How a new platform is helping leaders in sustainable tourism build strong partnerships

A group of people around a campfire in the desert
Collaboration is the driving force behind The Sigmund Project. Courtesy of The Sigmund Project.
  • The not-for-profit The Sigmund Project connects sustainability-focused innovators in tourism.
  • Entrepreneurs and leaders can submit ideas or peruse projects to find an apt partnership.
  • The site is already facilitating successful collaborations and aims to issue grants by mid-2022.
  • This article is part of a series called “Partners for a Sustainable Future,” profiling innovative alliances that are driving real progress in sustainability.

The ethos behind “open source” is that the more brainpower involved in a product’s evolution, the better. Things like peer production, review, critique, and collaboration are all encouraged.

Recently, not-for-profit startup The Sigmund Project decided to apply this concept to tourism innovation. “The moniker we have regarding [open source] is ‘nothing mentioned, nothing gained,'” founder Alan Elliott Merschen told Insider. “If you don’t share the idea, it’s never going to take root.”

Though it just launched in June 2021, The Sigmund Project has attracted thousands of unique visitors from more than 108 countries and facilitated about a dozen collaborations. For example, one Switzerland-based NGO recently connected with an ecoresort in the Solomon Islands via the platform, and the two companies are now in talks to become sustainability partners.

Here’s how Mershcen got The Sigmund Project off the ground, what some of the partnerships look like, and what he has planned for the future.

An industry inflection point

A screenshot of The Sigmund Project's website
Ideas on The Sigmund Project’s Website. Courtesy of The Sigmund Project

Merschen has worked in the travel and tourism field for more than 30 years. He founded the travel marketing company Myriad, which specializes in international destination marketing for private and government clients across five continents. “My interest has always been the impact that tourism can have on a global economy as well as a local environment,” Merschen said.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, it decimated the industry. Before the pandemic, the sector accounted for as much as 25% of all new job creation worldwide, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. But in 2020, more than 62 million tourism-related jobs vanished virtually overnight.

Merschen wanted to find a way to revitalize the industry while simultaneously addressing its sustainability problem – in 2016, the sector was responsible for about 5% of manmade carbon emissions worldwide, a number forecast to increase to 5.3% by 2030. So he began brainstorming and taking the pulse of his professional network.

He found that COVID-19 was paving the way for previously unthinkable partnerships. “I saw an openness and willingness to collaborate that I had never seen before, not only among complementary products but also among competitors,” Merschen said.

Leaning into this observation, Merchen launched a digital platform to connect tourism industry innovators with one another. He envisioned an open-source ecosystem in which entrepreneurs with an app idea could connect with the perfect coder, for instance, or where a huge tourism company with a new product could identify niche distribution channels.

Merchen saw this vision come to life recently when a multinational travel corporation found synergy with a startup called Gozee after posting about their needs on The Sigmund Project. The two organizations ended up sharing an Application Programming Interface (API) to help customers filter for sustainable travel experiences.

How it works

Named in honor of Merschen’s father, The Sigmund Project went live on Father’s Day 2021 and exclusively highlights businesses with a “triple bottom line”: an emphasis not just on profit but also on benefitting people and the planet.

Before submitting an idea, users watch a short video and take a quick quiz, which gauges if their proposed project fits into the platform’s parameters. Aligning with one or more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is mandatory.

Next, innovators can officially submit their idea to be vetted by a Sigmund Project staff member. If the proposal passes muster, the innovator is invited to a call with someone on the Sigmund team, where they talk through the idea, fine-tune its messaging, and suggest potential partners.

The organization describes itself as both “high-tech and high-touch.” Though the vetting process is largely manual and will remain so for the foreseeable future, the platform also has built-in automation features that will help it scale as traffic and submissions continue to increase.

Travel with a side of social good

Group of women in black and white
Amina Mohamed, right, and Elizabeth discussing her photos at a Cameras for Girls workshop in Kampala, Uganda. Daniel Moxie

Projects on the platform run the gamut when it comes to the UN’s SDGs. One of the collaborators currently featured on The Sigmund Project is Amina Mohamed, an Ontario-based entrepreneur and founder of both Triple F Photo Tours and the nonprofit Cameras for Girls. Her companies align with the UN’s fifth SDG around gender equality and empowering women.

“I designed my nonprofit to give back to my home country of Uganda and support marginalized females endeavoring to become journalists,” she told Insider. To support the nonprofit work, Mohamed developed a separate for-profit company, Triple F, to lead “anti-tourist” photo tours that support local culture. About 10% of its revenue flows to Cameras for Girls, which is a registered charity in Canada as of fall 2021.

Women on a motorcycle with a man on the back
Amina Mohamed riding on a boda boda with the driver on the back in Bombo, Uganda, on a Triple F Photo Tour. Courtesy of Triple F Photo Tours

When COVID-19 hit, it nearly tanked her tour operation. “I had a choice to make – to let this business die, or go all in and make it work” she said. She ultimately went for option B, venturing down multiple avenues to stay afloat, including posting about Triple F and Cameras for Girls on The Sigmund Project. In Mohamed’s post, she writes about looking for resources to expand her women-focused photography tours to Costa Rica.

The Sigmund team connected Mohamed with a reputable, Toronto-based travel agency in the company’s network. In turn, the agency connected Mohamed with resources in Costa Rica. Thanks to the introduction, Mohamed now has plans to expand Triple F’s tours to the country starting in February 2022, with future trips to follow.

Looking to the future

Thanks to contributions from an anonymous donor, The Sigmund Project is fully funded for the next five years. “Everything that people are doing is completely free, and it will continue to be like that,” Merschen said. “We like to say our only currency is collaboration.”

In that vein, The Sigmund Project is on the prowl for its own partnerships. The organization has forged an agreement with NYU’s Tisch Center of Hospitality. Other notable institutions from Canada to Germany have expressed interest in becoming involved. One professor has already included the site in a class assignment, requiring students to collaborate on the platform with entrepreneurs from around the world.

Another upcoming goal for The Sigmund Project is to provide financial support to innovators. In 2022, Merschen plans to roll out an investment grant feature to establish a healthy middle ground between micro-financing and the big-bucks world of venture capitalism.

“There’s nobody in the middle,” he said. “That’s where we want to be.”

Another differentiating factor for the grants, Merschen explained, is that no company will be able to secure one single-handedly – innovators will need to submit proposals with at least one other entity, in line with the platform’s ethos of collaboration.

The Sigmund Project plans to take a small interest in companies that receive grants. “The idea is that that company will be successful/profitable, and it will share some of that back with The Sigmund Foundation,” Merschen said. He clarified that all returns are immediately reinvested in Sigmund’s operating expenses and future grant recipients.

Merchen hopes that this tactic will enable The Sigmund Project to develop its own circular operating model. “That’s how we become sustainable,” he said.