens in our absence.
  • Rats might do a good job avoiding humans and humans try to avoid skunks – we might be missing out on the personality of these animals and some of their superpowers.
  • Tune into Episode 131 with Dr. Cindy Fast to learn about how Giant Pouched African Rats are used to clear land mines in Mozambique or their ability to detect tuberculosis before it spreads in communities.
  • Some animals such as amphibians and insects use sound to assert themselves and we want to make this available to all.

34:38 Appreciating our environment

  • Biodiversity will be measured over time and the changes will be tracked over time.
  • The level of detail in data captured is geared toward making development better for human & animal interaction.
  • Privacy is taken seriously and the device only listens to animals. 
  • No human voices or sounds are captured and sounds such as car noises are blocked out.
  • We can conserve nature by keeping it pristine or by changing the way we develop living spaces to take nature into consideration and optimize interaction while preserving the ecosystem.
  • The more we understand each other the more we can peacefully and harmoniously co-exist.
  • There’s no evidence that the best harmonious relationship with nature is literal.
  • The stories that date back generations might be held more dearly and might make nature more relevant to more people.
  • People might be trying to do their best but may simply have different values when it comes to nature.
  • This product is designed to make a case to people that nature is useful in our modern day to day lives and can improve our personal missions.

44:33 Capturing a moment on this earth

  • The data captured now can inform future generations about the way the animal world is today.
  • Climate change can be seen not as a cliff but as a slope
  • Geniuses decades and even hundreds of years from now will have access to the biodiversity data being collected now.
  • Genius also exists in every species that exists on Earth and this can be collected via eco acoustics.
  • There’s never been a moment in the past of the Earth’s existence that there has been so much pressure on biodiversity.
  • Additionally, there will be no time in the future that has greater biodiversity than we have now.
  • Now is the time to capture as much data as we can.
  • Nature can be a collaborator in improving our lives and us improving theirs.

49:12 Kickstarter

  • The device is made out of aluminium and comes in several colours and with many accessories available.
  • The apps are free and the device costs $299.
  • The earliest people to invest will get their devices early in July and the Kickstarter runs until June.

50:39 Closing

  • There’s no wrong way to interpret the world once we’re aiming for a positive outcome for more than just ourselves.
  • Spend time with people who are not trying to discourage you from the things you think are great.
  • And make sure to still share the things you built with those that discouraged you because they will be glad to see it too.

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