The outsiders rebooting our world

Author Mark Stevenson has travelled the world, from Brazilian favelas to a shed in the English home counties, meeting remarkable innovators

Author Mark Stevenson has travelled the world, from Brazilian favelas to a shed in the English home counties, meeting remarkable innovators

There is a man in the sleepy market town of Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire who has found a solution to two of humanity’s biggest challenges – using only his lawnmower and a can of antifreeze. In Boston an engineer with no medical training has given the healthcare profession access to something more powerful than any drug ever created. Just outside the city of Ranchi, north-east India, a young man is growing crops in places that accepted wisdom would suggest that it’s hopeless to farm, while in Brazil an idea first proposed by some neighbourhood activists is achieving something many would consider impossible – it makes politicians popular.

Futurologist Mark Stevenson travelled across four continents to find the big thinkers rebooting our world. Image: Peter Guenzel

There has always been a subset of people who think differently. A smaller number do differently, people who look at the status quo and not only think ‘I could fix that’ but actually roll their sleeves up and start working. The media, however, tends not to cover their stories, preferring to keep our ever-fearful hind brain fed with stories of disaster and division, just the sort of thing it’s programmed to look out for as it tries to keep us safe. Things going well just aren’t as important (and therefore as interesting), they say, as the threats and dangers that are catnip to what some neuroscientists call our ‘deep lizard brain’.

The problem with this, of course, is that it can give you a very skewed view of the world. When your attention is constantly snagged by the (undeniable) bad, it’s hard to concentrate on the (undeniable) good. We become cynical, hampering our desire and ability to act on the world in a positive way, making cynicism the ultimate enemy of a better future. In fact, cynicism is nothing more than obedience to the status quo – a recipe and an excuse for laziness, an easy and plausible excuse for keeping your head down.

These pragmatic optimists are our best teachers. They show us change is possible

Dumping cynicism and rolling up your sleeves is no easy task, but thankfully enough people do, realising not only that they have a role to play in making our world more sustainable, equitable, humane and just, but reaping a personal dividend of deep happiness. I know this, because I spend most of my life seeking these people out, finding out how they take on our grand challenges and, crucially, succeed. Some of this ends up in books, the latest being We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting our World, cataloguing my journey across four continents to find the heroes we rarely hear of. As the human race enters a traumatic period where it must finally stop behaving like a moody teenager who won’t tidy their room and mature into a young and useful adult these pragmatic optimists are our best teachers, because they show us change is possible, and tell us how – and as such they should be given far greater prominence.

The frontline of the future

Take the story of the town of Gussing in Austria that went from economic disaster to mini boomtown, after taking control of its own energy production and distribution, and moving over to renewables. Now places like Georgetown (population 60,000) in the middle of Texas, US, are following suit, choosing community renewable energy over utility oil. Isolated cases? Check out the work of Open Utility who, along with Good Energy are running the first UK ‘energy internet’ that paves the way for the rest of us to take control of the energy we use. Take heart from the story of Hartsholme Academy, a school on one of the toughest housing estates in the UK that went from being pretty much the worst in the country to the best in two years, without changing a single member of staff – offering a replicable model of the educational renaissance we so need.

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If you try to convince me we are cursed to endure the zombie-like inertia of our current systems, I resolutely refuse to believe you. The innovators I meet hold up a mirror that reflects, for some, an uncomfortable truth: ‘What you believe is wrong and I have proved it – by doing it better.’ Of course some of the ideas and projects I’m so excited about will fail, but, as the great German, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once observed: ‘daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be defeated, but they start a winning game.’

The future does not happen to you, it is there to be made

None of the people who inspire me belittle or ignore our current predicaments. Indeed, it’s this which inspires them to action. I’ve set my life to telling their stories and helping them wherever I can. The future does not happen to you, it is there to be made. The more of us get behind a different narrative of our future, based on our collective power to solve our problems the sooner we’ll reap the dividends. It’s why Positive News is so important, and why I’m a co-owner.

The Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos is the original source of a much-quoted proverb: ‘They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.’ There are plenty of seeds out there, plenty of saplings, some strong trees too. Pointing them out to everyone you know is one of the most radical things you can do right now – and they need the sunshine.

We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting our World, by Mark Stevenson, is out now with Profile Books

Featured image: Güssing, Austria by Christoph Sammer

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