As we enter a new year and a new decade - the start of the two-thousand-teens -- I feel we should extend this challenge to every community across the international geography of our planet.
Here is a guiding document that cogently expresses the philosophy behind those behind the Challenge from the Blackstone Institute:
"The Blackstone institute was designed to be results oriented. It has successfully used the early stage cross-sector dialogs that must take place before meaningful social innovation as a way to leverage its financial and logistical support to leading organizations to create major social profit.
• To address the planetary challenges of our time
• To influence pioneers of environmental change
• To accelerate the adoption of best environmental practices
"Blackstone Ranch Institute (BRI) provides carefully targeted amounts of seed money to strategic dialogs that are necessary to catalyze important social innovation across a range of environmental fronts.
"We sponsor efforts that already have future funding identified, or have a coherent and plausible plan for sustaining the effort as it develops."
Following the lead of the Blackstone Ranch Innovation Challenge to all of us in the National Geographic Circle of Family and Friends I've been meditating over the possibility of how we might ever more effectively extend the same challenge for synergies to National Geographic's world-wide base of readers, viewers, listeners, fans and supporters. And since you are taking the time to read this, this probably includes you and members of your personal network and community.
On a prosaic level, we have all seen that the National Geographic brand inspires all sorts of followers ; certainly the National Geographic Marketing idea is all about sharing the enthusiasm people have for emulating the work of Nat Geo's Explorers and Scientists and Researchers and Grantees with consumers; with every purchase of an NG brand wetsuit, a camera bag, a safari hat, a photographers jacket, a pair of binoculars or even a suitcase (and if I am successful in my efforts one day an Insinkerator too! ... er... and a macerating toilet pump, solar panels, wind and stream generators and other "must-have" world saving home appliances ...), a person with enthusiasm for the National Geographic experience can participate in the adventure (My urban planning professor at UCLA, Dr. Susanna B. Hecht used to call this "commodifying your dissent"... or assent -- using your consumer behavior to drive market behavior toward desirable goals). But of course the emulation should go far far far beyond marketing and consumer choice.
We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, we want to be part of "The Great Conversation", and many of us want to "boldly go where no one has gone before"; very often people not only live vicariously through the National Geographic Team of Explorers but actually let the joy and direction that comes from being inspired by National Geographic guide them in their career choices. (I should know, I'm one of those life-long Nat Geo aficionados who carved his life-style path by following the tracks laid down by generations of Nat Geo pioneers. What a joy it was to be suddenly inducted into the fold in 2009 as an Emerging Explorer!).
Insofar as the National Geographic brand has the potential to so dramatically affect not just consumer choice but prosumer behavior, it seems that we can now offer another model for life-energy investment: meeting the Blackstone Challenge.
To wit: where the Blackstone Ranch and National Geographic teamed up to challenge us to work across disciplines and continents, backgrounds and careers to find new synergies, it seems to me that now we in this multinational Great Society of the 21st century who have been inspired over the last 122 years (and continue to be inspired ) in what we do by the National Geographic Society Mission can team up to inspire the rest of our human family to find unity of purpose in and through our differences.
National Geographic School Publishing has already taken great strides in that direction by creating a series of science and geography videos, school books and curriculum materials featuring different Nat Geo scientists and explorers. Packaged together, as they are, students get a marvelous sense of how each of the NG team members contributes to the bigger picture through our individual focus. The intent of the NGSP series is to use diverse explorers and scientists as role models to inspire young people to think of how they can not only prepare for careers in problem solving arts and sciences, but how they can "think outside the box" in a cooperative interdisciplinary fashion. From the feedback I've already gotten from teachers and students it seems to be working!
Similarly, Google is now launching a science fair series and calling on different experts from within the National Geographic family to be the judges. We come together at the science fairs and interact with the kids and their teachers and families and provide live feedback and advice as to how the young generation can prepare meaningful solutions to the Earth's challenges.
Taking this concept yet another step further, I have proposed that various and constantly changing constellations of Nat Geo explorers, under the banner of "The Blackstone Ranch Innovation Challenge", begin visiting science fairs, NSTA colloquiua , festivals, schools, college campuses, museums, theatres, conference halls, meeting rooms, symposia, theme parks, talk shows, television programs etc. and show audiences how fun and stimulating it is to creatively work together in a multi-disciplinary way to solve problems.
