Recently I came upon a post from Adventure Journal that raised this really intriguing question. What happens when an entire generation can no longer see the night sky? It’s a powerful question when you consider that for most of human history we have been directly exposed to the night sky. Only in the last 100 years did electric light exist, and in the last 30 did light pollution become a large issue. Studies are emerging that highlight light pollution may have a very real impact on our physiology. With further reflection, a question related to innovation came to mind – what happens to our passion for exploration in a world without stars?
“The most consistently creative and insightful people are explorers.” – Alex Pentland, MIT Media Lab
What does the night sky have to do with design and engineering? Consider how you got to this moment, how you got into your profession, or even to this blog. You’re not here by accident. I’ve written before about the parallels between innovation and exploration, but where does a passion for exploration and innovation come from? It has to start somewhere and thus there must have been a moment. That moment fired an emotional response deep in your brain, which found its way into the core of your self-identity. It lead to another moment, and another. Continued exploration created a self-fulfilling cycle for new inspiration and moments of awe. Those moments lead you to music, philosophy, poetry, religion, science, mathematics, design, engineering…
The passion for exploration is driven and sustained by the existence of an unknown. If you have young children you are privileged to see human response to the unknown as they experience things for the very first time. But, as we experience the world things become familiar. It takes more effort to find moments of awe. Some settle and stop searching. However, explorers don’t stop searching, they make the effort to walk a little farther, meet another person, or ask another question.
“To fully understand our place in the world we also need to understand at least to some degree the world’s place in the universe.” – Dr Lori Allen, Director, Kitt Peak National Observatory
An unencumbered night sky is a brilliant and awe-inspiring visual. If you have ever laid down on the edge of the Grand Canyon, high in the Rockies, or an open area with no light pollution you can probably transport yourself there right now. The stars feel close enough to touch. There is a texture to the sky. Colors emerge in darkness, which seems impossible. You cannot help but feel very small as you consider the vastness of the universe. The awe created by recognition of our own smallness is powerful. It’s scary, but can be transformative. The smallness allows one to see that the constraints experienced in a slice of existence are tiny in comparison to all of existence. Because of that, problems and limitations must be solvable. Think about the impact of the first images of the Earth taken from the moon. The ‘blue marble’ created a perspective of the earth as a tiny dot in the immenseness of space that helped shape social and environmental movements. It changed the way many see the world, and what they thought might be possible.
Think about the moment, or series of moments that sent on you on your path of exploration. Those first moments were likely something accessible in the physical environment that established an awareness of something bigger than yourself. Technology is allowing us to explore frontiers that have been inaccessible until very recently. Consider the mapping of the human genome, neuroimaging of the mind, expanded understanding of social dynamics gained via social media and data sciences. But do not forget that the passion to explore these frontiers emerged a generation ago from something accessible like the stars in the night sky.
“People love to figure out how to do the right thing, once they know what that is.” – Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia
As you consider the inspirations that may have lead you to technology it is important to realize that the night sky is disappearing because of advancements in technology. Thus the night sky also highlights the importance of responsibility. If you are in technology to design, build, and create something you likely have a passion to bring something into the world that will change it for the better. There is little argument that cheap electric lighting is good, but at what point is there an unintended negative impact? This part of design is often overlooked. In some cases during early designs it can be difficult to even imagine what happens at the extremes, but you cannot imagine those scenarios if you don’t at least try.
Teams believe in the power of their product. They prove its nominal cost, its opportunity cost; they can recite ROI studies, but what about value? Not just immediate, but long term consequences of the costs and benefits a product may bring. While it has always been a philosophical question, shifting dynamics in social preferences and emergent use of social media especially among millennials is making social value a very important question (See here, here, and here). The question of value should be asked early and often. Early on it may be tough to fully understand. Consider the evolution of Patagonia, it was years before they began to figure out and realize impact, but that realization came first from a willingness to ask the question. As you design and build, be wary of your collateral damage and make sure that you become the shoulders others can stand on, not the ones that block a source of inspiration.
Revitalizing your spirit of exploration
Take a moment to really think about this question – when was the seed of exploration planted in my life? Recognize that all people explore up to a point, but those who innovate, who build, who have a passion to create go farther. If you’re reading this, you’re likely one of those people. Something happened in your life that pushed you past the mundane. See if you can figure out what it was, if not the original inspiration something more recently. When did you last feel awe? Next time you look to schedule a breakthrough meditate on that place, that time. If you struggle to remember the moment just go outside. You may have to travel a little farther than you did 30 years ago, and you will likely have to step a little out of your comfort zone but if you’re willing – you’ll find something. That can become your new moment, and it will prime your mind for the exploration necessary for innovation.