I wrote my first letter concerned about the future to the Prime Minister when I was nine. I was worried about the environment and what might happen if the Government didn’t do something more about it. I got a letter back from a Secretary of some sort. They thanked me for my concern, and enclosed a selection of leaflets published by the Department for the Environment. They covered topics like: Global Atmosphere and Air Quality; Waste Management and Recycling; Cleaner Seas; and River Quality. It wasn’t a vision of the future that grabbed me.
Thirteen years later, after I’d studied Geography at the University of Leeds, I wrote another letter. This time, it was to a slightly higher power of authority – a bank. If money makes the world go round, then this was as-good-a-place-as-any to have a go at changing things from the inside out. ‘Dear HSBC, I’ve read your Corporate Social Responsibility report. Isn’t there so much more you could be doing to help tackle the big problems in the world – like climate change, access to finance, poverty and inequality? If HSBC where a country, it would have the same number of customers and equivalent total equity as Mexico. (Back at the time, in 2004, when I wrote the letter, HSBC had more than 100 million customers worldwide and total financial assets of $1.2bn; Mexico had a similar sized population and a GDP just shy of $950m.) Of course, it’s impossible to make a direct comparison between a powerful corporation and a country. But: ‘Just think what HSBC could do, if it were to put all those valuable resources – and profit – to good effect. The people of Mexico vote to influence those decisions. Do the people who bank with HSBC know they vote with their money too?’
To my perpetual surprise, they offered me a job! I worked in their Corporate Sustainability department for many years. You could say, I’ve spent most of my career obsessing about the future in various guises. It’s taken me on a journey from the heart of the financial sector, into consulting and voluntary work, and now, out into new, exciting territory on the periphery.
Some say the greatest change happens on the periphery – when you, or your environment, or the people around you, are on the edge of some sort. I hadn’t really grasped the beauty of this, until one of my favourite people gave the concept new life. In David Attenborough’s latest series, he delves into the mesmerising nature of the Great Barrier Reef. It is the largest living structure on the planet, and arguably, one of the most intricate and diverse communities on the planet. Coral reefs rival rainforests for the extraordinary mix of species they support. But as David himself asks: where does all that diversity come from? The answer lies in what I think represents what I’ve been searching for in the future, and in what we’re trying do here with LOPO.
David explains… ‘The Lizard Island reefs [on the Great Barrier] owe their incredible richness to these special plants that in places fringe the shores. They link land and sea, and they’re vital to the coral reef community. They’re Mangroves. Taking shelter amongst the roots are thousands of juvenile fish of all shapes and sizes. Many of these little fish look harmless enough but some of them will grow up to be some of the most ferocious predators on the reef… Indeed, the existence of these mangrove nurseries – or playgrounds as he calls them – is one of the reasons why the populations on the reef are one of the most varied and richest in the world’ and ‘Here, because of all that diversity, life can evolve 50% faster than in other environments.’ That’s it! Not only, do we need to create playful, safe spaces to help foster our diversity. But once we have it, it’s vitally important we maintain that diversity because that’s the best way we’ll be able to change things for the better so much faster.
In my search, I was also fascinated by something I heard Brian Eno talk about in his recent John Peel lecture on 6 Music, on the ‘Ecology of culture’. One bit really stuck with me about the importance of a whole thriving scene around a particular thing. He’s coined the word: ‘Scenious’. Where ‘Genius’ talks of the intellectual capacity of an individual; ‘scenious’ relates to the genius of a whole community – out of which all sorts of talent and opportunities come together to create something that’s more like an ecosystem. He talks about it in the context of British pop culture. I think it’s relevant to LOPO. Because the thing about ecosystems, as Brian points out: ‘Is that it’s impossible to tell what the most important parts are. It’s not a hierarchy, where things are arranged in levels with the important things at the top and the not so important things at the bottom. Ecosystems are richly interconnected and co-dependent’ in so many wildly varying, delicate and complex ways – just like the Coral Reef and our mangrove playgrounds. Culture, or developing a movement, is just like that, where he argues: ‘New ideas are articulated by individuals but generated by entire communities.’
Dear Mark, Dear Charlie, it’s an incredible thing when someone speaks to your future. I’d like to see what could happen when we bring your ideas on the future together. Where the best ideas in science, technology, education, travel, culture, wellbeing and consciousness are accessible to everyone – when they become something more people know about, and can see themselves in. I feel like it’s the only way we’ll overcome the big challenges we face. It’s where the magic happens: where the corals meet the mangroves; the land meets the sea; or the sea meets the sky! Where business people meet artists and scientists; activists meet engineers and policy-makers; people mix with those more or less fortunate than themselves; different tribes and communities meet; different generations meet; girl meets boy; boy meets girl; ecology meets culture… Optimists meet the future.
We’re all on the edge of something. And because of this, we have a huge amount of value and ingenuity to offer. Just like the Great Barrier Reef, when each resident species has had to carve out its own particular niche, it creates one of the most dazzling and extraordinary natural environments on the planet. We need a thriving ecosystem of optimists with a playground for our ideas – to help each of us carve out our own particular niche – where the wonders of the future are ours to see and do.
By writing this, I think I’m beginning to find my ‘future’ niche. I’ve started to find my voice on the kind of future I want to be a part of. It’s made up of all that beautiful, magical, dazzling technicolour you only find beneath the surface. I’ve found my way into the ecology of the future. It’s way bigger than me. And I’m a whole lot stronger for it.