This mobile E-team of interdisciplinary solution providers and creators of collective intelligence would engage the public in think-tank reflections on how to meet new challenges in creative ways. We would lead workshops in problem solving, and, by leading by example, show others that it is not so hard to turn differences into collective strengths.
Members of the public would be encouraged to present to "National Geographic's Blackstone Innovation Team" examples of their own cross-pollinated inter-disciplinary achievements, and recognition and prizes would be awarded to them.
This could also dovetail into the National Geographic Young Explorers Awards with a subset of Young Explorers Blackstone Innovation Challenge Awards. Teachers could also get involved and the National Science Teachers Association could be engaged to lend support to teachers from different disciplines working together to make a multi-disciplinary curriculum at their school that brings science to life and makes science instruction relevant to the global and human challenges we face.
In effect, the Blackstone Ranch Challenge would become the banner for all inter-disciplinary synergies oriented toward solving environmental/geographically interlinked problems.
Ultimately this would spiral beyond the formal National Geographic circles, through social circles and social networking, until each community might ask itself on a regular basis, 'are we responding to the challenge? Are we making of "E Pluribus Unum" ('from the many one', inscribed on the American dollar bill) the motto it needs to be -- "from our diversity, unity"? And are we using that fruits of that diversity in a coordinated and effective way to solve the pressing environmental and social problems of our times?
Assembling the "E-team" for a Peacetime Blackstone Challenge "Manhattan Project"
E.O. Wilson, who was one of my professors at Harvard, exhorted us to live "in praise of diversity".
We can credit many of the most stable and enduring evolutionary advances in Nature to "hybrid vigor", to co-evolution and to symbiosis. The Blackstone Challenge asks us to apply these principles consciously to our work life and our problem-solving activities.
The idea of assembling the best and the brightest human beings in different areas, of coalescing the top experts in various fields and asking them to use their collective intelligence to solve enormously complex challenges has produced huge benefits for society. The gains usually go to those who see the inter-relatedness of our biggest problems, and the real need for out-of-the-box thinking.
In real life both the space program and the Manhattan Project proved the value of assembling A-Teams of top notch but very different types of thinkers and practitioners.
In the film world, besides violent fictions like the A-Team itself, we see such a strategy played out in movies like "Armageddon" and "The Magnificent Seven", "Sneakers" and even "Who ya gonna call? ... Ghost Busters!"
And now that we are at a point in history when our most pressing environmental and social problems demand urgent and applied holistic thinking, who ya gonna call to make things right?
The E-Team: Any group of diverse Explorers (a label that all of us human beings who use our curiosity are heir to) who individually dedicate themselves to opening new vistas and pushing back the frontiers of knowledge and who then consciously come together to create synergies whose cooperative whole is greater than the sum of their individual parts.
But how do we create more opportunities for the various members of various E-Team's who assemble for real-world problem solving to continue to get to know one another's strengths and fill each others lacunae?
One approach might be to offer the formalized National Geographic Explorers as a "solutions provider team" to various groups, industries, businesses, institutions and initiatives as trainers of trainers.
A descriptive data-base of the willing participants could be created on-line where various types of expertise and interests would be displayed, and it could function in one sense like a synergy match-making site (not unlike a dating site in some of its logic, except it would encourage combinations larger and more complex than simple dyads, and well beyond triads and tetrads and the orientation would not .be toward compatibility between the individuals in the team so much as compatibility with the desired goal.).
Let us take an example from the movies again --in the movie "Species", it was discovered that an alien intelligence had sent a message to the earth and the NSA had to rapidly put together a team of experts consisting of everything from scientists to telepaths to approach the challenge. We have to assume that everybody selected came from some roster that the group in charge of the project had of "specialists whose particular talents would go well together in the pursuit of connecting with alien intelligences."
