Interview: Tim Smit on the Eden Project at the Social Entrepreneur Awards

Last Friday night the Social Entrepreneur Awards were held in Dublin, Ireland. The ceremony has been going for five years now and was well attended on the evening by a vibrant group of emerging Irish men and women active in the field of social entrepreneurship.

The rise of the social entrepreneur is a very visible and timely movement in Ireland coinciding with the greatest economic crisis that this country has ever witnessed. We need these type of entrepreneurs now more than ever, as we can expect a whole range of Irish social services and environmental initiatives to come under pressure during these challenging times. The Social Impact Programme that Social Entrepreneurs Ireland operates offers funding to high potential social entrepreneurs. It gives them the knowledge, support and expertise to assist them in delivering sustainable, long term projects.

The evening was a truly inspirational and educational one and I was delighted to be able to interview one of the speakers on the night, Tim Smit.

After a spell in the music business Tim conceived the idea of The Eden Project in the Celtic nation of Cornwall in the far South West of England. This intuitive impulse led him to an unused china clay pit and the eventual siting and construction of two vast biomes, both over a 100ft high and hundreds of feet across at the base. The larger biome contains tropical flora planted over four acres of carefully landscaped earth. Temperature and humidity in the dome varies with height and plants are planted at a level on the gradient where they are most likely to flourish. The smaller biome contains plants from mediterranean latitudes and is also landscaped accordingly.

The Eden Project has been a great success with over a million visitors a year since it opened in 2001. This is a huge endeavour by any standards and it all began with a beer or two and few notes on a napkin. After all, it had to start somewhere.

Tim tells the story, “The idea of the Eden Project was sketched in a pub called the Llawnroc, which is Cornwall spelt backwards, while we were drinking beer one evening, by the engineer Anthony Hunt and the architect Nick Grimshaw. A friend of mine went back to the pub and picked up the napkins that were left on the table and thought historically that they might be important and put them in his bag. He bought a new briefcase and left the other one in his house somewhere. About seven or eight years later he found them and we framed them. It was amazing because it (the Eden Project) was all pretty much there.”

He then went on to reveal more about the Eden Project and the importance of doing the things you love.

“Eden was a very natural evolution. The area looked like a moonscape and it was very depressed looking. I went up there and had a look, everyone had been telling me that nothing could have been done with the place. I thought actually, it’s beautiful in a funny way. You’ve got these ocean views wherever you are there. I thought it would be great to do something no one expects in a place like this. I’ve always worked on instinct and I had this sense that the idea I had for the place was just right.

“Loving things is a completely different proposition and what that taught me was that if I loved something that there would be millions of people like me, therefore the issue was only one of marketing. For something to work it requires influence and people to know that you are going to do it no matter what happens. People need to feel that you can do things with or without them. The moment people think you are dependent on them they treat you in a different way. It’s a bit like when you lend money to someone, even if they are your best friend, it damages your relationship. That’s why I can’t do fundraising in a normal way”

It is not only fundraising that Tim does differently. As you can imagine the Eden Project is special and something special is required of those who work there. Tim has nine rules which the people involved are obliged to follow:

Tim Smit’s 9 Rules

  • You must say good morning to at least twenty people before starting work.
  • You have to read two books a year that anybody you know would say are completely outside your realm of knowledge/interest and review them for your colleagues.
  • As above with one piece of music.
  • As above with one show.
  • As above with one film.
  • Once a year you have to make a speech explaining what makes you passionate about your work and why you love working here. If you can’t do it, you are honour bound to resign (apparently it helps to focus the mind…)
  • Once a year you must prepare a meal for your closest colleagues and the people that matter around you.
  • As fortune favours those who share it, you must share your good fortune by conducting a random act of kindness to a complete stranger once a year (and they must never find out that it was you who did it).
  • All staff members must learn to play the drums.

The Eden Project is not about the magnificent biomes or varied plant life or even as a lesson in the importance of biodiversity and our dependence on plant life for human survival. It is about symbolising our awareness to ourselves that our own consciousness is changing and that we cannot go on the way we are going and pretend not to know the consequences.

Buckminster Fuller whose original geodesic domes formed the basis for the design of the biomes said “I am convinced that human continuance depends entirely upon the intuitive wisdom of each and every individual.” Tim Smit’s initial impulse to create the Eden Project goes to show where intuition can take us if we choose to listen to and follow it. Don’t forget to have a pen and some napkins handy.

9 thoughts on “Interview: Tim Smit on the Eden Project at the Social Entrepreneur Awards

  1. I was supposed to be at the SEI awards event but couldn’t make it on the night and was particularly disappointed to miss the opportunity to hear Denis O’Brien and Tim Smit talks. So I enjoyed reading this Ina, thanks.


  2. Yes I missed yourself and Margaret at the awards James. It was a great event. Tim’s speech was a breath of fresh air. John McCarthy of Mad Pride Ireland was great as well. Sean Coughlan and everyone involved in SEI did an excellent job with the event and the Warehouse was a great venue for it to have been hosted in.


  3. Great post Ina & delighted to see his 9 rules, had forgotton about them. There was just so much to take from what he said on the night. Tim Smit said that “storytelling is the heart of everything” & he certainly proved that with his talk at the SEI awards. As you said he was a “breath of fresh” air. I found him totally captivating. I particulary liked one of his philosophies about putting yourself in the position of “maximum jeopardy” as a way to get things done.


  4. Thanks Pauline. He used plenty of metaphors to describe a whole host of things on the night. I loved his story about his future truths & his deep sea diver story. It is so true what he said about change being necessary and how we have to get rid of the old guard-as John McCarthy said he wasn’t bad for an Englishman. : )It’s fantastic to see the rise & rise of Social Entrepreneur-ism in Ireland….very zeitgeisty…


  5. John McCarthy is an amazing person. He did a hugely emotional interview with Newstalk radio a few years ago that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard on radio.


  6. Ina, unfortunately I was unable to attend the Awards so its great to get this post. From reading your interview with Tim it amazes me how he thinks about the world – he seems to be special in his capacity to realise a vision integral to his philosophy on life, living and community. The pictures are really spectacular. Congratulations to all the finalists and winners of the SEI Awards Social Impact Programme….it wasn’t an easy task for the judges!


  7. Thanks John. I think Tim sees the world in a very natural way and how interconnected everything is – it’s made up of people after all. Pushing things forward has a lot to do with getting out of your comfort zone…I think his rule of accepting every third invitation lead to a whole range of serendipitous things happening to him…..


  8. Ina your article has opened a whole skill set for me. I have to go back now and look at how to write on this yoke, never realized you could click a word and open an article a video, thank you. Your kind words thank you for thosebut most important thank you for “getting” what we are trying to do. To decrimialize human emotionswe will achieve this will take time but as long as the media understand the breach of human rights contained in the mental health act 2001 basically replace force with love not such a bad ambitionthank you againJohn McCarthy Mad Pride Ireland


  9. John It was great to meet with you. It’s very important that it gets out what you are trying to do. To make a change takes time. It also requires persistence. Replacing force with love is a great ambition! Wishing you well with everything!


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