Problems scale, but so do solutions

Posted by on Jul 2, 2012 in General | No Comments

Whether talking about glaciers or cities or people or businesses, the big problems confronting the planet reproduce at ever smaller scale: our nations, our cities, our neighborhoods, our families, even ourselves. But the reverse is true too: the work we do on even the smallest scale can literally change the world.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend three days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking with and learning from entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, designers, activists, journalists, policy makers and of course other educators. While the discussions covered a wide range of fields and subjects, a handful of themes seemed to cut across most of them, all of which seemed relevant to our work at the Workshop. In this series of posts I’m trying to do some thinking out loud about those themes and their implications for our work.

On Wednesday night David Brashears discussed his work documenting the disappearance of high glaciers in the Himalayas. An experienced climber (he’s summited Everest five times), he unearthed archival photos of the glaciers from the earliest expeditions, then climbed with small teams to the exact sites from which the photos were taken, and reproduced them with ultra-high resolution cameras. The results are arresting: glaciers that were 300 feet high just sixty years ago are all but gone today. (See for yourself at glacierworks.org.) In addition to raising public awareness of this alarming trend, Brashears’ organization is working to create an online visual interface for teachers and students, allowing them to document the disappearance for themselves, and to analyze closely the current composition of the glaciers to better understand the reasons for their recession.

Brashears isn’t an educator. He has no idea how teachers will end up using these resources. He wants to learn from them. But looking at the photos and seeing all of the data embedded therein, it wasn’t hard to imagine how we could get students thinking about what this means for them. The Himalayan glaciers feed some of the most important rivers in the world—the Ganges and Yangtze among others—that are the lifeblood of more than a billion people, nearly all of which live in nuclear armed countries. When the glaciers disappear, so do the rivers. When precious resources like water grow scarce, people fight over them. When two of the largest manufacturing countries in the world—not to mention two of the planet’s biggest and fastest growing markets—become destabilized, the things we buy get more expensive, the things we make become harder to sell, and our world becomes vastly less safe. This drains our economy and diverts public resources to defense and security and away from public investment.

In other words, those glaciers that are disappearing halfway around the world, in a place most of us will never see, will affect the lives of every student, teacher and family in our school.

The longtime slogan for getting people engaged on environmental issues is “think globally, act locally.” The idea is to try to make abstract phenomena real and actionable to everyday people. But I’m not sure it really holds true anymore. These days it’s more like, “think globally, act globally.” Just as the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers ultimately affects our students, so too can our students ultimately affect the glaciers.

How? By working with guys like James Abraham, an Indian entrepreneur I met at the festival. James’ company, Sunborne Energy, has the modest mission of producing solar power for millions and millions of people at the same price point as coal. He estimates they may be three years away from getting there. The key? Simple technology. Their plants will be solar thermal—no expensive silicon needed—using readily available, local materials. The concept is not a whole lot different than building a solar cooker, or using a magnifying glass to light a fire. We could start working on this problem next week if we wanted to, figuring out what could be powered using cheap solar technology and how it could be developed and deployed locally. In the process, we would encounter and learn from people and companies that are already there, becoming part of a network, a worldwide team, working to solve a problem with global implications.

The day after Brashears’ talk, Richard Florida gave a fascinating lecture about the rise of cities and what he calls “mega-regions” (such as the DC-Boston corridor). Cities, he argues, are humankind’s greatest invention. In strictly economic terms, the world’s 600 largest urban centers account for over half of global GDP (a figure the McKinsey Global Institute projects to rise to 60% by 2025) while housing just 22% of the world’s population. Yet some cities are more productive than others. Specifically, those cities that attract the most creative professionals are far more productive than those that attract fewer. And creative professionals, it turns out, are not evenly distributed—they cluster in cities like Austin and places like Silicon Valley. But here’s the thing that intrigued me the most: the phenomenon repeats at scale. This clustering of creative people happens at the neighborhood, city, region, national and even global level. At each level it appears to produce similar effects.

This immediately made me think about the vast potential of the Navy Yard, some of which is already being realized, with our students right in the middle of it all. We could not be in a better place to do the work we do. But being successful depends on putting our students in position to create and collaborate. The more they engage in this kind of work, the more they will connect with others, and the more creative problem solvers will be drawn into the growing network. While this obviously benefits our students, it can also benefit the city, the region, even the nation.

Big problems manifest in small ways, but small solutions can also have big implications. I heard entrepreneurs talk about how the first step in any venture is to discover what you really love to do and grow the organization from that passion. Then I heard environmental activists, designers, and urban planners all describe the interconnectedness of the social and ecological worlds, arguing that organizations and institutions—and the networks that connect them—need to be thought of as part of a broader, more comprehensive ecology. There’s a lot of complexity in this worldview, but also a great deal of promise. James found the thing that makes him want to get out of bed every morning and work incredibly hard. It is an extension of his values, his worldview. And the thing he created from that passion could alter the fate of every person on this planet.

What are our students passionate about? What lights a fire under them? And most important of all, what happens when they figure it out, and begin building and creating from that place?

That’s what we’re here to find out.