What the film's model left out (to its detriment and that of almost all previous real-life "expert panels") was any invitation to the "general public" to play a participatory role in solving this huge planetary wide issue. As Timothy Mitchell takes great pains to show in his non-fiction book "Rule of Experts: Egypt, Technopolitics, Modernity", the division of societies into so-called expertise "haves" and "have-nots" can cripple meaningful development efforts. This same sentiment echoes throughout Yale Professor James Scott's 1998 classic, "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed". We need "citizen science" and "collective intelligence" and "crowd-sourcing" and "open-sourcing" and "cloud computing" if we are to tackle the problems threatening our way of life and our natural world and the Blackstone Challenge asks us to look beyond our expertise, our professions and focused interests and our affiliations.
The question for us in the face of geographically broad challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation and their social impacts, is "where is the roster of people able and willing not only to do their part, but to effectively work together with people in quite different disciplines?"
The Blackstone Ranch suggested initially that such people could be found within the roster of the National Geographic Society. And we know that the National Geographic Society has a membership that goes far far beyond any individual profession our country and that it grows every year and includes not just its formally recognized "experts" but everyone on the planet who shares the same goal of making our planet a better place.
My suggestion is that a roster of such people -- self-assembled E-teams who have decided to take on the challenge -- be made available to agencies and institutions as "Blackstone Innovation Teams" -- a pool of synergism-oriented talents who can be brought together in various constellations to create problem-specific think tanks and action agents.
In this way funds now apportioned by groups seeking to solve certain problems around the world could be used to bring together the appropriate E-teams to get the job done in a cost-effective and efficient way that would also generate a body of public outreach materials and publicity that could have significant multiplier effects. This might help ensure the longevity of the Blackstone Challenge Concept and take it beyond the initial years of inception seed funding.
"If we could first know where we've been and whither we are tending, we would better know what to do and how to go about it" -- Abraham Lincoln
As those of you who know me know, I was blessed to be one of the recipients of the first Blackstone Ranch Innovation Challenge Grant, along with aquatic ecologist Dr. Katey Walter Anthony. When we formally responded to the challenge we had already had many engaging conversations with many of you about the larger challenge -- how can we all come together to create the sparks and synergies and on the ground praxis that can link our diverse missions, work and interests meaningfully and impactfully and in ways where what emerges could make a real difference.
We already had the great fortune of having National Geographic Magazine and the National Geographic Media Outlets demonstrating to us how our individual and collective stories could be put together, packaged, juxtaposed and interpreted in a various coherent wholes. But as the living parts of those wholes could we find ways to increase our networking potential so that the emergent properties would truly be greater than the sum of the parts?
With that in mind, Katey and I described to Blackstone's John Richardson during the first symposium a vision that we had co-created and shared with several others in the days previous when we had all learned about the Blackstone Challenge: we would try to find ways to use the seed grant money and the inspiration to reach out to and somehow include as many other members of our new Geographically extended Family as possible, and hope that each successive year the collaborative spirit and effort would grow dendritically, rhizomally, like a complex ecosystem, until it became self-sustaining.
In the first year, from January 2010 to January 2011, while continuing our do-it-yourself renewable energy system training and construction in Cairo with the Darb Al Ahmar Muslim and Zabaleen Christian communities with our Egyptian Solar CITIES team, Mustafa Hussein, Hussein Farag and Hanna Fathy, we created a partnership with Cordova, Alaska high school science instructor Adam Low and his students and built a cold-weather biogas laboratory at the school and we started on-going collaborations with Emerging Explorer ethnobotanist Grace Gobbo at the Jane Goodall Institute in Tanzania, with Great Plains Conservation and Explorer Film-makers Dereck and Beverly Joubert and Emerging Explorer educator/activist Kakenya Ntaiya and Masai colleagues in Kenya, with the Jouberts and their Botswanian colleagues in the Okavango Delta, with Emerging Explorer Underwater Archeologist Beverly Goodman and our mutual friends Sharon Benheim and Yair Teller and Ilana Meallam at the Arava Institute of the Environment in Israel and Palestinian Arava alumnus Dana Rassas at the Jerusalem US Embassy, Imad Atrash at the Palestinian Wildlife Society and Dr. Mohammed Salem of Brothers Engineering Group and Amer Rabayah, president of Engineers without Borders Palestine in the West Bank. We also used the seed grant to bring Hanna Fathy from the Zabaleen trash recyclers community in Cairo to Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda to share his waste-to-energy and recycling expertise. And finally we travelled with Chido Iwunna, a Nigerian-German colleague, and Dr. Charisma Acey, an African-American Urban Planning Professor at Ohio-State University (and colleague of mine from my own Ph.D. program at UCLA), to start a "Green Economy Center" with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo at his Presidential Library in Abeokuta, to act as a pan-African hub for synergy in meeting the environmental challenges that subtend human security. Much of our work is aimed at building capacity in communities for self made waste-management, water pumping and renewable energy systems (particularly household wastes to methane and solar) to help combat deforestation for heating and cooking fuels and the attendant biodiversity/habitat loss.
