The 72 most cheering things I learned on my book tour

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(John Thackara header)

SEPTEMBER 2016 Newsletter

Since my book How To Thrive In the Next Economy was published – a year ago this week – I’ve had conversations about it at forty talks and workshops. With thanks to my diverse but always generous hosts, this emaiI is to share the 72 most interesting and cheering things that I learned along the way.


1    My talks propose a simple theory of value: the health of living systems, including human ones, is paramount. Money and GDP are secondary indicators of progress, at best.

2    For the theologian Ina Praetorius, what’s emerging is a care-centered economy.

3    Dougald Hine says this involves a shift from a transactional to a relational economy.

4    The Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si – with a target readership of 1.2 billion people – includes a whole chapter on ‘integral ecology’. Fritjof Capra celebrated the Pope’s systems thinking. …

5    Encouraged by the above, my talk at Berkeley was entitled: From Biomedicine to Bioregion – The Geographies of a Care-Based Economy

Healthcare in the Next Economy


6    In a care-centered economy, restoring plant life and biodiversity is at least as high a priority as changing our energy system, or reigning in the banks. …

7    John Liu had demonstrated that large-scale ecological restoration is possible.

John D. Liu Interview: “It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.”

8    A ‘National Ecological Rescue Plan’ features prominently in the programme of Podemos in Spain. …

9    The European Union (which speaks in many voices, it’s true) supports High Nature Value (HNV) farming

10    Scotland is already monitoring HNV Farming and Forestry Indicators …

11    Wales is legislating ‘a duty of care to future generations’ …

12    Judith Schwartz wrote an excellent primer on the restoration of  soil health …

13    In California, Fibershed published this story about climate-beneficial wool

Climate-Beneficial Wool

14    In Bangalore – once known known as the ‘city of lakes’’ – the ecologist S. Vishwanath is working on the restoration of watersheds devastated by hyper-development

15    Re-forestation – a sub-set of ecological restoration – should focus on biodiversity. Planting trees en masse – especially as as bio-energy crops – can badly damage ecosystems.

16    I met many people involved in wetlands restoration projects – such as this one:

17    I learned a useful new word from this swamps community: Limnology. It means the study of inland waterways

18    Europe’s ‘low impact fishing’ communities have formed themselves into a platform


19    Ecosystem restoration creates jobs and business activity

20    Some of these jobs are in dam removal – which is booming.
Dam Removals

21    Although soil restoration using plants and natural chemicals can achieve a lot, a good deal of heavy lifting will still be needed. In a talk to DEME, I suggested they stop calling themselves a dredging company and become global leaders in Land Repair.

22    I discovered a treasure trove of “good” green tech in the the Climate Tech Wiki

23    Ecological restoration, and regeneration, are not the same thing.

24    There’s also a difference between ‘rewilding’ and ‘restoration ecology’
Can rewilding reinvigorate European nature policy?

25    I learned from Regenesis that we need to “grow our capacity to think systemically and holistically about whole living systems and our role in living among them”

Our manifesto


26    The “Network Europe 21”  agenda states that  Europe should be organised as an “Interconnected Transnational Republic of Cities and Regions”

27    I proposed adding “Bio-”  to the word region in a post called Bioregions: Notes on a design agenda

Bioregions: Notes On A Design Agenda

28    We then ran a two week course at Schumacher College, in South Devon, England, called Bioregionalism By Design.

29    A lot of “learning” about a place, it emerged, involves knowledge that already exists – but in overlooked professional archives. An inspiring example in South Devon were maps made by the West Country Rivers Trust to inform watershed catchment planning.

30    Isabel Carlisle (a course leader on the Schumacher course) is setting up a bioregional learning centre to serve the Dartia watershed. The West Country Rivers Trust is a partner, as are Devon Hedges (who also look after wildlife corridors). Carlisle is setting up a Keepers of the Place network


31    Later, in my talk at #earthtalks in Vienna, I argued that a Europe of Bioregions could be a strong counter-proposal ‘Europe of Fatherlands’ being proposed by the xenophobic right. …

32    At a workshop called Back To The Land 2.0 with Chora Connection in Denmark, we invited project leaders to share their insights on what makes a living economy work in their bioregion.

