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Doing well by doing good: An interview with Sir Tim Smit

Doing well by doing good: An interview with Sir Tim Smit
Published: February 11, 2020
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Impact’s Head of Partnerships, Jo Appleby, recently sat down for a chat with Sir Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden Project. Tim is a creative, a visionary, and a marvellous storyteller, inspiring business leaders, governments, communities and the general public to get behind his ideas and make them happen. Tim has become a great friend of Impact over the years and we were delighted to have the chance to hear his thoughts on new projects, ecology, the climate crisis, and what exactly is holding us back. Molly, our chief wordsmith summed Tim up perfectly when editing this interview: ‘It started off really well behaved and now I’m about halfway through and he’s roaming wild and free.’ I don’t think we’d want Tim any other way. 

Jo: So what are you focused on at the moment Tim?

Tim: Right now we have so many exciting projects in the making. Globally, we are working on two projects in China, as well as coming to the end of our content creation for the 2020 Expo in Dubai. We are also going to start a project in Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road. Here in the UK we are working on our plans for the Eden project in Morecambe, which we are hoping will be open to the public at the beginning of 2023. Morecambe is a fantastic location because it’s got everything you need to demonstrate the interconnectedness of humans and nature in all its cycles and rhythms: the amazing bay sweeping in and out, the rivers feeding it, migratory birds, views of the Lake District and its weather systems. It’s just brilliant – absolutely hypnotic. I think the Morecambe project, Eden Project North, may well be our most important project; it’s effectively going to be a marine Eden. We’re also doing a project in Derry, Ireland, and another in a mine in Portland, Dorset. The Portland project is based in a two-mile-long limestone quarry, from which half of London was built.

Jo: How are you doing all of this? Through collaboration?

Tim: We do a lot of collaboration. At Eden we’re an educational charity but effectively we’re also a creative brand: we put the ideas together and determine how they should be perceived, and because the Eden Project Cornwall has had such a big economic impact, people listen to us. It also means that people don’t think we’re bonkers when we tell them that they need to do something a bit wild – after all, no one wants to go and visit the second biggest greenhouse in the country. It’s not just about diversification, it’s about raising people’s eyes to a distant horizon, where they can feel genuinely inspired by what you’re doing. For example, the journey through the mine in Portland is also a journey through time, back to the pre-Cambrian era through strata and fossils. The project is going to be about extinction, evolution and ecology. It’s basically a cathedral to biodiversity set within and framed by the long-gone biodiversity of the deep time past.

Jo: What are some of the things you are most proud of?

Tim: The thing I’m proudest of is that this is our twentieth year at the Eden Project Cornwall, and we are still averaging over a million visitors a year, despite being in the middle of nowhere! However, I’m also very aware of the temptation to measure success by economic metrics, and actually if you believe the climate science timescale, there is something fantastically shortsighted about being smug about visitor numbers. At the same time, we know the human psyche well enough to recognise that nobody changes their behaviour simply because they’re terrified; people need a story. One more fact won’t change the world; we need a vision of how humans can rise to a magnificent challenge to prove that we are of nature, not apart from it.

Another thing I continue to be very proud of is our involvement with a number of conservation projects. For example, we have a 10,000 acre rainforest on the West coast of Costa Rica. Thirty years ago it was degraded farmland, before a Danish philanthropist bought all the farms, put a fence around it and refused to let anyone enter the area for the next three decades. In that time, magnificent secondary rainforest has grown up and incredible biodiversity has returned, such as jaguars and ocelot. The local town, La Paquera, has also experienced significant benefits. In the past, every year there would be conflict and murder over water rights, resulting from droughts that lasted for five months of the year. Now there are four rivers running 365 days a year out of the rainforest. Furthermore, our current partners, the brothers who inherited the land, gave the water rights of the rainforest to the mayoralty of the town, forever protecting them against not having water. This generous act has created a wonderful sense of collegiality. The respect that the people of the village have for biodiversity has gone through the roof – they have even organised their own fire brigade to make sure that the rainforest is protected. The impacts have been so positive that we’ve now got the government of Costa Rica talking to us about building a mixed agronomy, in which we would have an integrated patchwork of regenerated rainforest and agriculture. This would enable us to link our rainforest up with rainforest further north.

