The warm days of summer feel like a long time ago, which got me to thinking about my ‘summer read’ of 2013. I was given a signed copy of Tim Smit’s ‘Eden – the whole inspiring story of the Eden Project’. Having just met Tim himself (we spent a couple of hours literally swinging through the trees at an outdoor activity centre in the Lake District) and having heard him deliver a controversial ‘anti-establishment’ pre-dinner speech, I was all set up to learn more about this laid back, unassuming character. Dressed for his speech in trainers, jeans and a fleece, he told us how his early successful career in the music industry left him wanting. Once he’d achieved what he thought he wanted to achieve and then found it to be an empty chalice he knew a change was needed.
He spoke of how a chance enquiry at an estate agents led to a family move to Cornwall, how he fell in love with the area and its rural beauty, and how a visit round an old estate with its new owner was to shape the next few years of his life.
His language was poetic – his first sighting of an old green door set in the wall of an overgrown walled garden, paint peeling, not knowing what was beyond. Opening this door and cutting through the vines that had grown up and around led to the discovery of gardens that had lain untouched since all the workers had left at the outbreak of the First World War.
The next 6 years, Tim, along with a team of volunteers, restored the gardens to their original condition. These, the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ are now a popular tourist attraction in the south west. This project was an important fore-runner for Tim in giving him the confidence that would enable him to later embark on a project unprecedented in scale, drawing on the same underlying principles that made the Lost Gardens of Heligan a success. These principles were to do with stewardship as opposed to ownership, and the pulling together of a passionate team of people that share these values. Also not being frightened to tackle the philosophical issues of restoration versus preservation, and how to restore something so it is relevant in the modern world and not just a historical artefact.
It was the experience of this project, and a desire to create something that would regenerate Cornwall, that led to the first seedlings of ideas about the Eden Project itself.
This book tells the story of how this (sometimes called the 8th Wonder of the Worlds) was created, from initial ideas, to gaining funding, the complex build process, and then the launch. What I got from this book was a masterclass in how to assemble a team, manage a project of immense proportions, negotiate buy in from stakeholders (including a divided community), and how to create something truly creative, inspirational and unique.
The enormity of the venture sums up the quote from Machiovelli, ‘Make no small plans for they have not the power to stir men’s blood’ and left me with awe-inspiring feelings at Tim’s tenacity and belief in the vision that was created.
The thought struck me that perhaps no one is ambitious, creative and truly daring as when they are doing something that is for the benefit of others. A lesson for business perhaps. No business would have created the Eden Project – its ambitions are too broad, its work too far reaching and the risks too great.
That is the essence of social enterprise, having a vision that is greater than a profit on a balance sheet. This book is a fantastic read, and I take my hat off to Tim and the many others involved for their achievements. And I can wholly recommend a trip to Cornwall to take it all in.