Billeder og video: Back to the land 2.0

33    The organic municipality of Lejre, we heard,  is setting up a Farm Lab in an amazing building

34    Although the idea of an ‘organic municipality’ seems to be a first, one third of Swedish municipalities are ‘eco-municipalities’…

35    At HF Cold Hawaii, a Danish high school,  lessons are rescheduled when the surf is up.

36    At a Stir To Action workshop in England, we discussed the need for a back-to-the-land cooperation platform.

37    After that worklshop, the Agroecology Land Trust made a to-do list of practical issues that need to be addressed: Access to land; Skills and training; Business and livelihoods; Communities and culture.

Finding the Plot

38    Truth be told, the words “Back to the Land” and “Bioregionalism” did not (yet) trigger an “ahah!” response. For one thing, the project pioneers who know most about the subject are already there – on the land. New concepts, visions, and plans are not, to put it mildly,  a priority.

39    Project leaders do value meeting each other – but some complained of networking fatigue. They already have lots to do; the work needed to choral a wide variety of stakeholders, for example, is relentless.

40    One conclusion: Stories about local projects are more usefully shared in that place than described, second-hand, in the city.  With that in mind, plans for a Chora Connection Caravan are in the works.

41    In big cities, amplifying the number and reach of grassroots projects takes structure, processes, commitment, and time. To this end, Tessy Britton’s Participatory City project will involve, from 2017, a  ‘demonstration neighbourhood’ of 200-300,000 people. They will test out up to 1,000 ideas over a five year period.

42    In France, a  book called Villages of the Future documents a state-of-the-art approach to community and place development.


43    Several people asked: How could I write a book with “Designing Tomorow’s World Today” as its subtitle and not include a chapter on ‘Making’? I sometimes quoted Ursula K. Le Guin (in The Lathe of Heaven): “Things don’t have purposes”. I also argued that if  ‘production’ is not the purpose of life, then neither is it the purpose of a living economy.

44    Besides, we surely have too much stuff. Offsite storage has been the fastest-growing segment of US commercial real estate for 40 years running.

45    Dmitry Orlov takes a harder line than I do, in his new book: “Unlike Gaia, which is an organism onto itself, the technosphere is a parasite upon the biosphere” …

46    Many of my designer friends are excited by the promise of a circular economy. I irritated some of them with this quote: “Sociometabolically, 44 per cent  of a ‘circular economy’  is not available for recycling”.

47    Christian Arnsperger offered up a compromise. Circular economy effects work – but only under conditions of one per cent growth. We should therefore grow a ”perma-circular economy”. …

48    An enjoyable making task for a perma-circular economy is the hardware needed for the next economy’s energy systems: The necessary tools and equipment will be “numerous, varied, small-scale, and interconnected”. …

49    The Make Works platform is Scotland excites me more than all those 3d printers and drones. “Make Works are factory finders” – and now you can be one, too.

50    In the long run, how we use and take care of things is just as important as making new stuff. Kate Fletcher’s book Craft Of Use: Post-Growth Fashion frames design and use as a single whole, and documents the ways in people across three continents use their clothes.


51    Michel Bauwens advocates a p2p economy in which equal partners steward common resources. A polycentric system of commons trusts would enable ecosystems to be stewarded both locally and globally.

52    This sounds hard, to put it mildly. But a tremendous buzz is growing around the notion of platform coops as the political and organisational means to enable such an economy to flourish. …

53    For Trebor Sholz, who coined the term, the next step is to develop Platform Coops as “something like public utilities”. economy-2ea737f1b5ad#.g52cq205h

54    Platform coops are not abstract models. They are ‘living beings’. Hence, they are infinitely diverse

55    The difference between platform cooperativism, and the sharing-economy, is helpfully explained here by @jdaviescoates

Not a Co-op? Not a Platform Co-op!


56    If ecological restoration is indeed the “great work” of our time’ – then we need training centres in every bioregion.

Thoughts on Vocational Training Centers for Ecological Restoration

57    I favour Folk High Schools for this role – an excellent model developed in the Nordic
 countries in the nineteenth century.

