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  • September16th

    I once had the lucky opportunity to observe two rival firms trying to do the same thing; namely working out how to integrate a particular enhancement made possible by new technology into their (competing) products.

    Both companies set up engineering teams. Both failed. Company A disbanded their team and grumbled about the whole fiasco. Company B gave their team another chance… and they failed. In fact they continued to fail for several months until, finally, they cracked it. For the time they remained the engineers at Company A were, as one director put it to me, “effectively wandering around the place with the word ‘loser’ written on their foreheads”.  At Company B, their counterparts are still seen as creative mavericks.

    Our society, based on the model of industrialism and specialism, tells us that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. Mistakes are mocked in the classroom and get you fired in the workplace. Yet deep down inside we know that making mistakes is one of the indispensable mechanisms of learning, and a defining characteristic of the human experience. Phil Oakey, that well-known metaphysical philosopher and member of The Human League famously opined, “I’m only human, born to make mistakes.” In fact mistakes are essential catalysts in the innovation process. Keith Richards, guitarist and notable anthropological theorist, was once asked how he came up with all those amazing guitar riffs. His answer? He just starts playing until he makes the right mistake. In other words he’s optimistic he will create something good by virtue of getting something ‘wrong’.

    And yet, faced with the desire to make the world better, many of us are stifled by the terror of the mistakes we might make – and this dumbfounds us into inaction. Author Kathryn Schulz, in her exploration of error, summed it up nicely: “Our love of being right is best understood as our fear of being wrong.”

    Successful optimists deal with that fear by knowing they almost certainly will get something wrong, and that’s not only OK, it’s fundamental. They are not paralysed by the worry of making a cock-up. They know that the only way to see the right way to do things is with the benefit of hindsight, something you can never possess when you start the journey, so its pointless to expect such clarity at the outset. As author and entrepreneur Seth Godin says: “The way to get unstuck is to start down the wrong path, right now.”

    Successful optimists therefore follow the principle (number 5 in our list) that making mistakes is OK, it’s not trying that is irresponsible.

  • September7th

    Many people are convinced they are someone else. In fact all of us at some point or another have told ourselves that we’re not really the miserable, grumpy, cynical, obstructive or unreasonable person we appear to be it’s just that, right now, there are some extenuating circumstances. Your boss is a Nazi. You had a difficult childhood. There isn’t the budget. You don’t have the time. It’s not your problem. We like to imagine we could change the world (or our corner of it at least) if circumstances were different. Inside our heads we are convinced that we are kind, forward-thinking, engaged members of society who, given half the chance, would be working to make the world a better place.

    Pragmatic optimists take a different view, which is quite simply this: you are what you do. That miserable, grumpy, cynical, obstructive or unreasonable person you appear to be is who you actually are as far as the rest of world is concerned. Pragmatic optimists are not interested in what you might do if your circumstances or internal dialogue were different. They hold the opinion that you do what you can in the moment you’re in. It’s a view shared by pragmatic optimists across history from Ghandi (“You must be the change you want to see in the world”) to Richard Branson (“Screw it, let’s do it”).

    For this reason you will notice that pragmatic optimists, the people who get good stuff done are busy. Very busy. In fact you’ll hear others often remark, “I don’t know how they do so much”. The reason is they fill the time most of us use to procrastinate with hours spent getting on with stuff. And the results can be extraordinary. As one of their number, Benjamin Franklin, founding father of a nation said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” The principle applies equally, of course, to fixing that tap, or being kinder to your partner. A pragmatic optimist might therefore ask, “what are you waiting for?”

  • July4th

    A lot of people have been asking me to respond to Stephen Emmot’s apocalyptic ‘Ten Billion’ thesis – on the Guardian website under the title “Humans: the real threat to life on Earth” (and being promoted heavily across the media).

    Under that Guardian headline you’ll find the cheery: “If population levels continue to rise at the current rate, our grandchildren will see the Earth plunged into an unprecedented environmental crisis”.

    I’m not in the business of personal attack, and Emmot is clearly a smart cookie and an able wordsmith, but I think he’s falling into a narrative of humanity that is only half-true, and like all half-truths it’s potentially dangerous. A big caveat – I haven’t read the book (yet) from which the article is an edited excerpt, and I’m sure the arguments in the full-fat version are more nuanced.(Update: actually it turns out they aren’t, the book is a disaster. Poorly researched and polemical – the facts, sadly, aren’t an impediment to Emmot’s erroneous thesis).

