Why geography is better without a map
Since my earliest days in mom-imposed gingham and saddle shoes, I approached each school year with no small amount of energy and romance. I lined up office supplies and color-coded file folders, as if an organized desk ensured an organized mind. Coming up to Oxford, the start of a shiny, new academic adventure already brimmed with the potential; the prospect of learning amidst the dreaming spires was more than this Pittsburgh girl ever anticipated. The only thing missing was a bouquet of freshly sharpened Dixon-Ticonderoga #2s.
To date, my American educational experience had been wholly linear, with expectations clearly defined via syllabi, textbooks, and assigned problem sets. Even when exploring new terrain, I could chart performance via quiz and midterm scores. If I worked hard, all would be well. Like aspiring postgrads who came before me, I arrived amped to learn from a rockstar supervisor, research questions burning a fire in the belly. Answers would be found by wrestling a database into statistical submission via Q and R.
Little did I know that reading a DPhil would be entirely different from anything I had encountered Stateside. Within weeks of matriculation, I discovered my linear assumptions were wholly wrong, and my learning curve was steep. At no point could I solve for x to find a tidy answer, but what I found was even better: there was an appetite for asking questions, and challenging assumptions.
Oxford became an exercise in being intellectually uncomfortable and discovering that the most interesting questions are often the ones that refuse to fit neatly into disciplinary silos. There is no singular roadmap for navigating new intellectual territory, and yet, wrong turns are possible, even probable.
While I made my home within a single department, I quickly learned what a “big tent” applied geography offered, with colleagues tackling the thorniest challenges facing society today: geopolitics, climate change, globalization, international migration, and beyond. My research was informed by questions from both human and physical geography, and required me to bring insights from a host of literatures – the economics of technological change, behavioral psychology, and public policy, to name just a few – to bear on questions of stimulating innovation and economic development.
While conducting research at Oxford to consider lessons learned from the frothy dot-com era, I discovered that our most influential innovators – be they in engineering, finance, business, law, or government – were the individuals whose experiences allowed them to develop fluency across otherwise stove-piped communities. A brief glance at global research agendas reveals that today’s thought leaders are, in fact, stimulating cutting-edge work at the very intersection of disciplines.
As a policy wonk interested in how best to improve social, economic, and environmental outcomes, it made sense that studying the earth’s peoples and places, its physical and social processes, tensions, dynamics, and differences across cultures and terrains would offer an appropriately wide berth for asking questions not constrained by linear models but sensitive to the realities of contemporary problem-solving. And I could not have guessed where it would take me.
After defending in autumn of 2004, my findings offered the launching point for the consultancy I would found as a certified minority and women-owned enterprise to help philanthropists, government, and other institutional investors make better decisions across borders and boundaries, from local to global. Since 2005, Islay has been successful only because of our ability to work across sectors and disciplines to inform high-dollar, high-risk challenges at the intersection of science, technology, and society.
Year on year, we see the benefits of technologies allowing us to communicate more readily or to travel more freely, to wrestle infectious diseases into submission, or to better link smallholder farmers to markets, thereby lifting people from poverty. Often the most interesting developments in our increasingly interconnected, fast-paced world are those that beget more questions, ones that require a creativity and resourcefulness at the leading edge of innovation. Further, such developments regularly introduce societal and ethical questions for which there are no simple answers.
Separate from my own nonlinear path, we have advanced beyond the William Whyte “organization man” era, in which employees work an entire career in a single firm. Today’s economy and society require boundary spanners, versatile thinkers who can communicate across disciplines, sectors, and, yes, party lines. When considering the most intractable challenges, there is no “silver bullet” solution to be found within a disciplinary silo. If we throw a narrow solution at the world’s most challenging problems, we are quickly setting ourselves up for failure.
While some recoil at the societal challenges facing our generation, I take solace in knowing there exists a cadre of out-of-the-box thinkers who seek solutions in out-of-the-way spaces and places – and I remain thankful for the opportunity to learn both from and with them amidst those dreaming spires.
About this blog contributor | Terry Babcock-Lumish, founder of Islay Consulting LLC | Twitter: @TerryBL
Islay founder Dr. Terry Babcock-Lumish has worked in local, state, and federal government in the United States. Upon leaving the White House in 2001, she served as a researcher for two books by former Vice President Al Gore. More recently, she built the public policy program at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in the former New York City home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and taught economics at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She read her DPhil (St. John’s College) as a Clarendon and Truman Scholar.