John Lloyd: the brain behind QI

You probably haven’t heard of John Lloyd – but this self-described Stoic, whose career was derailed by depression, has probably made you laugh more times than anyone else.

It’s a humid evening at the Shaw Theatre in Euston, London, and the audience gathered for the live recording of Radio 4’s series The Museum of Curiosity is still taking off jackets and constructing makeshift fans as two nervous producers come on stage. Their warm-up suffers because the audience is, in one way, too warm already.

“Laugh for us,” says one producer. “The kind of laugh you do when you want people to know you got the joke.”

Then the host of the programme strides on stage, in a grey suit with a purple tie, plus brown boots that suggest he’s gesturing to smart-casual without daring to go there.

This is John Lloyd, the only person in the world who has won more Baftas than Judi Dench. He is the television producer responsible for, among other shows, To the Manor Born, The News Quiz, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI. He was the original host of Have I Got News for You – it was going to be called John Lloyd’s Newsround – and he helped Douglas Adams write the last two episodes of the radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Adams then sacked him from the book version of the show by letter, even though they shared a house at the time. Their friendship never recovered.)

Tonight, Lloyd is much more formally dressed than the rest of the panel, even the former Sony boss Howard Stringer, who seems positively demob-happy after a career in the corporate world. I’ve seen Lloyd giving a TED talk in a leather jacket, so I don’t think he’s one of those men who treats a suit as a uniform, or camouflage. Perhaps he feels that a Radio 4 show demands a certain gravitas.

By the time the recording ends, at 9.38pm, the panel has covered subjects as various as Liberian warlords, why the BBC originally rejected Fawlty Towers (“We’ve already got a show with a hotel – and Ronnie Corbett”) and how the scoop on the Wright brothers’ first flight was broken in a journal called Gleanings in Bee Culture.

This is all typical John Lloyd territory: a whirlwind tour through disparate subjects, linked only by being surprising or thoughtprovoking. “Recently I’ve started to think that I’ve only ever had one idea,” he tells me when I meet him at QI’s offices in Covent Garden a few days later. “That is to take things that look ordinary and dull and a bit tedious and make them look interesting and hopefully a bit funny.

Blackadder is history made funny and interesting; Spitting Image is politics made funny and interesting. The News Quiz is the news, and so is Not the Nine O’Clock News, I suppose. QI is the combination of all those things – that everything can be made interesting. It took me 35 years to get that idea.”

Looking back at Lloyd’s career, you see the string of hits and think it must have been easy. It wasn’t. He created Not the Nine O’Clock News only after To the Manor Born transferred from radio to TV without him. Finally losing his temper after a series of similar slights (and still smarting over his removal from the Hitchhiker book project), he turned up at the office of the BBC’s then head of light entertainment, Jimmy Gilbert, and demanded his own TV show.

To his surprise, he got one. Yet even then, NTNON was not destined for a smooth ride: the first episode was scheduled for 2 April 1979, then pulled for being “too political” during an election year. By the time it made it to air, half the cast had been dismissed, Mel Smith had been brought in and Victoria Wood had turned down the female role (which was claimed by Pamela Stephenson).

Similarly, the first series of Blackadder was beset by problems: it cost far too much, involved far too many guest stars spending hours freezing and bewildered in Northumberland, and, worst of all, it wasn’t all that funny. The talented cast, used to a live audience, found it impossible to pace the delivery on a set without any feedback.

“It was ridiculous. We took on far too much,” Lloyd says now. “Rowan [Atkinson] is a stage comedian, and we had no idea how to time laughs on a film without an audience. As Jimmy Carr says, the audience is a genius: they know what’s funny. What all stand-ups do is use the audience as the editor. The audience is never wrong – whereas the commissioning editor is usually wrong, almost by definition.”

Still, as Lloyd told Desert Island Discs in 2012, “One of my little mantras is ‘disaster is a gift’. Because when you look back on your life, the disaster – being sacked by your girlfriend, or head of department, or best friend – you think, ‘Thank goodness that happened, because if I hadn’t been sacked, I would still be there.’”