    I have two immediate reactions to the article:

    1) It extrapolates growth in population, but not growth in the power of technology and innovation (whilst he acknowledges humans are clever and inventive it seems we’re not clever or inventive enough to embrace the problems we now face). From now on are human beings only units of consumption, not invention?

    2) It does some rather neat statistical sleights of hand that, whilst certainly bolstering the apocalyptic narrative is, to my mind, misleading. Again, this may be a function of the short-form article format (or editorial decisions)

    Before I begin – let me clear:  we’re in trouble – and it is true that if we don’t change the way we go about energy and food production, we’re in deep, deep water (an ironic metaphor given what we’re doing to the water table). But let’s put some light at the end of this tunnel.

    Argument 1: We can’t feed 10 billion

    So, Emmot’s argument has long history. Its roots go back to 1798 when, foreseeing a catastrophe where human numbers would outstrip the carrying capacity of the planet, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus famously wrote (and over nearly thirty years continually rewrote) his influential “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” In it he predicted that food production would eventually fail to keep up with the population. “It is an obvious truth, which has been taken notice of by many writers, that population must always be kept down to the level of the means of subsistence,” he concluded.

    Malthus was both right and wrong. He was right because food production must, of course, keep pace with population if we are not to starve. He was wrong because so far, as the population has grown, we’ve managed to find ways to increase agricultural yields to match our needs. That is not to say that in some areas of the world there aren’t shocking levels of malnutrition. This, however, is a problem with distribution, not production. Despite the dramatic increase in human population since the 1950s, world food production per capita has increased. That’s a stunning achievement. Our crime has been that we have not distributed either it, or the means of production equitably.

    Still, with the population growing, the need to increase food production seems obvious. And despite a generally positive trend of bringing people out of food poverty in recent decades things are starting to look precarious. Thanks largely to rising oil prices and the effects of climate change, the UN Food Price Index has risen 135% since the beginning of the century and, according to the World Bank, 44 million people were driven into poverty by rising food prices in the second half of 2010 alone.

    And then you find out that 30 to 50% of all food produced on the planet never reaches the human stomach.  That’s right, we lose up to half of it before it’s eaten.

    There’s a brilliant report on the matter here by the awesome Dr. Tim Fox of IMechE who told me “It’s a combination of food waste (largely by us being wasteful in the developed world) and food loss (largely post-harvest losses in the developing world). Both components are roughly equal in tonnage terms (i.e. we waste as much as the developing world looses) of which, very roughly, 15%-25% of the total tonnage produced can be attributed to post-harvest losses”.

    Dealing with Post Harvest Loss is something we need to grapple with – and we might. In fact, it’s something I’ll cover in depth in my new book – looking at the innovators who are doing just that. For now there’s an excellent article elsewhere on the Guardian website about how we might combat the problem.

    So, if we eradicated this waste and loss we would be well on the way today to producing enough food to feed close to 9.5 billion today. That in turn has huge implications for water, energy and land in all this waste and loss, the tightening up of which would go a long way to helping meeting many of the other challenges 21st Century population growth presents.

    That said, much of our current food production is unsustainable – which is why Professor Olivier De Schutter (the United Nations Special rapporteur on the right to food) is worth a read: “We urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilisers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavourable environments.”

    Olivier’s 2011 report, Agroecology and the Right to Food, is a tour de force of evidence, demonstrating that agro-ecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, including an increase of 116% for all African projects. Again, I’ll be visiting a bunch of Agro-ecology innovators who are doing incredible things in the book. For now, here’s a wonderful example: Sumant Kumar, who harvested 22.4 tonnes of rice from a single hectare of land. (To put that in context the average yield per hectare in his native India is 2.3 tonnes).

    So, when Emmot writes, “We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system” I fear he’s missed a trick or two.

    Argument 2: We don’t have the energy

    We don’t have an energy crisis, we have an energy conversion crisis.

