Planting paradise – how we built Eden

Eden Project founder Tim Smit reveals what it takes to think big and reap what you sow

EdenlrBuilt on the site of a china clay pit a few miles from St Austell in Cornwall, the Eden Project has transformed a barren landscape into a startling visitor attraction that includes two sets of adjoining domes or biomes, which house plants from all over the world. The tropical biome is home to an abundance of tropical plants, and its environment is kept at tropical moisture levels and temperature – it even has its own waterfall. The Mediterranean biome is home to warm temperate plants such as olive trees and vines.

Since opening in 2001, the Eden Project has widened its scope and activities to include community based projects, outdoor events, education and social projects and regeneration protects both in Cornwall and overseas. Here, we speak to Eden’s founder Tim Smit about how the project has developed

What was the original vision – where did you hope to go with it right at the start?
‘My original idea was to create the impression of coming across a lost civilisation in the crater of a volcano. It was very Arthur Conan Doyle. I thought that environmentalists were usually so boring, I wanted to do something that was so theatrical that people would have to suspend cynicism.

You seem to be incredibly positive – have you overcome cynicism?
I actually hate cynics and negative people on the grounds that if you’re a cynic you might as well go an blow your brains out as what on earth is the pointing of going forward?

Can you sit back now and say that you’ve achieved your vision?
No, because whatever you do, a vision -–if that’s the right word for it – evolves and that wherever you are is going to be different from where it began. We began wanting to create the greatest plant exhibition people had ever seen, which was about the theatre of people and plants. We wanted to use plants like a canvas on which we painted human stories but the very act of building Eden and it’s power as a regenerative engine led us to explore issues of community and dependence of communities on one another, which led us to embed a whole range of policy about local sourcing and sustainable management protocols that were to shape what we would do thereafter, because in doing that we forged close relationships with our communities and indeed the funding agencies, both state and private, which made them see the possibility of collaboration in a way they never had done before.

You’ve spoken about the ‘social role’ in business – how important is the social role in business for you
It’s critical – we are a special enterprise at Eden, if you like surpluses for a purpose and for us just making profit is not interesting. We want a wider number of stakeholders to benefit from what we’re doing. We’re always mindful of whether we can get bigger wins from operating in different ways, for example we behave in a way that a normal limited company would find impossible – we will hire local staff even if it’s slightly more expensive, provided that the greater expense isn’t because of their incompetence. If it’s a matter of geography we’ll just take it on the chin. We feel that if we can help regenerate Cornwall it will be good for everybody and, by extension in the medium term, for ourselves.

The number of local projects you’re involved in is staggering – did you ever imagine you would become so involved in so many projects?
I initially would never thought about that because I don’t think I was thinking that way.The original decision to do Eden had regeneration as a major element because we built it in an area where everybody said it was hopeless, but I’ve always been a fan of waifs and strays and ‘hopeless’ was particularly appealing as a challenge. So, a lot of the things we’re now involved, no I didn’t hope for them, but only because I wasn’t thinking about them.

Successful people often don’t stop and enjoy their success – there always onto the next thing. Have you had the chance to stop, take stock and say I’m proud of that?
In truth, no I don’t stop because I’m very superstitious. Perhaps it’s a form of illness to not taking the time out to celebrate. However, I feel that wherever you are you’re then aware of another challenge you’d like to meet. So you never get this sense of arriving – there’s the famous Dorothy Parker quote: ‘The trouble with getting there is that when you get there, there is no there there’ which I think reflects my life – where I am today I can see where Eden can go in a a way that I never could have to start with because I needed other stuff done before I could actually see that.

You’ve been described as someone who thinks out of the box – how does someone do that?
I have never knowingly thought out of the box. I’ve never worked at the cutting edge, the leading edge or the bleeding edge! I’ve never done joined up thinking and I don’t think the unthinkable. I fire people for doing any of those things. Let me put it another way -–there is hardly a young person in school today aged 12 who hasn’t dreamt of building a giant dam, a castle of even an Eden Project. That is not particularly unusual, the unusual thing is to, if you like, have the power of grim to say let’s try and do it.

For more information about The Eden Project go to www.edenproject.com

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