How do you end up at Findhorn?

Jonathan tells us the story of how he came to live in the world's most famous ecovillage Findhorn

So, how do people wind up at a place like this? Lots of reasons, really, generally embracing the political, the personal and the spiritual in ways that defy easy classification. As good a place to start as any is to describe my own journey here.

I spent the 15 years or so before arriving at Findhorn working as a development professional, living in Africa for most of the 1980s and then based in the UK, making regular visits as a consultant on community economic development. By the mid-1990s, I was beginning to get disillusioned and to feel lonely. Life lived out of suitcase, with precious little time between recovering from the last trip and preparing for the next one, was not fulfilling my need to belong within a supportive and caring community.

In parallel, the impact of economic globalisation made it progressively more difficult to truly believe in the effectiveness of the work I was engaged in. While the system was severing limbs, it seemed to me, we were dishing out Elastoplast.

I have had the privilege of working with numerous noble international and indigenous NGOs. Yet, rather than system change in favour of the poor, the marginalised and planet, it felt to me that we were increasingly being left to clean up the mess created by the distorted and destructive global economy.

Having reached the conclusion that the root of the global malaise lay in the North rather than in the South – in affluence rather than poverty – I started looking for ways of getting involved back here in Europe.

My first break with the conventional career I had followed up to then was to go and live with my girlfriend in a small community on the Dorset/Devon border called Monkton Wyld. I had a great year, learning how to milk cows, grow vegetables, keep bees and relearning the art of serious playfulness.

By the end of a year, however, while my soul and body were nourished, my brain was in meltdown. I left my relationship and the community, in the belief that intentional communities were cool and fun places that were keeping alive many of the labour-intensive skills we will need as we head into energy descent, but unable to provide the stimulation required by the intellectually curious and the politically engaged.

I remember arriving back in Oxford, moving back into a terraced house, feeling the sadness and isolation of everyone having their own little patch of lawn, their own little television set, their own ludicrously small pots and pans and stoves – these felt like they belonged in a doll’s house compared to the great hobs and pots we used to cook for 60 or more at Monkton. This felt like poverty of imagination on a grand scale after the communality I had experienced both in Dorset and in Africa.

Several years later, I found myself doing a course at Findhorn – how often has this story been told, of going for a week-end and ending up spending a lifetime?! A critical moment for me came when one of the residents started telling us about the work of Findhorn at the United Nations and in hosting Ecovillage Training Programmes that were bringing together activists from the global North and South. Another was when I attended one of the legendary Findhorn conferences not long after – Spirit in Education, it was called. It was unlike any other conference I had been to. Not only was the intellect respected and stimulated, but this was woven into a great festival of song, dance, meditation and beauty that truly nourished head, heart and hands. Wow, I thought – I want more of this!

So, now here I am, organising inspiring Findhorn conferences of my own – next up is Positive Energy: Creative Community Responses to Peak Oil and Climate Change in Easter 2008 that I have put together.

I do occasional shifts in the kitchen where we cook for up to 200, work in the gardens when I can get away from my desk, perform stories in our theatre or open mikes, teach on programmes and act as coordinator for the Global Ecovillage Network of Europe.

This is at the heart of what keeps and sustains me here. We are all multi-tasking, escaping the tyranny of one single profession. And while many of the residents here are apolitical, I have never lived with such a strong and dense cluster of world-workers and change-agents – working in the arts, politics, ecological restoration, peace and justice activism. It is a rich and vibrant mix.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com