    Solar power has quartered in price in the last decade and is continuing to plummet. Have a look at McKinsey’s analysis of solar market worldwide. In fact, the utilities companies are very worried about that. In May 2013 the Edison Electric Institute (the association of U.S. Shareholder-Owned Electric Companies) published a report entitled Disruptive Challenges. It warned that the traditional utilities model was at risk of “declining utility revenues, increasing costs, and lower profitability potential, particularly over the long-term”. In short – there is a very real chance of user-owned renewable energy revolution coming our way – and the energy companies know it (even if they don’t like it). As the head of a big consulting firm’s Utilities Practice (and because he probably likes his job I won’t name him) told me, “Unless my customers adapt radically most of them are toast.”

    Trillion Fund (the world’s first financially regulated crowd investing platform) is one example of people trying to help us all get involved in that, and hopefully profit from the shift to green energy. (Full disclosure: I sit on Trillion Fund’s advisory board – mostly because I think it’s one of the smartest ideas out there as we work to avoid Emmot’s apocalypse). So,  yes, we’re in a race with fossil fuels – and we may lose it, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. It’s a race I’ll cover in the new book and as writer of the film The Great Energy Race, which should start shooting later this year. In the meantime if you want to see some good work on how we can avoid the energy cliff read Amory Lovins’ Re-inventing Fire – or watch Peter Byck’s Carbon Nation.

    It’s also worth noting that, in private, oil companies know that they’re massively overvalued because reserves that will never be economic to extract are counted as assets on their balance sheets. The only way those reserves become viable is if the price of oil rockets, which in turn would send the world economy into recession. With solar set to become as cheap as fossil fuels in the next decade the switch to renewables will be driven by economics not climate change, but that’s still good news for the planet.

    There is lots more to say about the perils of our current energy system and how some people are innovating around it – and I hope I do that justice in forthcoming projects.

    Argument 3: Population is out of control

    The statistician Hans Rosling from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute tells the story of how many of his students wonder if keeping the poor alive is really such a good idea.

    “In a time when we know the pressures on the environment are growing, so my students tell me ‘population growth destroys the environment so poor children may as well die.’ This is a statement they don’t make in class, but afterwards. They say ‘Why save the lives of all these small children? Because if they survive, we’ll be even more people, we’ll destroy the environment and they will emit carbon dioxide and it will be even worse and then we will all die in the end.’ ” The problem with this logic, says Rosling, “is not that it’s not moral, it’s that it’s wrong” — and here’s why.

    As the population is growing it seems to be stabilizsing. The rate of growth is slowing down dramatically and looks set to stop (and possibly reverse) sometime this century. Already the population in many countries is falling. The important figure to keep in mind is 2.1. This is the number of children, on average, every woman needs to have to keep the population static. (The 0.1 accounts for the fact that some of us never have children, either because we choose not to, suffer from infertility orto die before we get chance.) Between 1950 and 1955, the number of countries where the fertility rate was less than the crucial 2.1 figure was just five. In the period from 1995 to 2000, that number had risen twelve-fold to fifty-nine. According to the U.N., countries who weren’t replacing their population in 2010 included the United States, Canada, Russia, China, Australia, New Zealand, every country in Europe, Chile, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Thailand, North and South Korea, Tunisia, Japan and Singapore.

    Countries with the highest number of births and therefore rapidly growing populations are usually the poorest with Africa dominating the lead table. Across Africa fertility rates of between four 4 and seven 7 are common, but crucially these too are dropping. Taken worldwide the human race’s fertility rate has fallen from 4.92 in the 1950s to 2.4 in 2011. By the end of the century the U.N.’s “median variant estimate” (a sort of “best guess”’) is that the figure will dip below the all-important 2.1 replacement level across the entire world population. This means we’ll stabilisze at about the 10 billion people that gives Emmot’s book its title – and then possibly fall in number. But why is this happening?

    The contributing factors seem to be falling rates of child mortality, increased life expectancy, more urbanizsation, improved access to birth control and the growing emancipation of women, all of which are in some way linked to increased prosperity. The first two reasons seem counter intuitive. If both us and our children are living longer, surely that would increase population, giving us both more time to breed and creating more offspring to do the same? The figures, however, show the opposite trend.

