Wilco van Rooijen op Antarctica © teamwilco.nl

He has stood on the world’s highest peaks. Climbed the so-called Seven Summits, without any supplemental oxygen. Van Rooijen sought to climb those lofty peaks, even though he believes that the most beautiful flowers grow in the valley. “Blindly staring at the summit does not lead to sustainable solutions,” he states. InnovationOrigins sat down with him to discuss sustainability and innovation.

Van Rooijen saw with his own eyes what climate change is causing. Together with the student Polar team from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, he wants to develop a vehicle that will drive autonomously to Antarctica to carry out research there. That car is not his main aim, he wants to “take society a step further”.

Dare to share

What we need to do in order to really innovate is to share knowledge, Van Rooijen contends. “You shouldn’t want to do this all by yourself.” He found out for himself that it is actually foolish to always want to be ahead of the pack. “If you really believe in yourself and what you are doing, then you actually have the courage to share it. Because it’s then that we all really make great leaps. In fact, that’s when we all get to really fly.”

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“If you have a good story to tell, people will pick up on that.” The project with the TU/e students is an example of that says the adventurer. When he made his ‘pitch’ to the university two years ago, he still doubted that people would buy into it. “I actually had a very rambling story. A professor next to me was very dedicated about a specific area. At the time I thought that a story like his would appeal to people. Yet my story turned out to catch on. People are still latching on to it. Our team has almost doubled in size.”

Van Rooijen’s expeditions to the North and South Poles, among other places, showed him the influence that our way of life has on nature. That’s why, ten years ago, he hatched the plan to build a car that, energy-efficient and autonomous, could drive across the South Pole for research. “Nowhere in the world is nature as pristine as it is there,” he says. Two previous attempts to build a car fell through.

“Hanging back”

If you surround yourself with people who continue to have faith, they will support you when you stop believing in it yourself for a while, Van Rooijen believes. During his expeditions to the North Pole, he and his team walked for seventy days in temperatures of minus forty degrees without seeing a thing. “By day twenty, you think: What on earth are we doing?”

He then dropped back to the rear and stayed hanging back for a while. “At some point you feel it’s your job to take the lead again. Everyone has their difficult moments, everyone starts whining at some point. And believe me, in the middle of the expedition, you could have taken me out. Why did I keep it up? It was because me and my colleagues had come up with the idea of doing it. I had faith in my colleagues. If we all thought it was madness, we would have stopped. As it turns out, there was always someone who said, ‘No guys, we’re going to be fine, we’ll be fine.’ That’s fantastic, right?!”

The confidence that you can have a period of time when you might not be coping so well is important, according to Van Rooijen. “Don’t just throw someone overboard then, know that your day will come one day too. That you will get sick and then you hope that people will be there to support you.”

After the climb, comes the fall

Van Rooijen, too, used to have that mindset that you should keep climbing to reach a peak. “After that, you find out, ‘gosh, I have to climb up another peak again.’ How many peaks do you want to have climbed in your life?” The mountaineer himself has conquered all the world’s highest mountains. It has taught him a lot. “That feeling when you reach that top is unparalleled.” In the Dutch RTL Late Night TV show he said, “I have never experienced that kind of feeling on sea level. On a summit like that, heaven and earth meet.”

But after reaching every summit there is an inevitable descent. You have to have enough energy left for that, Van Rooijen says. Anything can happen along the way. He lost friends and all of his toes on his trips. During the descent of K2 in 2008, he wandered alone in the ‘zone of death’ for three days. He then missed the fourth camp, but found the third camp again under his own steam.

“It’s not just about that peak. If it’s just about that, then you will have a very difficult life. Because then you’ll spend most of your time in the valley. I sometimes say: In that valley – which is where we are right now with corona too – literally the most beautiful flowers grow.”

Linear thinking

During the first evaluation with the Polar team about the project, one of the students came to the conclusion that it was too complex to solve in a linear fashion, or in other words, in a straight line to the solution, Van Rooijen explains. “Then I really thought: Wow. I could never have put it into words like that myself. We often try to solve something in a linear way. There’s a problem, this is the solution. With time and manpower, we will get there step by step. But that’s not how you move the world forward, of course. We are in a circular world where we need everyone from all directions. Not just technicians but citizens as well. You need everyone on board to ultimately achieve a smarter world. Otherwise, you’re designing something that is not going to be used.”

If you think you can solve something in a linear fashion, you’ll continue to walk around with blinkers on, Van Rooijen continues. “Then you keep on thinking that the path you have set yourself is the right one. But there is no one path. The fact that these students in their early twenties already have that insight, yes, that’s mindblowing to me. When I was twenty years old, I couldn’t have imagined that. I really think they’re open to each other.”

Materials and behavior

Collaboration must go beyond than just that with the Eindhoven University of Technology, Van Rooijen goes on to say. “Of course, Eindhoven is an incredibly highly regarded institution. Especially if you want to create an electric platform that will eventually be driven across Antarctica. If it’s about materials, another university might just be the best. Or if it’s a matter of human behavior, then you could easily end up in England or America.”

“And I’m saying now quite casually that it’s about knowledge sharing, but after the first year, there was nothing in the conclusions of that same evaluation that mentioned that. The students mainly immersed themselves in the technology, because it had to be state of the art, of course. Then someone else is needed who declares: ‘We’re doing this so we can share our knowledge about Antarctica with other countries.'”

We need to question each other more from a sense of curiosity, says Van Rooijen. For instance, he remembers a certain critical journalist. “We had flown our first car into Antarctica. At the time we dared to call that clean. The journalist had calculated how much energy was needed to get the car there and to keep it running. That definitely opened my eyes.”

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About the author

Author profile picture Corine Spaans is a writer. She is particularly interested in the stories of the people behind the innovations and has a passion for sport (innovation).