This spring, after return trips to Israel, Palestine, and East Africa, we begin work with National Geographic Grantee Mountain Geographer Alton Byers and Emerging Explorer Mobile Technology Innovator Ken Banks in the Himalayas in Nepal, to put our heads together with local people and exotic alpine adventures to implement ways to protect the endangered alpine ecosystems. Certainly this is a very diverse bunch of people. What we share in common is a desire to articulate our contributions to make the world a better place.
My wife Sybille and I hope to personally collaborate with as many people whom we have met walking on this mutual road to sustainability as we can, and we have many other synergetic partnerships in the works, some from our meetings at the National Geographic Symposia, the Aspen Environmental Forum, the Ford Foundation, the Melody-Dialouge Among Civilizations and UNESCO and Green Phoenix Rising conferences, and some from serendipitous encounters in libraries, on trains and buses and airplanes (a great advantage of being dedicated to public transportation) and even on facebook. Because the Blackstone Challenge was forefront in our minds when we had these recent sustainability watering-hole encounters, we immediately discovered the otherwise un-obvious possibilities for partnership.
We hope that a ripple effect will occur once we all embrace the challenge where everybody we subsequently touch feels empowered to (using a microbiological metaphor) project pseudo-pods out of their own cell walls and actively conjugate ideas and create real-world impacting symbiotic relationships with others.
I have visions that the Internationally Geographically Extended Human Family, through this Blackstone challenge, will ultimately come to operate like a "neural network", so robust in its redundant, overlapping connections and so responsive and adaptive to the myriad artificial and natural selection pressures our changing world places on it, that it will take on the co-evolutionary characteristics of rain-forests, coral reefs, savannahs, soil-systems and other complex ecologies including the human brain itself.
I described to Blackstone Institute Executive Director John Richardson and National Geographic Manager of the Emerging Explorer Program Cheryl Zook the other night, watching the snow fall outside my window in Germany, how we could see the Blackstone Challenge as a seed crystal around which the devilish details of doing begin to coalesce, creating unimaginably diverse snowflakes that all add ultimately to the massive snowbank of information that humanity needs to solve its biggest problems.
Before a major challenge is offered to our species, our energies, while often marvelously focused on important enterprises, are often too diffuse with respect to one another to enable enduring linkages. But when, for example, the challenge to get to the moon "in this decade... and do the other things..." was offered by Kennedy in 1962 (the year I was born), we indeed were able to pool our talents toward "one giant leap for humankind".
The thing is, while we got to the moon multiple times, we didn't quite "do the other things."
I see the Blackstone Ranch/National Geographic Innovation Challenge as precisely the challenge to "do the other things" that Kennedy alluded to, so that our small steps individually within the mission of the NG Society (and society at large) can march together toward more giant leaps.
But how will it work?
As flesh and blood humans in the physical world we all know we need the means to continue our past work let alone embrace new and synergistic challenges. And we know that a yearly dose of 50,000 dollars in grant funding, as welcome and generous as it is, cannot sustain a massive effort to do right by the human race and our non-human co-voyagers on Spaceship Earth.
