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The Eden Project, Cornwall

‘There’s a whole world of ignorance out there’: Sir Tim Smit, CEO, Eden Project

Image credit: Eden Project

As the Eden Project celebrates its 20th anniversary, its CEO and thought leader Sir Tim Smit reflects on the technological achievement and educational impact of simulating rainforest and Mediterranean climates in a clay pit in rural Cornwall.

“If you want to know anything about the way I think,” say Sir Tim Smit, “this is where you need to start.” He casts an expansive and proprietorial arm gesture around a dingy, cluttered office not much bigger than a rabbit hutch. There’s something eccentric about his office environment that doesn’t seem to stack up against the classic image of the CEO.

Yet then again Smit – CEO of the world-renowned Eden Project in Cornwall – is not a run-of-the mill chief executive. He doesn’t wear sharp grey suits or drive a six-figure fossil-fuel car and there’s no insipid corporate-sponsored art on his walls. His office, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a student bedsit, is plastered from floor to ceiling with photographs of the natural world, “caught beautifully, inspirationally and elliptically in that they reveal a truth that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought about”. One image in his brainstorming mood-board is that of a giant sequoia. “I climbed a tree bigger than that,” he says proudly. “If you look at the man at the bottom and then at the guy at the top, you realise how enormous the tree is.” He goes on to say that to be at the top of a 4,000-year-old tree, “makes you think. It makes you think some really important things.”

The sequoia is a perspective marker for the 60-something Dutch-born British businessman and entrepreneur. It allows him to contemplate the 37 civilisations (“that I know of”) to have collapsed during the tree’s lifetime. “Each one of these civilisations will have been full of people like you and me. So how come we screwed it up each time and yet that tree has survived?” He points to photographs of Antarctic explorers, in particular Captain Scott, who he describes as a “muppet” for taking a candelabrum with him on an expedition from which he wasn’t to return. “Who does that? No wonder he died,” he exclaims, enjoying the absurdity of his statement and the expletives he knows I’ll have to redact.

He pauses. “You see, most people don’t know how to think. I’m most concerned that I don’t just become an amalgamation of all the magazine articles that I read,” he says. “Being an environmentalist, I love going into a room and asking, ‘who’s anti-nuclear?’ And you see all these hands shoot up. Then you ask why: what do you know about nuclear that I don’t? There’s a whole world of ignorance out there, with people passionately going to the cross over things they know nothing about. With most people so black and white in their analysis of things, it’s actually damaging our ability to think.” He goes on to say that when asked what the Eden Project is about, he explains it as “a finishing school for thought leaders”.

It’s easy to fall into a false sense of security when talking to Smit. His folksy choice of vocabulary, gardening clothes and distinctly un-PC, no-standing-on-ceremony sense of humour all lead you to think you might be in for an easy ride. Later in the conversation, as we talk about the condition of British manufacturing, he takes me to the cleaners. “You haven’t thought that question through,” he barks. “What you’re asking is based on a false premise.” Then we’re back to the good-natured banter. When I ask him if he wants me to call him ‘Sir Tim Smit’ in this article, he says: “You can if you want, but it spoils the palindrome.”

The Eden Project first opened its doors to the public 20 years ago: two vast futuristic geodesic biomes made up of hexagonal and pentagonal inflated plastic cells supported by steel frames so light that “the air inside weighs more than the structure”. A tourism attraction simulating rainforest and Mediterranean climates that has brought £2bn to Cornwall, its educative purpose is to demonstrate the relationship between plants, people and resources. It is also a feat of engineering and a global franchise with 17 locations worldwide.

There are plans for a UK-based marine counterpart – Eden Project North – to be built in Lancashire. The Eden Project is also collaborating with London-based architects Grimshaw on the elliptical energy-neutral Sustainability Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai in October. “It’s all about doing something that’s not been done before. I’m not interested in doing what’s been done before. We’ve created a giant fish that absorbs waste. It’s brilliantly disgusting. We talk about all the bad stuff, but how it doesn’t have to be bad.” Eden Project’s involvement in Expo 2020 ties together Smit’s vision of the future, technology and an approach to environmental issues.

“What you see when you come to Eden,” says Smit, “is a completely independent place that is a lost civilisation in the crater of a volcano. That’s the theatre of it. I wanted somewhere that, when you first see it, even if you’re a cynic, will cause you to react in the way David Livingstone did when he first saw Victoria Falls.” In other words, with open-mouthed disbelief. Behind the drama, “what you have is two very large conservatories with the greatest collection of economic plants – plants on which humans depend, for which there is an exchangeable price – ever brought together in the history of the planet.”

Sir Tim Smit, CEO, Eden Project

Image credit: Nick Smith

“Eden is about two things,” says Smit. First, it is a symbol of how “ordinary people with great imagination can create a culture within it that is life-affirming”. Second, it is an invitation to understand our interdependence with the natural world.

“I’m fascinated by ecology. I’m also fascinated by how the word puts people off,” says Smit, who suspects that most people are repelled by science jargon. The way words have been culturally appropriated dismays him. While his thinking is ‘holistic’ in the philosophical (and first dictionary definition) sense of “belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole”, he thinks the term has been devalued – “hijacked” – and is now exclusively associated with alternative rather than central ideas.

