Disruption is not something we usually associate with exploration and fieldwork. A seemingly timeless discipline and one of the oldest of human endeavours, it would be easy to assume that the only thing that changes about exploration is the equipment which is available and where the boundaries of the unexplored lie. Yet as the much highlighted shift from an exploration which aims to dominate the planet, to one which seeks to understand it shows, in a disruptive world even here there have been significant changes underfoot.
To understand how traditional concepts of exploration are being disrupted, we first need to understand what exploration is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not. The difficulty is the scientific community has always been relatively clear in its own mind what an explorer is, the public much less so. Even if a coherent concept of an explorer does exist in the public conciseness, it is still a long way from the sort of definition that you would expect National Geographic, or the Royal Geographical Society might give. Exploration is about plumbing the unknown, about advancing human knowledge. Exploration is most definitely not pogo-sticking across the Sahara; impressive that might be, exploration it is not. By contrast, scientific discovery in often (but not always) remote or challenging environments, though not the only facet of exploration, undoubtedly is. It is that which we will be concerned with, that which we might refer to as scientific exploration.
While space easily comes to mind when thinking about the next frontier, a tremendous amount of what we do not know is around us and modern day explorers can be found across all environments on Earth pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge. Fresh back from the UN Oceans Conference in New York, Oliver Steeds, Chief Executive of The Nekton Mission, suggests that we know so little about the deep oceans that we have better maps of the moon’s surface than areas of the ocean seabed. Dr Margaret Lowman, or ‘Canopy Meg’ as she is more widely known, points to the forest canopy, which constantly surprises scientists with its diversity of life and potential for undiscovered species. Both of these fields are undoubtedly exploration, that much has not changed.
What has changed is who is part of that story. A changing perception of who is viewed as an explorer is part of this and Dr Lowman relates how recent steps, such as the prestigious Explorers Club accepting female members in 1981, began to create positive disruption in what was historically a very restricted field. Diversity still remains a challenge for exploration as a practice and the impact it can have where it operates, but the old guard of exploration, the institutions such as the Royal Geographical Society in London or The Explorers Club in New York that have traditionally been the vessels for exploration, have, and largely across the board, responded positively to the challenge and have welcomed the emergence of organisations like WINGS Worldquest, which aims to disrupt the status quo by encouraging women in exploration and field science.
Perhaps even more significant has been a fundamental change in the way non-professionals can be part of that story. Just because exploration might be about human progress and scientific discovery, that does not mean there is no place for the non-scientist. Shane Winser, head of Geography Outdoors, the fieldwork arm of the Royal Geographical Society, refers to the ‘democratisation of exploration’ as the greatest single disruptor to the field. Organisations like Earthwatch, iSpot, or the Missing Maps Project, have made it easier than ever for members of the public to become involved as exploration field assistants, to access electronically available open source data, or to be involved in mapping and studying areas of the world on where there is a lack of compiled information which in turn is then used to aid disaster relief.
The democratisation of exploration is not confined to the digital contribution of the armchair geographer; arguably just as important has been the adoption of an approach in fieldwork which emphasises working alongside local communities and building local capacity. A far cry from the nature of exploration in the 18th or 19th centuries and perhaps in part a reaction against it, this shift to adopting the development of local capacity as a guiding principle for scientific exploration has heralded a significant change in what role we see for exploration. Even when considered comparatively recently, when explorers would go into an area for a short time for the purpose of scientific discovery, conservation or research, this still represents a seismic shift. Of course there have been tremendous benefits for fieldwork from this shift, for the value of doing so in ensuring the long-term success of a project, particularly those which involve monitoring over time, cannot be stated enough.
While technology has been important to how exploration is practiced, it has also led to a revolution in the way the findings of exploration are communicated. From television documentaries bringing scientific discoveries into the home, to live sessions, social media, crowd-funding or 360 Degree footage allowing the emergence of a new type of tech-savvy explorer, technological developments have continuously shaped how exploration is practiced, communicated and made relevant for the public, with an explosion of new communication formats over the past decade. That exploration remains relevant is important because in an age of increasing human influence over the world around us, scientific exploration (rather than for commercial or military purposes) is increasingly becoming a race to explore parts of the world before they are lost or damaged by human activity and that means exploration has become increasingly concerned with the conservation of the world it sets out to understand. This all means that exploration and scientific discovery is high on the agenda in a changing world – and in a disruptive climate there are opportunities for anyone to be involved. Whether it is the discovery of new knowledge, the communication of that knowledge, or utilising that knowledge to create impact, each plays an important role in how exploration will continue to be part of the human journey.
BY JOSHUA POWELL, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER AND MEMBER OF THE ST. GALLEN SYMPOSIUM’S GLOBAL LEADERS OF TOMORROW COMMUNITY