    One theory is that when you know fewer of your children are likely to die, and those that survive will live longer, you don’t feel compelled to have as many. Secondly prosperity is linked to increased choice, not only in whether to have children or not (through access to birth control) but also in what to do with your time. With the health of our children assured we can choose to spend more of our time being entertained and educated, and dedicating more time to educating and entertaining them too. With a few notable exceptions, prosperous nations seem to automatically reduce their birth rate (as the list of countries above amply demonstrates).

    The rise of cities also has a role to play. One of the results of prosperity is urbanizsation and this in turn also seems to encourage us to breed less. According to George Martine, lead author of the U.N. Population Fund’s State of World Population 2007 report, eighty to ninety percent of economic growth takes place in cities, which drives prosperity, which reduces the number of children we have. I cite this slightly old report because it focusses on a key part of the Emmot’s article – urbanisation – which he seems to argue increases our use of land (I hope that’s just bad sub-editing). Martine makes the point however that the increased density of city populations “makes it easier to provide social services, or services of any kind:; education, health, sanitation, water, electrical power. Everything is so much easier, much cheaper on a per capita basis.” The report also found that female emancipation is more likely to occur in the city, again reducing birth rates. The city is where many go to make a career, often delaying starting a family. Property is also more expensive, meaning that even though you may be wealthier than many of the rural population, you have a lot less space in which to put your brood. And, of course, in the city the distractions of entertainment and education are ever greater. All this means that across the world, fertility rates are lower in cities than they are in rural areas—which, as the world becomes ever more urban, confers yet another downward pressure on the birth rate.

    Beyond all this, cities are also good for biodiversity because they attract subsistence farmers away from the land. Subsistence farming might have a romantic image of honest rural folk in tune with their environment but the clue is in the name. Subsistence, by definition, is “The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level.” Subsistence farming is characteriszed by extreme poverty, along with overgrazing and tilling of the land that has seen soil carbon levels plummet along with the reduction of biodiversity as people use the natural ecoszystem for resources, a key example being the use of wood as a fuel for cooking and heating. When humans leave, natural ecosystems return.

    “To suggest that urbanisation will impact on land availability for food production is spurious” says Tim Fox.  There’s a nice analysis of Land Use Tensions in this policy statement from IMechE which is helpful.

    Prosperity also bring reforestation. The UN’s State of the World’s Forests report shows that as countries prosper and urbanise so their forests regrow. In Europe, forest resources “are expected to continue to expand in view of declining land dependence, increasing income, concern for protection of the environment and well-developed policy and institutional frameworks.” In Asia and the Pacific, “forest area will stabilize and increase in most of the developed countries.” In parts of Latin America “where population densities are high, increasing urbanization will cause a shift away from agriculture, forest clearance will decline and some cleared areas will revert to forest.” In Western and Central Asia, “Income growth and urbanization suggest that the forest situation will improve or remain stable in some countries, but the picture is less promising for a number of low-income agriculture-dependent countries.” In Africa, however, deforestation continues apace. Overall though, as we move to the city we leave behind ecosystems that regrow.

    The teeming metropolis is therefore an engine of renewal. Hans Rosling’s students are dead wrong. Those “poor children” must live, move to city, prosper and in doing so they will, in just a few generations, come stablise the world populace while allowing many ecosystems to flourish.

    Everyone likes a scare story

    Emmot writes, “I do just want to point out that if the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will not be 10 billion of us – there will be 28 billion of us.” But as we know, the birth rate is dropping radically the world over. So, for instance, the predicted population growth he quotes for the USA is some cute double counting for a scare – because the USA’s fertility rate is below replacement rate (nice summary of the US population situation here). You can only get to his projected 478 million US population due to a massive reversal of the prevailing trend (perhaps people stop dying? which, by the way, the transhumanists are working on – but that’s another story) or immigration from those countries where population is still rising (but also, over this century, stabilising)

    So, yes. Emmot is right – we are up shit creek. But, like Malthus, he could be wrong – because we do have some paddles – and some people are trying to use them.

    Again, I want to be clear, we are in trouble, but Emmot’s extrapolations and his pessimism about our ability to innovate round it I have doubts about. Like he says in the article, he hopes I’m right. So, if Emmot’s wants to be the stick, I hope my book will be the carrot – because there are people working hard on this problem – and the more we know about them, the more we champion them, and the more we become them, the greater chance we have of a sustainable future. That’s why I do what I do.