58    A social infrastructure complementary to Folk High Schools can be bioregional guilds – like this one in Cascadia.

59    We also need to reconnect with our places in festivals and biennials. I suggested, to a conference of biennial organisers, that “social and ecological systems can be stars of the show” …

60    Overly-scientific climate communications have caused worldwide “story fatigue”. Artists have an urgent role to play in shifting our focus onto “intangible but meaning-making aspects of the problem”.

61    Soil Culture: Bringing the Arts Down to Earth is an inspiring example of what artists can do.

62    So too, in Scotland, is Cateran’s Common Wealth. Clare Cooper curates a wide variety of arts, cultural and heritage activities to celebrate the ‘Common Wealth’ of Big Tree Country.

63    Could your bioregion be a memership organisation? Hugh Dubberly developed an innovative Membership Engagement Platform for National Geographic (before, sadly, it changed hands).


64    Back in January I asked,  “Are positive stories enough?”  My conclusion, nine months later, is that grounded evidence of positive change is indeed a powerful antidote to the fear being whipped up by some politicians and their media.

Are positive stories enough?

65    To judge by project birth-rates, the next economy is emerging faster than a year ago, too. Someone showed me a map that lists 862 projects in the Marseille region alone. …

66     If dversity is another indicator of ecosystem health, then the proliferation of new social and economic models is also cheering. The Real Economy Lab, which I saw launched in Bristol, documents 400 examples. These are helpfully divided up into Tribes, and Themes..

67    The search for a dividing line between ‘before’ and ‘after’ (or “left” and “right”) is probably misguided. As stated by the Communard Manifesto, “The new world will be born and affirmed inside the old”.

68    The best book I received this year is Lean Logic: Dictionary Of he Future and How to Survive It. I have never made this promise before – but if you buy this book, you will not regret it.

69    There was broad agreement on my travels that climate change will not be ‘defeated’  by a) wars b) utopias or c) sentences that include the words “we must” or “they must”

70   Otherwise stated: “Another world is possible” (Arundhati Roy) was a good story;  “Another world is happening” is a better one.


71    I’ve been a writer and storyteller all my life but I never heard the word “narratology” until the military got involved.

72    I guess that means I am a Narratologist for hire

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Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It

Five years ago I obtained an extraordinary 736 page book called Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future and How To Survive It. Written over a thirty year period by the English ecologist David Fleming, the book had been published in a limited edition after the author’s untimely death. Now, thanks to an heroic, expert and loving effort by editor Shaun Chamberlin and publisher Chelsea Green, Lean Logic has now been published in a slightly (628 pages) shorter form.
The text below is my original review.


The publisher describes it as a “community of essays”. In my words it’s half encyclopedia, half commonplace book, half a secular bible, half survival guide, half … yes, that’s a lot of halves, but I hope you get the picture. I have never encountered a book that is so hard to characacterise yet so hard, despite its weight, to put down.

The editors of Lean Logic, who have completed the project following Fleming’s untimely death, say it’s about “cooperative self-reliance in the face of great uncertainty”. Well, yes. But today I have also read entries on nanotechnlogy, carnival, casuistry, multiculturalism, and the ‘new domestication’ – and I still have more than 1,000 entries to read. Waiting for me ahead are entries on road pricing, the vernacular, trust, resilience, the marshes of Iraq.

Lean Logic does not sugar-coat the challenges we face: an economy that destroys the very foundations upon which it depends; climate weirdness; ecological systems under stress; shocks to community and culture. Neither does the book suggest that there are easy solutions to these dilemmas. As Fleming has said, “large scale problems do not require large-scale solutions – they require Read More »

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Biennials and system change

I was invited to give a keynote in Milan to the general assembly of the International Biennials Association. My talk was called Life’s Work: Biennials and Regeneration. Here below is a summary:

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 09.16.23

The sad-looking structure above was the Dutch Pavilion not long after the Hannover World Expo ended in 2000.

Having helped to write the brief, I know first-hand that the Expo team hoped for a different outcome. The very essence of the Dutch pavilion was supposed to be sustainability, innovation, and long-term progress.

