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.