  • June10th

    Parents often comment on the startling creativity of their children. Pablo Picasso famously remarked, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.” I’ll go further. Every child is an artist, yes, but also a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur too. Young children benefit from not having suffered long years in an educational system that splits the world into discrete ‘subjects’, and so their minds are still free to span the silos that industrialism will try everything it can to encourage them into during the following years.

    There isn’t a theory of innovation that doesn’t acknowledge that new ideas arise when two (or more) existing ideas smash into each other (the film-maker Kirby Ferguson sums it up by saying “everything is a re-mix”) and that game-changing innovations are usually the result of two seemingly unrelated disciplines getting in a tangle.

    Successful optimists are therefore serendipity engineers. They find ways to smash themselves (and others) into new ideas – exposing themselves to different thoughts, philosophies and approaches.  Somewhere in the ensuing mental car crash the right collision of ideas will provide them with another tool in their quest to make the world better. In fact, to the successful optimist this becomes second nature. “Creativity is just connecting things,” Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996. “When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” So, if innovation is, as Matt Ridley puts it, “ideas having sex” then successful optimists are intellectual sluts, happily throwing themselves into forums where they aren’t experts, reading outside of their existing frames of reference, promoting debate and dialogue and finding joy in the accidents that might frustrate or annoy others. This is why that ideas-powerhouse the MIT media lab is full of glass walls, so that everybody can see into everybody else’s lab, and why the head of MIT’s Smart Cities group Bill Mitchell designs buildings to ensure people bump into each other.

    There is a much overused maxim in corporations, that creativity is all about ‘thinking outside the box’. Successful optimists know that you can’t think outside the box unless you get outside the box, maintaining that spirit of happy exploration that characterises childhood.

  • May2nd

    The philosopher Daniel Dennett says that one of the occupational hazards of being a philosopher is that you get asked difficult questions at parties. Being solicited over drinks for free consultancy is, of course, commonplace. If you’re a doctor you’ll be asked to pass opinion on a dodgy knee. Plumbers are gently probed for advice on a tricky u-bend. As a comedian I was invariably asked to comment on ‘this great idea for a sitcom I’ve come up with’ and these days social gatherings are replete with aspiring writers wanting an introduction to my literary agent. But if you’re a philosopher it’s worse. As you reach for another beer you might be asked, “Go on then, what’s consciousness?” Another recurring question Daniel (and probably most philosophers) get confronted with is, “What’s the definition of happiness?

    Luckily he has an answer and it’s a good one: “Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it”.

    This then is Principle Two for the successful optimist. All successful optimists have a project that is bigger than they are. By contrast, people who have a project that is the same size as themselves are invariably miserable and tedious company. Once you’ve got a bigger car/ nicer house/ television bigger than God what’s left? As so many find out, eventually the answer is a nagging emptiness accompanied by the thought, “Surely there must be more to life than this?

    Those with something bigger than themselves generally derive a deep-in-the-core happiness from whatever that is. It’s a happiness that comes from a feeling you have a place in the world. A ‘bigger than me’ project can be your family, your religion, military service or a scientific calling. You don’t have to agree with another person’s ‘bigger than me’ project but it is true that people who have them are usually more driven, positive and able to get things done as a result. This is a happiness different from the passing pleasures of a good night out or great joke, and it will not manifest itself as merriment, but its motivating power is fundamental to the successful optimist.

    I must say that this principle has no moral dimension. Hitler had a ‘bigger than me’ project as did many of his followers. It’s perfectly possible that a bigger-than-me project could manifest itself as an abandonment of self to the fascist mass, just as much as it could be a worthy cause that allows you self-determination. People who get bad stuff done have many of the same guiding principles as people who get good stuff done. The crucial point is if you want to get anything done it’s important to keep your eye on the big picture and the long game – themes that will recur in later blog posts in this series.

  • March25th

    All successful optimists, unsurprisingly, have an unashamed optimism of ambition about our future. To clarify, this is not simple wishful thinking that things will work out alright in the end, it’s optimism specifically tied to a goal – and a conviction that that goal can be reached with enough passion and hard work. It is an optimism that something can and should be done to steer things in a positive direction.

