Dickson Despommier on Encouraging Innovation

Microbiologist and Ecologist

I am a microbiologist/ecologist by training, and for 27 years I conducted laboratory-based research on molecular aspects of intracellular parasitism funded by NIH. I also teach courses in the medical school and in our school of public health (e.g., Parasitic Diseases; Medical Ecology; Ecology 101). Many of them deal with parasitism and its effects on large segments of the poor that live in the tropics. Controlling soil-based transmission cycles of helminthes that cause significant health problems throughout the world is of prime importance to me.

I left the lab in favor of working on more globally relevant projects that address some these important problems. Since it is generally agreed agriculture is solely responsible for so much environmental disturbance and serves as the interface for the transmission of geohelminths, one area of focus of mine has been on how to raise food without further encroachment into natural ecosystems.

I have established The Vertical Farm as a theoretical construct to look at the possibility of agricultural sustainability within cities. The idea grew out of a class project to measure the effects of rooftop gardening in New York City on reducing the dome of heat that develops over us each year. From that original idea, I expanded the concept to include urban agriculture and finally to multi-story indoor farming. I have given this project to my students in my course, "Medical Ecology."

  • Transcript


Dickson Despommier:
About a week and a half ago there was a wonderful event that took place
in New York City called the World Science Festival and it was organized
by the universities inside the city of New York, and it had about 40
venues and one of those venues was at NYU and I had the privilege of
participating in it, and the venue was called Future Cities. All right.
How do I imagine a future city? If we can’t learn how to make our lives
as comfortable as possible, and recycle, and by recycling I don’t mean
collecting old tin cans and bottles, and crushing them up and selling
them for profit. No, no. I mean behaving ecologically to the point of
conserving all of the passive transfer of energy that we have available
with minimum use off the grid, and in fact add energy back to the grid
and become a grid. Have cities become grids for energy generation. We
manufacture, we use and we discard. That’s got to change. Cradle to
cradle, not cradle to grave. That’s the deal, so I imagine that’s how
everybody can get involved. Every citizen can think of a way in which
something that we do this way today is done differently tomorrow, and I
know this day is coming because I feel it deep inside now. I have a
little saying on the side of my desk at work. I know this sounds corny,
it’s from a fortune cookie. It didn’t say “For a good time call.” It
didn’t say that. What it said was “Nothing is impossible to a willing
heart.” Now that sounds corny but to honest with you, if you don’t
believe it that this is real and that that’s actually going to change
something, there’s no way that you can get somebody involved. I have
never had a response to this program other than “My heart says this is
a damn good idea. Let’s take it further an intellectualize it, and see
where it goes.” That’s how you get involved. You don’t have to come up
with your own strategy for growing food inside the urban setting. But
it has to reuse the energy that you used to make it to begin with.
That’s all. That’s the only requirement. After that you’re on your own.

Recorded on: 6/10/08