This post was written by Aaron Coleman on behalf of the Case Foundation:
National Geographic has celebrated explorers for more than 120 years and each year they honor these fearless individuals by sharing their stories during Explorers Week. Through a series of panels and TED-style talks, National Geographic spotlights intellectual pioneers from around the world. This June, the Case Foundation team attended the “Explorers Week: Disrupters Panel” to hear scientists and designers discuss the triumphs and failures from their explorations. The topics varied from recycling nuclear waste to constructing urban farms, and while eclectic in subject matter, the presentations emphasized the urgent need to catalyze social and scientific change.
“Create another world if you’re not happy with the one that we have,” suggested Caleb Harper, an Urban Agriculturalist and National Geographic 2015 Emerging Explorer, who is building vertical farms to address the global food crisis. His daring proposition was echoed by fellow emerging explorer Leslie Dewan, a nuclear engineer, whose company converts nuclear waste into a “resource to be tapped instead of a liability to be disposed of.” By harnessing energy from discarded nuclear waste, Dewan and her team are working to “reduce the radioactive lifetime of the nuclear waste from hundreds of thousands of years, to a few hundred years.”
Dewan calls this a transition from “a geological timescale to a human timescale.” This concept, that a society we can fix big social problems on a human timescale, is a bold shift away from the incremental change typical of social progress; it challenges us to find solutions in our lifetime.
For too long, we have believed that some problems are too big—that tough issues should be left to gradually dissolve under the tides of time, but in this void of timid and unimaginative thinking entire communities in need have languished. Persistent social problems require bold solutions. Just because you’re faced with cumbersome legal regulations and political red tape “doesn’t mean that you have to do small scale things,” said explorer Skylar Tibbits during the closing segment. Tibbits notes that “there are lots of opportunities to innovate.”
At the Case Foundation, we stand alongside Caleb, Leslie, Skylar and countless other explorers in the belief that the impossible is possible and that we must move from a “someday timeline” to a “right now” timeline. These explorers inspire the work that we do and remind us how to be fearless in our efforts to change the world.
Photograph by Lynn Johnson, National Geographic Photography Fellow