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  • November9th

    For those wondering about democracy this morning…. here’s some thoughts from my forthcoming book, which also includes one workable (and working) solution to the mess we’re in….

    Taken from the forthcoming book: We Do Things Differently

    ‘Philosopher Roger Scrutton writes, “if we study the words of Western politicians, we will constantly find that the three ideas – democracy, freedom and human rights – are spoken of in one breath, and assumed in all circumstances to coincide.” He points out, however, that it is only under certain conditions that they actually do. Those conditions include a justice system free of political interference, the legal protection of basic civil liberties (including freedom of speech, movement and religious worship), working property rights (allowing individuals and organisations to legally own and earn income from both physical and intellectual assets) and, via a free and fair electoral process, a legitimate opposition that can challenge the existing administration and replace it if the people wish.

    But even nations that have attained this democratic nirvana fail their citizens horribly. Take the inability (or unwillingness) of elected representatives to halt the increasing divide between the very rich and everyone else. Today the most affluent 10% of the USA population control roughly 75% of its wealth (with the most well-off 3% representing over two-thirds of that) – leading some analysts to dub the USA the ‘Unequal States of America’. In the UK the richest 10% of households account for 45% of total aggregate household wealth while the celebrated democracies of Norway, Sweden and Denmark fare even worse in the equality stakes, with the top 10% holding between 65% and 69%. In fact there’s a fast widening gap between the rich and the rest of us pretty much the world over, whether you live in a democracy or not. The World Bank’s GINI Index (a popular inequality measure named after its inventor sociologist Corrado Gini) tells us when it comes to wealth distribution the USA’s performance is roughly on a par with the corruptly governed Republic of Congo and the UK’s with the repressive administration of Burundi.

    Another stratospheric failure of modern democracies has been their inability to provide a financial system that serves the majority. One has to wonder how the USA’s Department of Justice has been far more successful in pursuing wrongdoing at FIFA (a footballing organisation based in Zürich) than it has on Wall Street. So far, just one financial executive in the US has been jailed for their role in undermining the global economy as part of the 2008 global crash which destroyed the livelihoods of millions. With a track record like that is it any surprise barely a quarter of US citizens really trust one of those crucial pillars of democracy; the courts and the criminal justice system?

    What about those other institutions that underpin democracy? I’m citing statistics from the ‘Land of the Free’ not only because it likes to see itself as the world’s most valiant defender of democracy but also because problems with governance in the USA are echoed in many other democracies, for example its difficulties with the press. Once diversely owned, the US media is now almost entirely controlled by only six companies – all with their own partisan take. Citizens are justifiably wary, with 74% regarding newspapers with caution or outright cynicism (a figure that rises to 78% for television news). What about that other foundation of a working democracy – functioning property rights? Well, as mentioned above, property rights (whether they’re physical or intellectual) do work very well … for the super-rich, who have snaffled up the majority of them. In this context it becomes easier to see why Britain voted to leave the EU and how Donald Trump was able become the Republican nominee for president. For large numbers of the population democracy isn’t working and anyone who offers to give it a good poke looks a better bet than voting for more of the same.

    In his famous Gettysburg Address during the US Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called upon those listening to resolve that the war dead should not have perished in vain, and that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The poor man is probably turning in his grave. Increasingly, modern democracies (the USA included) cannot be argued to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people” but rather “government of the people, by very few disconnected people, for the disproportionate benefit of the rich” explaining, perhaps why the number of US citizens who have a generally positive view of Congress is just 9% (seriously).

    Across the board citizens of democratic countries, while happy with the concept of democracy, are far less enamoured with its implementation. They trust their parliaments less than the constitutions those parliaments are supposed to uphold, their sitting governments less than their parliaments, and their political parties less than their governments. Sweden, regularly held up as one of democracy’s stars is a good example. 81% are ‘satisfied with democracy’ but only 32% ‘trust political parties’. You could perhaps summarise the problem by saying: ‘most people think democracy would work fine, if it wasn’t for the politicians.’ Or as democracy campaigner Josh Lerner remarks, “Democracy has become the political version of kale, almost everyone says it’s good, but few want to eat it”.

    In my experience, many inside the political class confuse disenchantment with indifference, ‘voter apathy’ being an easier pill to swallow than the admission that our democracies are increasingly unfit for purpose. If the democracy you live in can’t save you from the injustices of inequality, if its regulators are lame ducks, if it can’t find ways to punish those who criminally mismanage the financial system and if the media (supposedly one of the institutions that holds everyone to account) peddles partisan untruths at you with depressing regularity – and this all happens no matter who is in power – why vote for the usual suspects, or at all?