Jo: What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing us?

Tim: At my age, I would note that when you’re younger you tend to focus on specific things, such as getting rid of plastic. But as you get older you start to realise that part of the problem is the word ‘focus’ itself. Eagles don’t focus; eagles glide over mountains and hillsides with generalised vision. But their peripheral vision is sensitive to motion, and when they detect movement, they focus. I think part of our culture’s problem is that we try and tackle individual problems rather than adopting an integrated, systemic mindset. For example, we’re working with some people in West Wales who are likely the best organic vegetable growers in the world. They say that with just 67 other people like them they could make Wales completely food independent. The problem is that there are only four others like them, and it’s very difficult to train others up. In addition, distribution outlets have been dominated by big agriculture, which means that localism cannot be catered for.

For me, one of the causes behind this tunnel-vision outlook is that we treat ourselves as if we were products of the machine age, when we are pure biology. Last year I met the creative director of Google Alphabet, who had been responsible for buying Deep Mind, a London AI company. He said the biggest insight in his life came when looking at AI and suddenly realising that the digital binary algorithm – which was the god of the computer age – has a limit. Actually there’s a point at which you need to step back and realise that ecology is different. Instead of thinking about vertical or horizontal integration, ecology is about total integration. Look at how creatures organise themselves within ecosystems. You may not be able to foresee the impacts of everything that you’re looking at, but you know that there will be an impact. We have to see it as a game of consequences: if you want a particular solution, you need to work out what is necessary for it to thrive, and very often it’s not immediately obvious what that is. What we need is a vision, and one of the problems we have is that we’re suspicious of visions and we’ve allowed ourselves to be talked to by politicians as if we were just consumers, not citizens.

Jo: Can you tell me about Hothouse?

Tim: Hothouse is our leadership programme based at Eden. It’s been running for four years, but we’ve only just started to get a proper sense of what it is. Its narrative has become more sure-footed, and we’ve recently started to do women’s groups. We hadn’t realised just how popular this would be, with people saying very kind things about how life-changing an experience it is.

The trouble is we’ve got so depressed about the idea of leadership, and actually what it’s about is self-realisation. Once you understand the things that motivate you really well, and once you understand that everyone else also believes that they’re an imposter, you’re able to lead your organisation. We don’t tend to ask what it takes to be a leader. There are certain attributes that people who need to be influential amongst other groups of people need to have, but that is different. Leadership feels like such a blunt instrument, an archetype that’s been instilled through television and film. For example, often if you promote people, they think that being a leader is telling people what to do – they can’t help it, it’s what they’ve seen others do. 

Jo: A final question for you now: Who needs to tell the truth? And why does it matter?

Tim: I think the issue about telling the truth is that we have distracted ourselves with endless discussions about climate change when a whole range of contributing, damaging behaviours could well have been prevented by good civic life. One of the oldest phrases on Earth is ‘waste not, want not’; almost every society has an equivalent. The creation of waste is the root of all of this. If we consider the word ‘waste’ and the fact that there is no ‘away’ in which to throw things, and if we recognise that the natural world does not have waste in that sense, it suggests to us a range of behaviours that we should have adapted into good business practice.

We should also be throwing down the gauntlet at those who run a lot of our businesses with no moral compass at all. Business is not about maximising shareholder value ­­– that’s a misunderstanding. Purpose, moral compass and citizenship have to sit right bang in the middle of it. We’ve got to be demanding of corporate governance to make it incredibly punitive to trash the environment. We need to be creating a culture in which your mandate to trade has got to be proved. Currently, good business is not good citizenship. To be honest, we should all speak the truth, and we should all ask ourselves what our mission is, because without one, you can’t judge whether your strategy is right.

We will continue to interview leaders in the areas of responsible leadership, climate change and sustainable innovation. Make sure you subscribe to our bi-monthly newsletter In Good Company to stay up to date.