But I am clear that the Blackstone sponsorship was not intended to "throw money at the problem" so to speak. It was to truly challenge us to think outside the box and create a catalytic spark to ignite the reservoirs of fuel that lie within us (er... perhaps internal combustion is a wholly wrong metaphor for this! Let us say rather, "create a new catalyst mediated reaction pathway for the evolution of new negentropic systems"... or something like that! :) )
Besides leveraging the small grants that initiated this program into larger funding opportunities (which Katey and I were able to do by approaching Alaska's Denali Commission with other partners, for example), I would suggest we also look to creating a Blackstone equivalent to the "X-Prize". In this model National Geographic Society members and other potential synergy teams wouldn't only tender concrete proposals for possible funding, but would take on the challenge of collaborating "ex ante".
The "NG-Prize" (or whatever equivalent is found) would each year or two offer a substantial after-the-fact return on the investment of those Synergy Explorers who put their heads together and found a useful way to collaborate. In the spirit not only of the X-Prize but of the Nobel Prize, there would be great recognition and financial recuperation for those teams that surprised everyone by creating heretefore unobvious linkages between their fields that led to a useful conclusion.
It is a sort of "field of dreams -- build it and they will come" model and hence fraught with uncertainty, but these are uncertain times. And that is our advantage -- as I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan" last month while working on biodigestors at the Joubert's eco-lodges in Botswana, I realized that we National Geographic inspired folks are precisely the type who are best placed to benefit from "positive black swans", those highly improbably but unimaginably impactful and disproportionately rewarding events that occur because of the complexities of the modern world. We are ideal residents of what Taleb calls "extremistan", the world beyond "mediocristan" where anything can happen, but those who have the imagination and stick-to-it-ivity can find true blessings in the heretefore unimaginable.
Great scientific breakthroughs have always come from the unobvious and from collisions between ideas that seemed to have no marriage potential. The Blackstone Challenge invites us to consider daily that have colleagues in the National Geographic Society Family and Friends with whom hybridity offers all sorts of (to use Goldschmidt's term, as explained to me by Stephen Jay Gould in class at Harvard) "Hopeful Monsters".
An "NG-Prize or the like might provide the right stimulus for active cross-pollination.
There are other ways we can respond to the Blackstone Challenge --for example creating dynamic teams of Blackstone Challenge presenters and educators and storytellers that go like a traveling circus around the world to schools, universities, hotels, businesses, festivals and events (the Fairmont Hotel already has an arrangement with NG for NG speakers, and NGSP has arrangements with schools, but we haven't yet formalized a revolving team of NG inspired collaborators who can add new dimension and excitement to every talk, sharing a multidisciplinary view of how problems can be solved. )
If we formalize ourselves, crystallizing around the Blackstone Challenge, we can create private public partnerships, use micro-credit models, and -- my keenist interest, born perhaps from reading too many comic books and pulp fiction novels like Doc Savage, the X-men, Justice League of Superheroes and the Avengers and the Fantastic Four etc. -- creating itinerant consulting/in-the-field action E-teams that can be rapidly deployed for problem solving in real crises or situations where interdisciplinary solutions offer the only hope. The E-teams could work with governments and relief organizations and private philanthropists, formally assembling its best qualified members to deal with things like Oil Spills, Earthquakes, Cholera epidemics, conflicts between farmers or industrialists or developers and conservationists, humans and wildlife, you name it.
I think we can all agree the potential reaches to the rim of the galaxy while the limits are merely due to our usual foes - gravity and inertia. But we got to the moon, using gravity and inertia to actually assist us in our new trajectory, and I'm sure we can do this too.
If you have read all of this, you are probably an Explorer and valuable contributor to the E-team too, and you probably share our abiding interest in finding dynamic new synergies between your individual toolkits and perspectives and those of your fellow human and non-human residents of "spaceship earth".
I would love to hear your thoughts, and look forward to meeting "The Challenge" with you.
National Geographic Emerging Explorer 2009 and co-recipient of the first Blackstone Ranch Innovation Challenge Award.
The cartoons below are caricatures from the National Geographic Kids Page of the current and constantly growing National Geographic "E-team" of synergy and symbiosis seeking Explorers. You can learn more about us by clicking on our cartoon avatar here, and hopefully you too will get involved in our response to the Blackstone Challenge!