    Which is a terrible shame because democracy is, and always has been a pretty good idea. But democracy as practiced today is beginning to resemble the once brilliant recording artist trading on past glories while trying to placate their fans with ever-weaker performances and an inability to move with the times. In short, if democracy were a band, it’d be Guns ’n’ Roses.

  • July2nd

    The legendary computer engineer Howard H. Aitken once advised, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

    Successful optimists understand that the beginning of many endeavours involves being told you’re mad, bad and dangerous to know. More practically they know that they will lose. A lot. At least to start with.

    Successful optimists see their ‘Bigger than me’ projects (see Principle no 2) as long games with many rounds. I tend to imagine 10 rounds per project. In round 1 they are resigned to the fact that 9 out of 10 people will think they’re naïve, the wrong person for the job or too idealistic. The task in round 1 is not to try and win over everyone, but one out of ten. Round two is almost as bruising. 90% of the world thinks you’re crazy, and the task here is to convince 1 out of 9 that you’re not (although you do now have the help of the brave soul who saw your point in the last round). And so it repeats with round 3, where 80% of those you talk to are against you and you have to reduce that number to 70%. The rounds get progressively easier but it’s worth noting that up until round five you’re losing more often than you’re winning, which can be awfully dispiriting.

    In fact, until I began playing longer games I was often completely dispirited, because I confused round one for the entire game, which means you can begin to doubt yourself very quickly. Despite your enthusiasm for an idea, almost everyone in the world thinks you’re nuts and tells you so. Clearly you’ve misjudged things horribly. What on earth were you thinking? Nowadays though, I use the number of rejections as a metric to tell me where I am on a journey and how long it might take. Kicked in the nuts 7 out of 10 times this week? Well done, you’re in round three. So, only two more rounds to go until the world starts to turn your way.

    As US trade unionist Nicholas Klein said, “First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

  • April21st

    Yesterday I gave a ‘sermon’ on the principles of successful optimism at the London Sunday Assembly – a godless congregation that started in London but is catching on all over the world. One of the founders, the comic Pippa Evans, talked about giving up booze for a while – and how the point was not that you shouldn’t be tempted but that you will be tempted and then you say no. Temptation isn’t a problem, it’s part of the process. I’m inspired to follow Pippa’s lead as part of my ongoing health drive – trying to get back into the shape  I was in my twenties (now I’m, ahem, not in my twenties). Therefore I’m having a sauce moratorium (with three notable exceptions) for 10 weeks – and am writing this short blog post to make it public (which means, I hope, those temptations will be easier to say no to). So, from tomorrow (22nd April) I’m not drinking booze for 10 weeks with the exceptions of  my dad’s 80th birthday, my brother’s stag do and his subsequent wedding (assuming he makes it through the stag do).

    That’s it. Right, I’m off to the gym.

  • April21st

    I am often asked to denounce religion. At about a third of the public talks I give, someone will suggest that the root cause of most of our problems is irrational religious belief – and will invite me to agree with them. My reply however is always the same: that trying to take the rational high ground is not easy. I maintain that the nearest place to see someone who cherry picks evidence and is ruled more often by emotion than reason is in the mirror. The most outwardly ‘rational’ of us harbour a festering pit of assumption, un-evidenced opinion and prejudice. Even our most iconic scientists are not immune as Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals brilliantly documents. On a personal note I’ve seen more than a few of their number rendered about as rational as David Icke by alcohol, romantic disasters or a perceived snub by a colleague.

    So the scientific method and critical thinking skills are crucial – providing a framework of checks and balances, putting filters around our bug-ridden brains so that what eventually dribbles out is something approaching the truth. Let’s be honest, science has been astonishingly successful and one can only admire how this cognitive safety harness has continually come up trumps for its irrational creators.

    Successful optimists therefore know that a commitment to evidence is key, regardless of your beliefs, your favourite ideology or accepted wisdom. This principle (number six) is perhaps best summed up as: be more like an engineer and less like a politician.

    Think about it. Engineers do not build bridges from a left-wing, right-wing perspective. They build them from an evidence-based perspective and, over time, bridge building gets better. Politicians often make their decisions from an ideological standpoint, and if the evidence fits well (or can be ‘made’ to fit) that’s nice, and over time – as I’m sure you’ve noticed – our political system has got worse.

    If you do something useful the politicians will come calling soon enough. There is a story, the truth of which is debated, that when Michael Faraday was asked by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer what the practical value of electricity was he replied, “One day sir, you may tax it.”

  • 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.”