Mark Stevenson: "If we don't dream, how can we make a better world?"
Mark Stevenson: "If we don't dream, how can we make a better world?"

'You find innovation where the system is most broken'

31 January 2017

Futurologist Mark Stevenson urges people – and organisations – to stop hiding behind belief systems and face reality.

In a world where organisations do the same thing but expect different results, Mark Stevenson, entrepreneur, futurologist and founder of an organisation called the League of Pragmatic Optimists, has been seeking out people who are challenging the status quo in a variety of fields – from healthcare to farming and refrigeration – for his new book We Do Things Differently. Here he talks belief systems, supply chains and plumbers with Supply Management.

As the founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists, what does optimism mean to you?

My optimism is very much about ambition and pragmatism. We need people who dare to make things better, otherwise what’s the point? If we don’t dream, how can we make a better world? We have all the tools, talent and technology we need to create a just, compassionate, equal and sustainable world it’s just that we can’t organise that.

Why can’t we organise it?

Partly because, in the face of complexity, we seek comfort in belief systems which actively shield us from a bigger reality. The world is complex – and it’s getting more so – the next 10-15 years will be a complexity fest of immense and terrifying proportions, and many of the belief systems we have, about how we run things, have passed their sell-by date and might even be dangerous.

I liken it to hiring a plumber and when they come to your house they tell you “I just want to let you know that I am one of those plumbers who don’t use spanners because those tools are not part of my belief system”. We need cultures that are open, curious and innovative, and not bound by our current belief systems.

Systems are much harder to change than people realise because they have culture embedded within them. And the culture defends itself. As the American novelist Upton Sinclair said: “It’s very difficult for a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”

Yet in your book, you have found people who have challenged these systems. What have you learned from them?

If you want to see the best solutions, go to the place where the system is most broken – that’s where you will find real innovation. Take Detroit, for example – the city has become a basket base but also a food mecca because of urban farming. What happened is that a group of people came together and started taking the city lots that were falling apart and turning them into farms and plots. This has proved that seemingly alienated communities can connect and that people divided by politics can come together around a project.

Do the innovators in your book have any traits in common?

Yes, if you want to innovate you’re better off being an outsider. You might become an outsider within the system or decide the only way you are going to change something is to leave the system. Sometimes, it can be moral outsiderness. Jamie Heywood, who I spoke to for the book, is an engineer who gave up his job when his brother developed motor neurone disease. He approached the problem with an engineer’s perspective and, although he couldn’t save his brother, he has become one of the most important people in healthcare, challenging the system that failed him and his family.

Sometimes, it’s an emotional head-downness that helps people confront systems that are dysfunctional, inefficient and corrupt. That’s why, when it comes to innovation, it’s always better to bet on the tortoise than the hare. Look at Peter Dearman, who has invented an engine that runs on liquid air and may be able to deliver sustainable refrigeration to the developing world, where nearly a third of all food produced is lost between harvest and distribution. At school, he upset his teachers by suggesting that one of their equations was wrong. He was right but the best solution, it was agreed, was for him to leave school at the age of 15 and go and work in a sheet metal factory – and this is one of the finest engineering minds of his generation!

Is it possible to bring openness, curiosity and innovation into supply chains?

Yes, supply chains as we have engineered them are classic examples of systems where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But as supply chains become more transparent, collaborative and share data, they can make a difference. For example, better data – and technology – can help a poor cotton farmer in a developing economy get preferential loan rates and cheaper insurance.

Your first book was called An Optimist’s Tour Of The Future. Are you as optimistic now, as when that was published in 2012?

I’m a possiblist. All it needs is for 51% of us to get on the right side of history. One thing that does give me hope is the Millennial generation. They know they’re at the point in history where everything is up in the air and I’ve found working with them in my job, saving the world [laughs], has been inspiring.

Mark Stevenson’s new book We Do Things Differently is available from Profile Books, priced £12.99  

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