So what went wrong? Why do so many expos, festivals and biennials promise to change the world for the better – only to end up as trash?

A short answer: Many big-ticket events are thinly disguised real-estate plays in a world that is over-built. Pavilions, stadia and museums are too often conceived as ‘antenna buildings’ whose task is to attract attention to hitherto cheap land – and raise its price.

Looking forward, biennials have a more transformative role to play as catalysts of the system change we need. To grasp this opportunity, the the biennial is best re-imagined, as a model, in four ways.

1.     New story of place.

Biennials are well-placed to to evaluate of a region’s social and ecological assets. In doing so, they can tell an alternative story about  the relationship between humans and the places we inhabit.


When this writer organised City Eco Lab (above) as centrepiece for the French design biennial in St Etienne, we put 50 live projects from the immediate region at the centre of the event. These included urban farmers, watershed restorers, and bicycle couriers. Visitors ate locally-sourced food at Cantine 50km. In workshops, project leaders from the bioregion met with global experts in platforms for cooperation and sharing resources.

Scientists, in their studies of earth systems, biogeochemistry, and systems ecology, are discovering that our planet is a web of interdependent ecosystems in which no organism is truly autonomous – including us.

A biennial can explore, make manifest, and and enrich these interconnections between social and ecological systems.

The ideal scale for a biennial is its bioregion. A bioregion re-connects us with living systems, and each other, through the unique places where we live. It acknowledges that we live among watersheds, foodsheds, fibersheds, and food systems – not just  in cities, towns, or ‘the countryside’.

These social and ecological systems can be the stars of the show.


For the biennial in St Etienne we made a map (above) of the many projects bringing the river Furan back to life. Most of these projects were unknown to each other;  politicians and citizens were inspired by the discovery of so much positive activity in their own back yard.

A number of creative tasks for artists and designers follow from this approach. Maps of a bioregion’s ecological assets are needed: its geology and topography; its soils and watersheds; its agriculture and biodiversity.

The collaborative monitoring of living systems also needs to be designed – from soil health, to air quality – and ways found to observe the interactions among them, and create feedback channels.

New and artful forms of representation can be commissioned, in a biennial,  to reveal energy and nutrient cycles, or biodiversity, or to show the different ways that healthy social systems depend upon, and are intertwined with, healthy economies and ecosystems.

zz PIC mcriza notation

Scientists are developing wonderful notation systems to describe living systems that are otherwise invisible. Shown above: ‘nature’s internet’ – the interactions among mycorrhizal fungi in the soils beneath our feet

This new story of place needs to include people, skills and production facilities that have been rendered marginal by globalisation. A biennial can be an engine of economic revival by showcasing locally sourced materials, the skills needed to use them, and under-used spaces with the potential to be re-purposed.

When it is easier to find local manufacturers, people start to work with them. In Scotland, a network of ‘factory finders’ called Make Works, founded by two artists, documents skilled people, places, tools and materials. This open access platform boosts local economies of manufacture and repair. 

2    Marketplace for change agents

Most cities and their bioregions contain a rich diversity of social and environmental innovation – real-world projects concerning alternatives that work.

But much of this activity is below-the-radar, or under-connected. Biennials can be the place (and time) when these project pioneers – together with outliers, and shadow networks – connect with fellow citizens and discuss new opportunities for work and enterprise.


In Designs of the Time (Dott) – the first social innovation biennial – live projects across North East England explored what life in a sustainable region could be like. Topics ranged from urban farming and shared mobility, to community energy and elder care. At the Dott festival (above) project pioneers discussed with 20,000 citizens how to amplify this work.

Their number includes energy angels, wind wizards, watershed managers. citizen foresters. dam removers, river restorers, rain harvesters, urban farmers, seed bankers, master conservers. .. the list is endless. 

In Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest the glossary alone is 100 pages long.

This connecting is itself a form of innovation.

Few of these edge projects and networks tare fighting directly for political power, or standing for election. They cluster, instead, under names like Transition Towns, Shareable, Peer to Peer, Las Indias, Open Source, Degrowth, Slow Food, Seed Freedom, or Buen Vivir.