    In short, successful optimists don’t feel embarrassed to say that things could be better. They have no qualms about imagining an improved world and advocating for it, no matter how much derision they may receive at the hands of the cynical. In short they are not ashamed to dream good dreams. After all, Martin Luther King did not stand on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and say, “I have a five point plan”. And his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis painted a vivid picture of a journey towards a world without racism already well in motion.

    Articulating these goals brings the first test for the successful optimist. With cynicism being such an easy weapon for their opponents, successful optimists will soon have their ambition, and indeed their character, questioned. They will be accused of naivety, arrogance and stupidity, possibly all at once. And this character assassination won’t let up. In all walks of life, but especially in large organisations, successful optimists rarely triumph because of the prevailing culture, but in spite of it. I remember a cartoon placed in my cubicle on the first day of a new job for an organisation that I subsequently got fired from: it was a warning from an existing inmate. In it, three senior executives addressed the new boy. “We encourage creativity and innovation here Smith. First step: suit and tie.” The irony is that the very people trying to discourage or neuter innovators will later, in a convenient re-writing of history, offer up the achievements of these pesky optimists as proof that their organisation (or nation) has always embraced creativity and forward-thinking.

    As a successful optimist many people will tell you your dreams are trivial. But they are profound. Quite simply, if you’re not prepared to dream something extraordinary you’ll never achieve anything extraordinary.

    As Helen Keller said, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”

  • November15th

    The School of Life have asked me to blog for them on the 8 principles of successful optimists. I’m reposting here. Here’s the first…

    It’s easy to accept the standard story of the future: that it’s all going to be rubbish, that vested interests will always win out and the best you can do is get your head down, try and beat the prevailing trend and do what you can for you and yours (even if it’s at the expense of your fellow man and the environment).

    Luckily there are enough human beings out there who don’t accept this story, who believe things can change for the better and crucially do something about it. Without their input down the ages we’d all still be sitting in caves. Throughout history these, often maligned, men and women have consistently come up trumps for the rest of us. These people are called “optimists.”

    Optimism is a bit of a dirty word at the moment, and of course blind optimism (that dangerous cocktail of denial and hope) deserves our disdain. But pragmatic optimists, who admit the scale of the challenges ahead of us but resolve to do something about them anyway, should have more of our support.

    It’s not always easy to keep optimistic. As the famous military maxim goes “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, which is why successful military leaders give those under them the freedom to improvise, but make sure they always know what the goal is. Americans call this ‘Commander’s Intent’. What I have learnt from working with some of the people who actually get stuff done is that they all have ‘Commander’s Intent’. But they don’t call it that. Instead they say, “these are my principles” or “these are my values”. When things change or difficult decisions need to be made they refer back to their principles, their ‘Commander’s Intent’.

    In my experience there are a few core principles shared by pretty much anyone who is successful in making a difference. I like to call them ‘the eight principles of successful optimists’, and I believe they can help anyone ‘learn into the curve’ as we try to forge a brighter future in this new age. I’m going explore one principle in a series of blogs here over the next couple of months.

    As a fan of The School of Life you’ll be sure to recognise and embody some, but others might surprise you.

    Watch this space.

  • June24th

    A lot.

    1) I’m finally getting down to sending off the proposal for my next book – an investigation into complexity, belief and how to get things done. Watch this space.

    2) The League of Pragmatic Optimists is beavering away in the background for a re-launch (internationally) sometime soon… We now have chapters ready to go in Singapore, Wellington, Sydney, Madrid, London and New York (as well as a few more regional ones in the UK)…

    3) An Optimist’s Tour of the Future keeps coming out in different versions and languages and I’m just off to record the audio book. It also, I’m pleased to report, keeps getting good reviews. The Spanish speaking world in particular seem to have warmed to it. Bueno!

    4) We’re rebranding Flow Associates to become Lea(r)n Into the Curve – to bring all our corporate and public sector work under one banner and encourage increased serendipity in our operations

    5) I have a new play, co-written with Jack Milner, that we hope is going to tour next year. If you’re super quick you can see a preview

    6) The film version of Optimist’s Tour progresses at the pace that big film projects do (very slowly) but we are pleased that visual futurist Syd Mead (Bladerunner, Alien, Tron) has agreed to jointly head up the visualisation team with Roger Dean.

