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How to have a better future

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

9 October 2017

Mark Stevenson is a change-maker. He might not agree but his unique way of looking at the systems we take for granted from energy and electricity to industrial farming and Big Pharma - even democracy, and understanding what needs to change, stands him out from the crowd.

Back in his youth, he started a band and then asked his fans to pay for his album to be recorded. The fans all bought shares in a record company the band created, the band owned  the copyright to their work and licensed it for distribution. They used MySpace and he had inadvertently created the first crowd-funded experiment. The crowd-funding worked, the band didn’t and he moved on. He has become something of a name amongst the trend-setters, futurists and  speakers circuit. There’s a TED talk, a TV series in the works. He’s currently working on his third book,

“If you say I’m going to write about systematic change and how bureaucracy and ideas move, people won’t pick it up,” he explains. “But if you write about fairness and how that’s going to change in this century then that’s a lot more attractive.”

Mark Stevenson Meaning Conference2

Stevenson brings a dose of comedy to his lectures on how we can shape the future

Photography | Taragh Bisset

His books An Optimist’s Tour of the Future and We Do Things Differently tell stories of the Davids against the Goliath industries, about how they’re disrupting them, rebuilding them and by doing so each of these inventors offers us a different version of the future.

"What’s on most people’s dashboards is fear, comfort and more fear"

The future is what we meet to discuss in part of London that’s become gentrified enough to have flat whites and croissants outside next to an overground station. It’s no dig at him, but a marker of the fact the future is changing around us while most of us are either standing still or looking at the past.

“What’s on most people’s dashboards is fear, comfort and more fear,” he says.

Our careers can feel like they don’t make sense and we have no idea of where we’re going in the future. He imagines it like driving a car by only looking in the rearview mirror, the future is even more difficult to predict if you don’t look through the windscreen at where you’re going and have the right signs on the dashboard telling you where to go,

“If you work for a big organisation for too long, what’s on your dashboard is what they want you to care about. What you want on there are the things you care about, and are good at, then drive your career based on that.”

Mark Stevenson Meaning Conference1

What's on your dashboard? Are you looking ahead or behind you?

Stevenson has a habit of rooting for the underdog because this is often where radical change happens. The people who’ve got nothing left to lose, like Jamie Heywood who lost his brother to cancer and went on to found PatientsLikeMe, an enormous online community where people can find groups on every disease going, discuss their treatments, their results, their trials and crowdsource the findings.

Our globally interconnected world is becoming decentralised as we shift away from big government and towards more inventions and disruptions created by people who don’t have huge research grants or lauded careers, enabled by ever cheaper and more sophisticated tech.

“Most people are accustomed to things the way they are but we are starting to challenge the existing systems and reimagine them,” he says. In his book, We Do Things Differently he spends time in Gűssing in Austria, a quiet town who have revolutionised their own power system. They use biomass (organic matter from the forest) to fuel all of their heating and power. It's clean, renewable and locally owned by the town, a closed loop of central heating and electricity.

“The politics of energy, is the politics of the world,” Stevenson says. “Moving to a locally owned and renewably generated energy system, used through more of an internet like system is going to be one of the biggest foundational things we can change. It will change the ownership structure of energy, radically change the cost and because the cost of energy inhibits everything else - like healthcare and irrigation, as our electricity bills come down, a lot of other things will get cheaper too.”

We all recognise we live in a time of great change, similar to the that of 100 years ago when new technology like electricity, cars and home appliances radically reshaped normal life (for most of us in the west). But the future now is often described to us is bleak, worse than the present - jobless and under the thumb of AI who will have seized control from their irrational once masters (and that’s without climate change).

"You’ll hang out with nicer people, have better sex and drink better cocktails when you’re on the right side of history"

Stevenson works to remind people that future is ours to play for. It’s not a done deal. And it’s not only in the hands of the 1%. You just have to act.

“Admitting systems are wrong is the first step and most people don’t want to take that. Once you’ve got there you have to understand that you need to do something about it,” he explains. “Because otherwise if you don’t do anything about it, you feel weak willed and end up dating horrible people and having miserable children.”

Where Stevenson shines is when he cuts through the crap, and relates his systematic thinking back to the personal as a reminder we all make choices and we can all affect change on some level.

“Plus saving the world is where the best parties are,” he says with a knowing smile. “You’ll hang out with nicer people, have better sex and drink better cocktails when you’re on the right side of history.”

Meaning Conference for sustainable business
“The more you tell people about the future, the more likely it is to happen”

Next month, Stevenson will be putting that claim into action (there’s no guarantee on the sex), helping the Meaning Conference in Brighton, where he is guest director, go with a swing. Meaning was set up several years ago to tackle new trends in doing good business, looking at social enterprise, disrupting systems and reimagining a fairer future. This year’s speakers include Margaret Wheatley on systems change, Vinay Gupta on how the blockchain will reimagine bureaucracy and Kyra Maya Phillips on finding talent in the most unlikely of places, like prisons and refugee camps.

“What I’m trying to bring to the Meaning Conference is some systematic thinking and looking at the big picture,” he explains. “I’ve dubbed the conference, the ‘good ship Meaning’ as the seas right now are very rough and you’ve got to navigate them. Meaning is a collection of very brave organisations, they’re a small boat in a rough storm but they’ll sail better.”

He’s not wrong. Our on-demand lifestyles have adapted to the disruption in almost every major industry much better than most companies. Consumer habits are changing, economies are in flux, our political, education and healthcare systems creak with the mutters of old age, barely fit for purpose. Conversely most citizen-consumers have more power than ever before, yet most of us don’t even realise it.

“We’re moving from economies of scale to economies of distribution and we used to do everything from economies of scale - power stations, hospitals, a factory model of education and the world was monolithic - everything was centralised. In the future, we’ll be looking at that and going ‘that was inefficient’. We’re moving back to decentralising things and making things more locally efficient and all enterprises will be socially responsible because if they’re not then people will turn their noses up at working for them.”

HIs work for Meaning taps into his belief that “the more you tell people about the future, the more likely it is to happen.” That goes for the good and the bad bits.

“You name it, everything is wrong at the moment, food security, democracy, climate change you can’t help but be depressed. But at the same time, I get to hang around with people who are trying to solve these problems and are amazing men and women you can’t help but be inspired and think “maybe it will be alright,”’ he explains.

“Why Meaning, and pebble, is important we’re trying to tell that story because the future is a politicised space and the more you tell people about the future, the more likely it is to happen. I don’t like to be called a futurist - my favourite people are Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi - because they articulated what was wrong but they also articulated how it could be better.”

So how do you have a better future?

Imagine it. Then act on it.

Joining in, taking part, discovering a network of people who think as you do, who hope as you do, is empowering. We aren’t hopeless, impact-less or impotent when it comes to changing the future.

“A lot of people get paralysed by the fact they’re only one person in one company but as the great author Alice Walker said, “the easiest way for people to lose their power is to pretend they don’t have any.”’

So what’s in Stevenson’s future?

“I want to found my own political party, the Party to End All Parties, become Prime Minister and change politics,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. To hear him describe it, it’s no more difficult than getting people to pay for an album that didn’t exist while most people were still worshipping the CD.

What will you do in the future?

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