The Guardian Weekly 2004-10-15

Can this man change the world?
/John Vidal meets the creator of the Eden Project

John Vidal meets the creator of the Eden Project who hopes his vision can effect wider social change

Ten years ago, Tim Smit was unknown. He had a degree in archaeology and anthropology from Durham; he had been a lousy busker; a goodish music producer and rock 'n' roller; and he was restoring Heligan, an old garden in Cornwall. A good guy but hardly one of Europe's leading thinkers, entrepreneurs, businessmen or creative artists ? and certainly not someone to whom ministers and foreign governments made beelines for tips about social innovation.
But Smit will be at the Albert Hall in London this week, lecturing 3,000 people at a Day of Inspiration on how to change the world and realise people's potential. He has achieved minor celebrity status and has been showered with awards and honours ? including a CBE and the Royal Society of Arts' Albert Medal, which is awarded to only one person in the world each year; previous recipients include Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Somehow Smit has invented himself as Britain's motivator, a radical thinker who has proved that it is possible to make social and environmental change happen in the most unlikely ways. So, what happened in between?
The answer, of course, is the Eden Project, the collection of giant domes and structures dreamed up by Smit and a friend and built, against all the physical and financial odds, in a derelict Cornish claypit.
In five years he and his team have turned what most people believed was a worthless, polluted site into Britain's fifth-largest tourist attraction. It has drawn in 2 million people a year, raised $215m and is thought to have pumped $890m into the local economy. Now employing 500 people in a job-starved area, Eden has, almost without wishing to, become one of Britain's most successful regeneration projects. Which is not bad for a man who once produced the Nolan Sisters and Barry Manilow.
But Eden is more interesting than its statistics, or even the hundreds of thousands of plants growing under its emblematic domes. It is, say people who know it, becoming a great experiment, a test bed for ideas about how you can make change happen and unlock individual or national potential.
Smit's secret, if there is one, seems to be that he can bring people of very different disciplines and skills together, get them to brainstorm and collaborate, and come up with the extraordinary. The Eden Project, he says, has attracted locals by the score, but also high-flying artists, businessmen, architects, scientists, engineers, educationalists, horticulturalists and ecologists from all over Britain.
"It feels like a renaissance organisation," says one woman who left a senior management job to work there as a director and has been amazed both at what gets done and the way it works. "It's attracted a critical mass of people, and there's this passionate belief, right through the project, that it belongs to everyone who works there, that it's a team thing. I guess it demonstrates that you can have an organisation that is highly effective financially, environmentally and socially. It's a kind of experiment to show that you can work in different ways." A local woman who has been with Eden since the start is more succinct. "It's the most equal place I've known," she says.
"This is a stage for change," says Smit, who admits that Eden can seem like a sect to outsiders. "Many people have made life choices to come here. Most could earn five times as much elsewhere. But I'm aware that if you want to effect real change, and we do, that you must not own it. You have got to make sure that it's owned by more than one person."
Smit, 50, half Dutch on his father's side, and with the air of a favourite uncle, can sound alarmingly like a personal development guru when he articulates how to achieve potential. Exuding positivity, he rejects all cynicism, hates the way idealism has been equated with naivety, and reels off truisms and catchphrases, such as "start where you want to be and work back", "pursue only what interests you", "you have to love something to make it work", and "I want to know what victory is like before the war".
But his underlying point is always that change comes when people think differently and take risks. He says: "We challenged a lot of people to say 'no', to say that Eden could not be done. But hundreds of people said 'yes'. I think the fear of losing paralyses people. The key to making Eden work was daring to lose, and the realisation that millions of people feel inside themselves that there is more in life than what they have done. There is a massive hunger in our generation, a feeling that people are not putting their talents to best use."
He tries to make people think differently and to challenge their prejudices. "I say to people [when they work here] that they've got to say hello to 20 people every day; read a book that they would never normally read, and then discuss it; cook a meal for all the people who make it worthwhile going to work; make someone else's wishes come true . . . There are 10 of these. They're all symbolic, but they make people think differently."
Smit says he has been greatly influenced by people such as Ricardo Semler, the maverick Brazilian socialist who runs a large manufacturing business and lets his employees set their own hours and wages ? but gets long-term loyalty and phenomenal growth.
"He read about the kid who hacked into a defence system, and offered him a job," Smit says. "He told him just to walk around till he saw something that interested him, and then ended up with a free computer system. He realised that the establishment is miles off the pace of what's really going on. Eden is a bit similar. People make it their own. It's what they want it to be."
Eden is growing fast, but he certainly does not want to see it franchised out and devalued. "I've turned down 13 countries and $180m," he says. "What we have built is not Disney: it's a physical response to our own attitudes. One Arab country came, but I said it needed Arab poets, Arab astronomers, Arab builders. It's got to be all Arab."
But Eden is just a start, a platform for wider social and environmental change, says Smit. He wants to address local problems such as housing, much of which is priced beyond the means of locals. "We have to be radical," he says. "For too long, we have associated affordable housing with cheap building. But analysis shows that building on the cheap is ridiculously expensive in terms of energy consumption and maintenance in the long term. We must produce attractive, sustainable, affordable housing that people will be proud to own."
This week at the Albert Hall this incurable optimist will talk about globalisation and its potential. It comes, he says, from musing on the reasons why civilisations collapse: "Because they think they can trash the environment, or when they lose their values."
"What I find interesting about Britain is that it has the most individualistic people, and yet also the most acquiescent. They've got a bloody-mindedness that I like. If I could change anything, it would be that people believed in their own improvability." For a society to thrive, it must remain true to its core cultural values, he says. In Britain's case, these are probably generosity and humanism. "There is a right way of doing things and a wrong way. The wrong way is anything that does not accord to kindness and virtuosity."