    7) To deal with my frustration over the slowness of Hollywood I’m making another film with my good friend Andy Ross (award winning music producer and film-maker) which will see us talking to some of the coolest people on the planet and will have a much shorter production time. More to come…

    8) Obviously, there’s lot of public speaking too – you can find where I’m speaking here.

    That’s it for now…


  • January24th

    There is now fine cottage industry in vitriolic disdain aimed at those who tout homeopathy, crystal healing, vaccine denial (and the rest), admirably spearheaded by the likes of Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Robin Ince over here, Penn & Teller and James Randi in the US and Sanal Edamaruku in India, who famously challenged holy man Pandit Surender Sharma to prove the claim that he could kill another human being using only mystical powers.

    Edamaruku offered himself up as a willing guinea pig on live TV where Sharma spectacularly failed to shuffle his rationalist opponent off this mortal coil. Likewise, politicians who indulge in what Mark Henderson pithily calls “Evidence Abuse” in his forthcoming book Geek Manifesto should, it is argued, be subject to a public drubbing.

    Irrationalism, though, is very human, and the nearest place to see someone who cherry picks evidence and is ruled more often by emotion than reason is in the mirror. Even the most outwardly rational of us harbours a festering pit of assumption, un-evidenced opinion and prejudice. Our most iconic scientists are not immune, as Michael Brooks’ recent Free Radicals brilliantly documents. On a personal note I’ve seen more than a few scientists rendered about as rational as Charlie Sheen by alcohol, love disasters or a perceived snub by a colleague.

    This then is where science and critical thinking skills come in — a framework of checks and balances, putting some filters around our bug-ridden brains so that what eventually dribbles out is something approaching the truth. And let’s be honest, science has been astonishingly successful at curbing our in-built nuttiness. One can only admire how this cognitive safety harness has continually come up trumps for its nutty creators.

    But is there a middle ground to be found in the snake oil wars? One that admits we all choose which irrationalities we’ll indulge in (and allows us to practice them) while admitting they may be harmful?

    Here’s a suggestion. I call it the “pseudo science and quackery emissions trading scheme”. It works in a very similar fashion to carbon trading, where a cost is put on your CO2 emissions. In these schemes you can continue to emit CO2 but there is a financial consequence. The more you emit, the more you pay.

    Why not then set up a similar scheme for emissions of pseudo-science? So, as a homeopath you can continue pushing your placebos, but if you claim them to be anything more you will be sent a bill at the end of each quarter calculated against a number of evidence abusing criteria — the size of your customer base, how many times you appropriate sayings from eastern philosophy without understanding them much, and your client-facing hours. The money would then be given to, say, a medical research charity.

    Everyone wins. Crystal healers can carry on trading but they at least know there is now an actual financial cost to peddling nonsense (a tax that would have to be itemised on any client’s bill). Some rationalists might even begin to see practicing quacks as good thing — generating a much needed extra revenue stream for genuine medical research. And homeopaths, faith healers and crystal wizards could legitimately claim that they were now doing something to fight cancer.

    In fact we could have fundraisers where rationalists actively go to homeopaths and ask to have their intellects abused. “Dilute it some more!” they might cry… knowing that for every moment the charade continues extra pennies go towards the rationalist cause.

    Mark Stevenson is a writer, businessman, comedian and founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists. His first book An Optimist’s Tour for the Future (Profile Books) is out now.

    This piece first appeared in the December 2011 issue of the British Science Association‘s magazine, People & Science.

  • December2nd

    It’s a common refrain that the grand challenges facing today’s world have largely been visited upon us by the actions of corporations. The reality of globalisation (for all its benefits) coupled with vested interests and corporate greed have left many of us deeply dissatisfied and cynical about how business operates to serve itself, while remaining blind to wider environmental and social issues. But while we’re deeply aware that corporations are a large part of the problem we must also be ready to embrace their role as a large part of the solution. This is, understandably, difficult for long-term ‘deep’ greens to accept. In their eyes corporations are, and always will be, entirely self-serving, corrupt, and morally redundant. But just as new gene therapies seek to edit out mutations responsible for genetic conditions held in our cells’ DNA, so we must encourage analogous work being done in the corporate sector.