But when you bring these movements together – for example, in a biennial – they tell a joyful new story about the emergence of the new economy we yearn for.

3     Social Harvest Festival

Biennials can embody a new story about the relationship of man to nature. In this story the key measure of value –  and a new definition of development and progress – is the health of living systems, and the vitality of interactions between them.

Growth, in this new story, means stewardship, not extraction. It means soils, biodiversity and watersheds getting healthier,  and communities more resilient.

A biennial is ideally placed to seek out and amplify signals of change that already out there – but unrecognised, and disconnected: New forms of social organizing, new values, new ways of working and living.

The cultural and aesthetic dimension here is itself transformative. Artistic practice is uniquely powerful in changing the threshold of what is seen and what is unseen.

Disco Soupe
As Europe’s Green Capital, the city of Nantes staged the usual trade fair and conferences. But with Disco Soupe (above) the biennial took to the streets and came to life; seven thousand citizens were fed with food ‘waste’.

4     A cooperation platform

A major challenge for change makers is the sheer diversity of stakeholders who need to be stewarded in order to get things done.

As shared public events, biennials can be retooled as bridges and connectors that foster reciprocal relationships between diverse actors united in a common goal: the long-term health and vitality of their place.

Platform cooperativism is hot topic in the tech world right now – but it has huge potential, too, in the context of bioregional transformation.

Sharing and cooperation are not new. Throughout history, humans have collaborated in diverse ways to obtain low-interest credit and capital, training and certification, low-cost insurance and the like.

One task for a biennial is to explore what forms of cooperation existed in that region  in the past – and how these models might be re-purposed using the latest collaboration software and networks.

europe of bioregions
(Above) A Europe of bioregions; each one needs its own biennial

The biennial as cooperation platform need not be parochial. On the contrary, it needs, of course, to be globally connected – a kind of junction box that linking trans-local global networks
 with its bioregion, and the enterprises within it.










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Back to work or college? Need an uplift? #ThackaraThrive ebook special

If you could do with an uplift on your way back to work, or college, please consider my book How To Thrive In The Next Economy; as an incentive, my publisher has just slashed the price of the ebook to £3.17 ($4) If paying me $1 for each year I spent writing the book is not enticing on its own, here’s some of the feedback we’ve had so far:

“Marvelous – so much to think and talk about at every point” Robin Murray “No 3 in our top books for winter” Shareable “Our powerhouse reading list for 2016” Forum for the Future “Radical, relevant and accessible” Konst/Ig Books “One of the most optimistic guidebooks for the future” Core77 “Gives meaning and purpose to young people” The Dirt “Clear-eyed but ultimately optimistic” San Francisco Book Review “A visionary yet practical guide” Green Living “Optimistic without being naive or utopian”  Deco “Addresses the ‘why’ of economic activity we’ve been lacking” Publishers Weekly “Optimistic – small examples with potential to grow into something new” STBY Amsterdam  “A multitude of small actions that work” Abitare

Five Star Reviews on Amazon
“difficult to put down- a refreshing, powerful read” …“a brilliant book – excellent questions, sound research, new directions for the near future” … “life changing, thought provoking” … “an eye-opening book – hope in the future if we start taking action now” … “an Inspiring view of the future” … This inspiring & great book puts a real perspective on connectivity” … “a great inspiration”

“Light in the gloom” Hugh Knowles “Restores my faith in humanity” Amy Twigger Holroyd  “An economy in which life is valued more than money” Warren Hatter “Buy this book! It is wisdom incarnate” Ed Gillespie “Fab – explains why change is essential” Kate Fletcher “How the small be connected together to make the big” Verge “Fertile for microbusinesses” Upstarting “How Repair Economies can Thrive Again” Restart Project “Escape from an economy that devours nature” Better Sydney  “Brilliant: how communities around the world are building the next economy” Natalya Sveriensky  “A must read for #socialimpact: An economy in which life is valued more than money” Design Matters “Leaving things better – growing a replacement economy from the ground up” SustainAbility “Amazing: full of data and real life experiences” @LustForL1fe “Full of aspiration & ambition” Howard Silverman “A cause for celebration” Rory Hyde “A must-read” Andrew Zolli “Excited to see the future again” Lavrans Lovlie “it’s great. I just ordered four” Chris Luebkeman  “a smart read” Marcus Kirsch

Talks about the book
EarthTalks in Vienna.
New York launch at SVA.
Future Ways Of Living, in Milan
Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam.

