Thomas, who goes by T.H., is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. T.H. and his organization, Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S., work to install solar-powered water heaters on the roofs of homes and businesses in Cairo, Egypt. (Solar C3.I.T.I.E.S. is an acronym that stands for “Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems.”)
T.H. interprets his work with urban planning and engineering as being a “soldier on a different battle front.” Working in slums with sustainable technology is like basic training in geography, technology, and humanity, he says.
T.H. grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where his mother taught in the Head Start program, which helps prepare children for school.
The Museum of Science and Industry, the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, is in Chicago, and T.H. remembers visiting it almost every weekend. “They had these great exhibits of all kinds of science,” he says. “How coal is mined, how the heart works . . .”
Chicago also sits on the shore of Lake Michigan, site of a massive fish kill in 1965. “I could smell it! We could see Gary, Indiana, from the lake, and we knew [the pollution] had to be coming from those factories. Not coincidentally, that was also right at the edge of the black community.”
T.H. studied biology and anthropology at Harvard University before earning a Ph.D. in urban planning from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Talking to people—all types of people—like we are all participants in the great conversation. I’m doing my part, and I’m comfortable in my part of the conversation.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Being separated from my [wife and daughter]. This sort of work also involves some financial risks. . . . There are some really, really poor times.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“Space! Space is everything. Space is destiny, geography is destiny. Geography is non-linear, it’s 4-D.”
Explorers have a unique relationship to geography, T.H. says, because unlike many people, explorers are not tied to a specific workspace. “Explorers’ work is where we go.”
As an Ivy League urban planner working with some of the world’s poorest communities, T.H. is acutely aware of different spaces and different audiences. T.H. stresses the need for developed nations to respect the dignity and autonomy of the developing world.
“We all need to participate in the great conversation,” he says.
He also points to the developing world’s interest in science and technology. “I haven’t found any resistance,” he says.
Technology can become a status symbol, he says, which can affect the environment of a family, a community, and even an entire nation.
For instance, T.H. recalls meeting a young mother while he was working in Southeast Asia. T.H. was struck by the unusual name of her son: Armstrong. Armstrong, his mother told T.H., was named after American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. “The woman’s hopes and ambitions for her son were tied to science and technology.”
Political leaders can help expose communities and countries to sustainable technology. T.H. worked with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after Obasanjo left office. Obasanjo equipped his own home with solar-powered water heaters, even though he could afford more expensive technology.
“The people have to see that this is quality technology, and that I use it,” T.H. remembers Obasanjo saying. Interest in solar-powered water heaters increased after Nigerians saw the heaters on Obasanjo’s roof.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . URBAN PLANNER
Instead of specializing in a specific field of engineering or urban planning, T.H. encourages students to study the broad scope of liberal arts. He emphasizes the need for wide-ranging knowledge and the ability to make connections between disciplines such as music and engineering, or anthropology and art.
He also encourages those interested in urban planning and engineering to study . . . marketing.
“We need to make it sexier! We need an Ikea of solar hot water heaters. American schools are so good at marketing!”
T.H. says “all real learning takes place outside of school. I learned in spite of school, not because of it.” He emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with positive, interesting resources. “That should be your school,” he says.