    In researching An Optimist’s Tour of the Future I made a house call on the legendary John Seely Brown, former director of the Palo Alto Research Centre (famous for the invention of laser printing and graphical user interfaces). Nowadays he works independently, helping organisations adopt and adapt to new technologies. He told me a story.

    “I was recently asked to suggest the innovation in the last three hundred years that had generated more wealth for mankind than anything else. I knew why I’d been asked – they pre-supposed I was going to talk about the microprocessor and I disappointed them dramatically. I said, ‘the innovation that’s generated more wealth than anything is the limited liability corporation because that enabled you to accumulate, invest and leverage your wealth but with limited liability. That is what actually unleashed the power of the 19th and 20th Centuries, that one innovation.”

    The limited liability corporation was an example of institutional innovation, a new structure for organising people and capital that has shaped our world just as fundamentally as the institutions of religion or government. But like many religious and governmental structures, corporate models of organisation appear to have fossilised in most cases – and as such have become desperately out of step with the needs of humanity and our home planet.

    But slowly things are changing. Some corporations are getting it, and by ‘it’ I mean they’ve realised that, as a species, we’ve moved from being tenants on the planet to being the landlord, which means they have new responsibilities.

    In May this year sportswear giant Puma, aided by the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the environmental research group Trucost, became the world’s first major corporation to publish a set of ‘environmental profit and loss accounts’. It has now set itself the target of reducing carbon, waste, energy and water use by 25% by 2015. Executive Chairman Jochen Zeitz said, “To continue disregarding externalities is no longer effective to the health and long-term prospects of a business, nor to our planet. We no longer have a choice but to be accountable, ethical and responsible to our environment.”

    This environmental accounting is just the sort of institutional innovation we need – and in November Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent announced they will be following Puma’s example. That said, let us not for a minute suggest that any of these brands have suddenly become whiter-than-white, cuddly guardians of the biosphere (Puma’s sponsorship of Formula 1 hardly sits comfortably in this picture). But in my work with business I’ve become convinced that when some corporations talk of taking their impact on the environment into account they’re serious. The cynic in us all says ‘yeah, right’, but you know what? I’m happy if just one in ten of them are genuine. Because this is only round one. Once one of them turns in the right direction it becomes easier to steer the others. By round two, it’s a game of one in nine, by round three, a game of one in eight – and by the time 30% of an industry has moved, the rest will follow. If we got depressed about the nine out of ten, instead of fighting for the one, we’d never start. In addition when corporations and professional services companies like PwC start to take this stuff seriously they bring a set of rigorous analytical skills to bare on the green agenda. Well run businesses understand how to manage their assets and what the depreciation of those assets means for the company, whether the asset in question is a piece of machinery or an environmental resource we all depend on. It’s often hard for deep greens to swallow, but when experienced entrepreneurial and business thinkers get their green epiphany they often approach the challenges presented with a damn sight more rigour and process than a particular brand of neighbourhood treehugger. Seeing the treehugger realise that is both an amusing and painful experience. Sometimes it’s almost impossible for them accept that the suits have something to offer.

    And so, in my work with corporations I’ve had a renaissance. I’ve come to realise that not every activist chains themselves to the railings (although I fully applaud those that do). Some sit in boardrooms and are quietly steering their businesses in a planet-friendly direction. My newfound heroes you will never hear about. These are people who work in businesses changing them (sometimes painfully slowly) from inside, while suffering brickbats both from colleagues of the old-school, who resist change, and external critics, who damn them for working for ‘the man’. They are to corporations what gene therapy promises to be for genetically inherited diseases. They’re recoding business.

    We know that corporations can change the world, because they have done it plenty of times before. Don’t think I’m letting governments off the hook here, they have a crucial role to play in passing and enforcing appropriate legislation, but for all their frustrations the corporate sector can move quicker. As one of my clients (one of the world’s largest manufacturers) said

    “We understand that the world is Darwinian, even for corporations, and that those that do not adapt to changing realities will struggle. We believe that addressing climate change and matters of social justice isn’t a threat to the company, but an engine for growth. A company that does not take into account a wider world-view will stifle innovation as it fails to attract passionate employees, a company that becomes a market follower rather than leader. We’d rather lead.”

    Bring on round two.