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Mishcon Academy: Purpose Matters - Purpose, Leadership and Disruption

Posted on 13 October 2021

In this session, Mishcon's Managing Partner James Libson speaks with Sir Tim Smit KBE, co-founder of the Eden Project.

Tim Smit is a serial entrepreneur, and the creator and visionary behind the ground-breaking Eden Project, an educational charity and social enterprise, whose global mission is to create a movement that builds relationships between people and the natural world.

Introduced by Alexander Rhodes, Head of Mishcon Purpose, James and Sir Tim discussed how business leaders can shape the world's possibilities by disrupting the status quo. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.

This afternoon we are privileged to have with us two leaders, a lawyer, James Libson, the Managing Partner of Mishcon de Reya in conversation with an entrepreneur, Sir Tim Smith, the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Eden Project near St Austell in Cornwall on the topic of purpose, leadership and disruption.

James Libson

Tell us tell us what your function is what the Eden standard where it is and what your function is going to be at COP26.

Sir Tim Smith

The publicly stated position is that we're there to start discussions, to make people feel hopeful about stuff, to draw people together.  The environment movement as a whole it’s been very good at telling you what's wrong with the world but appalling at actually suggesting what you might do to put it right.  A friend of mine who's the boss of Greenpeace was saying it's really difficult to move your whole way of thinking in terms of how we're going to have a positive discussion, what are we going to recommend as opposed to what are we going to knock down and it's, it's very interesting as Eden is going through a position at the moment of trying to explore what does provocative actually mean. 

We fall in love with words like that and you've got to be very careful that you don't behave like a sixth former and think that provocative means you've just got to insult people and be rude about people who might be trying their best but failing and then you've got to ask the question which as a citizen, I know you’re, you're a B Corp here, as a citizen what is your role in that relationship? Have you got a duty as opposed to for example, for example, not knocking Government for its failure to clean up rivers - let's take an example yeah - if the Environment Agency isn't cleaning up rivers and we're putting an awful lot of stuff in the rivers which we shouldn't be and it's really, really bad.  Is your position to be yet another person knocking the situation or is your position to be a grounder of lightning to build a consortium of people around you which enable you to support Government to do the job which actually the Minister would love to be able to do but is actually hamstrung in not being able to do and I think a lot of us in the environment movement need to really reflect on whether the kind of late 60s generation rebellion mode is the right one in an era where people actually don't necessarily know the answers and can we help as opposed to trying to burn the house down.

James Libson

Well I wanted to come to this later on but maybe it's an absolute moment to talk about the current protests and the legislation that the, the Conservative Party was talking about passing a conference this week against protesters blocking motorways and, and whether you considered that type of pro… protest to be helpful or provocation or it has to be there in the mix.

Sir Tim Smith I will quote my dear friend, my late dear friend, Richard Sambrick who set up Friends of the Earth, who, do you remember the, the riots in Gothenburg all those years ago where people were throwing bricks through the window of McDonald's and whatever? He said to me after a couple of glasses of wine, he said ‘I feel so embarrassed that I think they're doing it for the wrong reasons but if they weren't doing it nobody would be interested in talking to me about the problem’ and I think this is the fundamental hypocrisy we all suffer from. We need a stage in which to talk about these things. How do you get that stage if someone braver than you isn't doing something rather awkward.

So do I approve of a lot of what Extinction Rebellion are doing or Insulate Britain are doing?  The point is nonetheless there that we need people to represent our outrage while we're doing other stuff to buy the stage room and the screen time to talk about these issues because it is iniquitous that we don't address stuff we seem to brush stuff under the carpets and we also managed to phrase protest as if somehow it was a political position to the left or the right as opposed to a moral compass thing which is actually is just wrong and I think that's one of the big issues of those of us who are in the establishment, I hate to say I'm in the establishment, but I can't really help it now, but the truth is the establishment has got a lot to answer for; for not being angry enough within its own echo chamber to throw out of it, to expel from its establishment those who are doing things that are morally wrong. Because strangely I think capitalism has done a huge disservice by protecting those who would seek to poison the things which should be of benefit to our children and children's children and so on.  What benefit can there be to any of us to actually protect water companies that do not filter their water and allow bad chemicals and [shit] to go into our rivers and so on to name but one of many things, it's the same as putting noxious substance into there.  Why are we protecting people like that? 

