How to have a better future
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 to industrial farming, from Big Pharma to democracy, and understanding what needs to change, stands him out from the crowd.
Mon 9 Oct 2017
Back in his youth, he started a band and then asked fans to pay for its debut 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. Inadvertently they may have created the first arts crowd-fund, back in 2003. The crowd-funding worked, the band didn’t – and he moved on. Today he’s something of a name amongst the trend-setters, futurists and on the speakers circuit. There’s a TV series in the works and he’s currently working on his third book.
“If you say ‘This is a book about systematic change and how bureaucracy and ideas move’, people won’t pick it up,” he explains. “But if you say ‘I’m going to write about fairness and how that’s going to change in this century then people might. A lot of my work is finding an angle that makes important stuff also interesting.”
His bestselling 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 in doing so offering us a different version of the future.
"What’s on most people’s dashboards is fear, comfort and more fear"
We meet to discuss the ideas of the future in a 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 - nowhere stands still.
“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.
“I like to say to a people I mentor that your career will not make sense in the windscreen, but it will make sense in the rear view mirror. How you drive your career, what you have on your dashboard is important. What you want on there is passion, the things you’re good at, your ‘bigger than me’ concerns. You cannot predict the future, but you can architect your life to be ready to make the right choices when challenges come.”
Stevenson has a habit of finding 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 motor neuron disease and went on to found PatientsLikeMe, an enormous online community where patients all over the world suffering with similar conditions 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 democratised technology.
“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) and solar to fuel all of their heating and power. It's clean, renewable, cheaper than the utilities and locally owned - a closed loop of central heating and electricity. It turned an economic wasteland into a boom town.
“The politics of energy, is the politics of the world,” Stevenson says. “Moving to a locally owned and renewably generated energy system, based around a much more internet-like system is going to be one of the biggest foundational things we can change. It will change the ownership structure of energy and because the cost of energy is a major component of the cost of nearly everything else - from healthcare to irrigation. As our energy 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 which will have seized control from their irrational once masters (and that’s all before we’ve mentioned 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%.
“Admitting our systems are broken is the first step and most people don’t want to take that because those systems may pay their salaries, or they’ve become so accustomed to them it’s hard to imagine anything else. Once you’ve understood the problem however, if you have any level of privilege its beholden upon you to you do something about it,” he explains. “Because if you don’t do anything about it, if you’re not on the side of positive change you become ever more weak willed and end up dating cynical people and having miserable children as a result.”
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.”
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 leadership, Vinay Gupta on how the blockchain will reimagine bureaucracy and Kyra Maya Phillips on societal solutions 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 and people, 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. We used to do nearly everything via economies of scale - power stations, hospitals, a factory model of education and the world was monolithic – most power was (and still is) centralised. In the future, we’ll be looking at that and realising that it’s inefficient in light of the tools we’re now building. We’re moving to decentralising things and making things more locally efficient. Slowly most enterprises will be socially responsible because if they’re not then people will turn their noses up at working for them. There won’t be so many excuses for bad behavior any more.”
HIs work for Meaning taps into his belief that “the more you tell people about a 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 is we’re trying to tell a different story. I don’t like to be called a futurist - my favourite ‘futurists’ are people like 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 the future is worth fighting for, 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’m toying with the idea of founding 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.
What will you do in the future?
We've got 20% off tickets for the Meaning Conference. Just enter the code 'Pebble' at the checkout.