The rot set in back in the 1830s, says Smit, when Master of Trinity College Cambridge William Whewell coined the term ‘scientist’. “Up until then the label was ‘natural philosopher’. Over the next 50 years the world of natural philosophy got colonised by specialists. Zoologists or biologists, for example.” He doesn’t quite say it, but the implication is that, ever since, we’ve started to know more and more about less and less.

The route to becoming the man to create 21st-century Eden is as unconventional as the man himself. An archaeologist and rock musician at university, Smit decided that there was no money in archaeology and so the obvious thing was to go to London to become a rock’n’roll star. Discovering straight away that “there were 30,000 musicians in London that were better than me” he became a songwriter, hung out at Abbey Road studios, scooped seven platinum discs, became bored with the music industry, moved to Cornwall and bought a derelict farmhouse in which the now destitute Smit contemplated “what I was going to do with the rest of my life”.

A friend turned up looking for a home for his pig Horace, which Smit adopted. Deciding he was going to become a pig farmer, he set about buying some land, during which enterprise he met a man who, having just inherited a country estate, declared that he needed an archaeologist. This estate was the Lost Gardens of Heligan, overgrown and untouched since the First World War. It’s now the most visited garden in the UK. “While I was there, knowing nothing about plants, but surrounded by people who did, I noticed something: there needs to be narrative. I’m a story teller, and you don’t want ‘tombstone’ labels in Latin on plants. I noticed people sitting in the vegetable garden and they were interested in abundance. I wanted to tell a story, and it was at that point I decided that it would be great to find a place that could be a receptacle for all the productive plants in the world.”

Not for the first time Smit uses the expression “to cut a long story short”, and the chase to which he is cutting is that he then raised £141m and built the Eden Project, which has so far returned £2bn to Cornwall, making it “ pound-for-pound probably the best single investment ever in Britain in terms of regeneration. We get a million visitors a year.” The key to its enduring success, says Smit, is that “people love the combination of the wild and the technological. It’s about understanding that a romantic bower and artificial intelligence are both part of a complete holistic thing.”

‘I’m fascinated by ecology. I’m fascinated by how the word puts people off.’

Sir Tim Smit

Smit isn’t reticent in agreeing that the Eden Project is, quite apart from being a unique collection of plants, also a testament to technology. “The technology here is astonishing. The technological challenges in building here were enormous,” he says, the first of which was that the site – a ‘teaspoon’ clay pit – required a foundation ring-beam of nearly a mile, comprised of sections that were no longer than 10m. It was like building the Great Wall of China. Some of it was on the hardest Grade 1 granite, while other parts were on bouncy Grade 4. It was only allowed to settle by 20mm, but it came out at no more than 8mm. If you don’t get excited by that as a marker for the potential of human beings, nothing will excite you.”

The location itself was the “only pit we could pick. I visited every hole in the ground that there is. I needed a boundary, I needed artistically the crater of a volcano. This had an edge all the way around. It is a theatrical conception based on science.

“We had to build the giant conservatories that weren’t a monument to the vanity of architects. Traditionally these were built out of glass – like Kew – but we wanted them to be very light and to use a foil that would allow UV light to penetrate so that our trees and shrubs could be healthy.” The foil selected was ethylene tetrafluoroethylene copolymer and the ‘buckyball’ geodesic domes were built. Buckminster Fuller’s widow came to view the domes and declared her husband would “have been proud”. Because of the way in which the pentagons and hexagons slot together (it’s modelled on a carbon 60 molecule) the structure is inherently weak until the last piece is fitted (when it becomes “unbelievably strong”), which meant that “a lot of scaffolding was required” – the project entered the Guinness Book of World Records as requiring the largest ever free-standing scaffold with 260 miles of reinforced scaffolding in all. “While we were very pleased with that, the people of Cornwall were less so, because they couldn’t get hold of any for themselves.”

Back to today, Smit says he’s excited by the fact there is a sense of change in the air being brought about by Big Data. “Go back eight months and no-one was talking about climate change other than the bore in the corner. Suddenly everyone is talking about it and starting to realise that it is real. Yet the issue is not so much that we are suffering from climate change: it’s that there’s humans out there feeling a clear and present danger, which is waking people up to the possibility of doing things in a new way.

“I always say to people: ‘Do you know that in Roman times there was twice the amount of carbon in the soil?’ Doesn’t that make you feel hopeful? This means, if we can fix the soil, and with a few tweaks here and there around the edges, we can fix the problem. One of the ways to do this is to enrich the soil by increasing biomass, improve biodiversity, get our water system working better. Then the soil will start to sequester carbon and create a carbon bank. The only way to create that carbon bank is to measure everything. That’s why technology today is so important. This will give agronomists the ability to measure the so-called natural capital of the world in a way that allows politicians to make the right investments.

“If you asked me ‘What would make you burn down all your Eden Projects?’ it would be for every nation on Earth to agree to teach natural history as part of the curriculum. For that I would burn down Eden. That’s why Eden is about education and we use plants as a canvas on which to paint.”

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