If we know from our education that this is bad, why on earth are these people given any respect, it is treason to us as a species. Lawyers are really, really important in this I'm, I'm really excited about the, the involvement of a lot of lawyers - I don't know what your firm is directly - but I know many of you will be supportive with say developing the crime of ecocide. It's only when you get the weaponry that you can start to get structure and governance around some of these moral issues that you can start to get any leverage what can reinforce the protest of you know, people sitting under bridges and whatever.  So that's a very long-winded answer but I think it's a really interesting discussion about where do you get… who are your champions for your views. 

I don't think we're ready for what is coming, I mean we talk about again if you want a clear mountain stream thinking to actually really knock your spots off and you want to invest six, seven hours of your life in something that will change, you download the reports by an organization called RethinkX - five reports ‘The Future of Energy’, ‘The Future of Transport’, ‘The Future of Food and Farming’, ‘The Future of Humanity’ and ‘Revisiting Climate Change’.

I promise you after you've downloaded those and read them you will never think the same way ever again because as we speak about farming for example, we're talking about regeneration, regenerating agriculture at the moment and you look at what's happening on the West Coast of America -  last year's turnover of clean meat that's vegetable-produced meat 1.8 billion set to double this year.  China is about to enter the fray and what you find is middle-aged men who are always wrong, telling you yes maybe you have a good burger or something like that. 

I promise you by the end of next year you are going to have steak, you would be able to have lamb chops, you would be able to have fish, you'll be able to have chicken and turkey and all those things and you're going to see a complete revolution in land use, complete revolution.  What does that mean?  If China over the next two years decides it's going to move away from meat but market artificial meat as if it was meat and a status product it means that 80 percent of Brazil's soy supply which goes to China will then cease to be wanted.  Suddenly there might be a market for rainforests.  I’m being serious, I mean it's really interesting and I talk to people about fermentation technology, something I didn't know anything much about until recently but effectively it's using the fermentation that we use for distilling but it's fermenting fresh air because in fresh air there's an awful lot of stuff and if you question an awful lot of stuff, go outside walk along your London streets tonight and ask yourself a really big question as you look at those London plane trees - how come they're so effing big?  And you'll think, my school days they, they eat through their roots don't they?  How could they get that much nutrient from the underground?  They don't.  They get a little bit of their food from underground but most of it comes from the air and most people aren't taught that.  So anyway these fermentation vessels are able to ferment for example dairy protein at 30 percent of the cost of ordinary dairy.  So if I was a stockholder in agriculture I think I might be moving out of dairy pretty damn quick.

James Libson

And you also said that that you felt that we would be carbon neutral in this country within 10 years?

Sir Tim Smith

I said we could be completely energy independent by the year 2030.  We've moved a long way, the Eden Project has moved an awful long way from wanting to just entertain roots. We had a… last March, not the one we just had, we had a really frank conversation as a team - in 20 years’ time would we be happy to still have 1.1 million visitors every year and be making a surplus of 4 million quid and have everybody telling us it was education by visionaries or would we be a bunch of losers?  Answer: we realized we'd be a bunch of losers because what happens is you, you then exchange wanting to be activist and changing opinion with running a corner shop and actually the really important thing for Eden to do is to be a shop window for people to actually feel that they can do stuff and also demonstrate that you can do stuff.

So if we were all sitting right now in Cornwall at moment and I was here or David was there, we'd be saying you know what four thousand one hundred metres under my ass there is a drill and that drill is hitting temperatures of 155 degrees and we are going within a year, we're going to be completely independent energy-wise at Eden. Our country has been completely perverted by the influence of big oil because the interests of big oil were that this was a technology that should be seen as risky.  No one actually pointed out the complete hypocrisy of the fact we're using oil technology, drills and the reason it's so expensive is because the oil companies that have control of the contracts for these drills make it really expensive so de facto it's expensive. 