Interviews about the book
With Allan Chochinov for Core 77

With Jonny Gordon-Farleigh for STIR magazine

With @tbonini for Che Fara

With Peter Jarrett for Berkeley Wellness

How To Order
To order #ThackaraThrive as an ebook click here
 or here

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A beehive is not a factory: Rethinking the modular

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 15.47.48

I was invited to write the Preface to Rethinking The Modular: Adaptable Systems in Architecture and Design edited by Burkhard Meltzer and Tido von Oppeln. As the book has just been published, here follows my text:

Back to the Present

Trumpeted as ‘the most significant innovation in beekeeping since 1852’, the Flow Hive  was pitched to a crowd-funding site in 2015 as the bee keeper’s dream product.

‘Turn the tap and watch as pure, fresh, clean honey flows right out of the hive and into your jar’ gushed the website; ‘No mess, no fuss, no expensive equipment – and all without disturbing the bees’.

Helped by glowing reviews in Forbes, Wired, and Fast Company, Flow Hive’s pitch on Indiegogo worked like a dream; having sought $70,000 to launch the product, more than $6 million had been committed on Indiegogo at the time of writing.

Too good to be true? Sadly, yes.

As news of Flow Hive spread, natural beekeepers described Flow Hive’s approach as ‘battery farming for bees’. Read More »

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And my killer project of all is…. (interview with @tbonini)


My  interview with @tbonini has ben  published in Italian at Che Fara.Here is the English version:

Q  Among the many case histories that you brilliantly discovered and reported in your book, is there someone that you believe is extremely central in planning the “tomorrow’s world”?

The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is,  for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world.  These edge projects and networks, when you add them together, replace the fear that has so hampered the environmental movement.  Read More »

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Why messy cities are more modern


(Pic: Being Nicely Messy, CRIT, Mumbai) In London, I did this interview with Midtown Big Ideas Exchange:

Q   Do you believe cities are rational or organized and, if so, what makes them this way?

A    Cities are often conceived in a rational way but usually take on a non-rational life of their own – and thank goodness for that. The spatial grid of New York, for example, co-exists with a bewildering array of unofficial activities at street level. The same goes for Mumbai; her city map looks clear enough – but it does not equip the visitor to understand the apparent chaos of daily life on the ground. The best cities combine both: Read More »

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Healthcare in the Next Economy

Last month I gave a talk at 
UC Berkeley School of Public Health, as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series, with the title, From Biomedicine to Bioregion: The Geographies of a Care-Based Economy. The video of that talk is here. My interview with Peter Jarrett, for their online journal Berkeley Wellness, is republished below.

The philosopher and writer John Thackara, a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art, in London, scours the world for examples of the ways social innovation can improve the health of communities, which he explores in his blog, He recently spoke at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health about his new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy. He explores the ways sometimes small steps can make a tremendous difference in solving some of the most intractable challenges in delivering health care.

What are the most serious challenges facing health care?

It’s a multi-dimensional crisis in which trillions of dollars are spent treating the symptoms of illness rather than its causes. Read More »

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No organism is truly autonomous – including us

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 09.10.51

An interview with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, the editor and publisher of STIR magazine.
Current and back issues of the magazine are available in the online shop

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your new book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, explores practical innovations in sustainability across the world. What stories would you pick out as the most instructive for the scale of change we need to see?

John Thackara: The sheer variety of projects and initiatives out there is, for me, the main story. No single project is the magic acorn that will grow into a mighty oak tree. We need to think more like a forest than a single tree! If you look at healthy forests, they are extremely diverse—and we’re seeing a healthy level of diversity in social innovation all over the world. Many people say we need to focus on solutions that scale, but to me that’s globalisation-thinking wearing a green coat. Every social and ecological context is unique, and the answers we seek will be based on an infinity of local needs. Read More »

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