But guess what guys?  As demand for fossil fuel goes down over the next 10 years because we've all signed contracts for that haven't we? We believe that's going to happen.  The cost of drills is going to go down which means that actually you'll be able to get heat anywhere in Britain, you just have to drill deeper for it and what that is, is the thing that we've been waiting for since we discovered coal, it's base load.  It means that when the sun don't shine and the wind don't blow you've still got energy, really powerful energy, both for heat and for power depending on how deep you've gone.  Which means that it is completely within our control to be as a Nation, completely energy independent.

I think probably within a period of 15 years we could be completely food independent.  The way I think it's going to happen is, is this - I think Eden is, along with others, we're going to be successful with the geothermal.  It's going to suddenly see the price of geothermal going down, it's going to see grids develop which are local which they should have been anyway.  We've got centralized systems at the moment which are a throwback to World War II.  You are  going to see every town, every city in this country develop independent mains and so on and you're going to see that also start to happen with cooperatives for agriculture and suddenly you're going to see muscular localism.  Up until now localism has been a kind of derivative of parochialism but I think the, the plague that we've just gone through has changed an awful lot of people's minds about where they want to live, how they want to work, they also probably feel better balanced and I know there's been a lot of well-being issues to do with people being isolated on their own but those who weren't isolated, the other ones are realizing you know, it's actually a human thing to spend a lot of time with your family rather than get up at seven o'clock in the morning go to work come back late at night, kiss them and they get to sleep and at the weekends you can maybe see them.  What kind of world have we built?  When are we going to wake up to realize that we have created a madness and we've called it civilization and I think if the technology is going to do anything for us, it is not about making us more efficient, it's going to be about buying us the time to remember that we are creatures and actually we thrive on breaking bread together and family and laughing a lot.

James Libson

What's the unique aspect of our education system that that you criticize?

Sir Tim Smith

The unique aspect of the British Isles is we're the only Nation in the world I think where our schools education system is dominated and the gatekeepers are the Universities and I think it's incredibly sinister, incredibly bad, our education system is broken, everybody knows it's broken.  How bonkers is it, you are a little creature being taught about survival and the future and you're not taught to grow anything, how to cook anything, you're not necessarily taught anything about how your body works.  What the hell's the rest about then?  I mean if you think about it, how mad is that?  No you must learn maths and arithmetic and the great English Kings.  I think most people, teachers and academics would warrant that the over-specialism of the last 50 years has been pretty damaging in giving us a far too narrow view of the world and that what is trendily called ‘interdisciplinary or ‘transdisciplinary working’ has got to be the way we look at education going to the future to see how everything is linked to everything else because most surely life as a whole is.  Therefore we should have our education system mimicking it.

James Libson

Have you experienced a Darwinian moment when something surprised you?

Sir Tim Smith

We've got a project which is run by this fine friend and colleague of mine, Alexander in the front in Costa Rica where we have a 10,000 acre rainforest.  It was, we've been given it by some philanthropists the, the elder philanthropist who's now dead, bought 42 farms 35 years ago now, 30 years ago.  Completely degraded land, he fenced it off, he said, ‘No humans in here the birds will [shit] it back to life’.  Today, seriously kids, this is it's a spiritual thing you see this rainforest absolutely burgeoning every year more life more life more life.  We put heat cameras in there last year Ocelot and Puma for the first time.  This year for the first time in Jaguar, one seen.  It’s fantastically life affirming that in a very short period of time we can heal things, we can make things better and we don't have to do it on our own because nature is pretty damn good if we stop trying to second-guess it.  Every time I tell that story I feel myself feeling uplifted because it's very, very joyous.

James Libson

Tim, thank you so much.  The topic tonight was inspiration, leadership, disruption and you really are an epitome of all three and it's been really illuminating listening to you this evening so thank you very much indeed.

Sir Tim Smith

My pleasure, thanks guys for coming.

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