Over tea in his book-lined office, I tell him that not many people would take being thrown off projects in which they had invested so much with such equanimity. Why didn’t he cling on to hosting Have I Got News for You? He looks straight at me with his very blue eyes. “But why? Do you want to be famous? Perhaps you do?”

No, but . . . “I don’t regret it. I don’t regret being fired from Hitchhiker, or Johnny English, or any of the other dozen things I’ve been sacked from. You think, ‘Would I want to be Angus Deayton, would I want his life?’ I think it suited Angus down to the ground. He loves going to Manchester United, hanging out with rock stars. I met the Rolling Stones once. Great, fantastic, done that. But would you want to always hang out with famous people?”

Despite this attitude, Lloyd is one of the best-connected people in British comedy – even if he would, by his own admission, rather spend time reading or walking near his cottage in Oxfordshire. He has worked with pretty much anyone who has made you laugh in the past 30 years: Rowan Atkinson, Ian Hislop, Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry.

“Lloydy is not without ego,” says a friend. “But he can cope with famous people because the work always comes first.” 


John Lloyd was born in Dover in 1951 but his father was in the navy, so the family lived abroad and moved often. This had two interesting consequences. First, he did not attend school consistently until he was nearly ten; and second, he did not watch many of the comedy shows that someone of his generation and background might be expected to have seen. (Perhaps it was for the best that he discovered Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller after he’d gone past the childish heroworshipping phase. It meant he felt less in their shadow than his contemporaries when creating a satirical programme of his own.)

His family was Anglo-Irish with a strong military tradition; his middle name is Hardress, from his great-uncle, who was both a brigadier general and an Olympic polo player. Those very blue eyes of his are inherited from his father; Lloyd says there was something in the colour of his pupils that made him seem far away, “always at sea”. He was eventually sent to a boarding prep school and then to the King’s School, Canterbury.

He was unhappy at both, concurring with Evelyn Waugh’s and Stephen Fry’s assessment that an English boarding school is the ideal preparation for prison, except that parole is unlikely to be an option. He couldn’t even complain to his parents: all letters out of the school were censored by the teachers.

He studied law at Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. He defends the revue against the inevitable charge of elitism. “The thing about Footlights is that it’s often put down as an upper-class club which you get put down for at birth and you sort of buy your way in. But there were 10,000 undergraduates at Cambridge University, and eight people in the Footlights. It’s a very competitive system, like getting into the civil service.”

The 1980s generation of rising stars drew its comic energy, in part, from an appropriately Thatcherite clash of public with state schools, Oxbridge v the rest. That said, the boundaries were never as clear-cut as they appeared in the press, or even in the Scumbag College v Footlights College division satirised in the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones. Yes, Ben Elton might have gone to Godalming Grammar and Manchester University, and Hugh Laurie to Eton and Cambridge, but many of the rest of the group fell somewhere in between. Richard Curtis attended Harrow on a scholarship, while Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson – despite their professional oik personas – were both privately educated. Fry, for all his polish, had spent three months at Pucklechurch Remand Centre for credit-card fraud before he arrived at university.

The smudging together of the Cambridge and Manchester groups dismayed those who considered themselves authentically radical and working class. Alexei Sayle hated the Bambi episode of The Young Ones –“I thought these people were the enemy!” he said to one of the writers on set –while Keith Allen heckled Lloyd when he visited the Comedy Store club in London, calling him a “f***ing bourgeois c***” and wedging him into the lift by jamming a radiator into the door.

Reminiscences of this time can make the BBC sound as though commissioning programmes involved one chap wandering into another chap’s office and asking for a shot at the big time – like Mad Men, perhaps, but with worse teeth and cheaper suits.

But Lloyd says the advantage of working in a smaller, less bureaucratic system was that there was, paradoxically, more “diversity” of taste than there is now. “The old system was that responsibility and creativity devolved on to the producer. They had a great deal of autonomy; you were left to do the casting, the music, the set design. You weren’t bothered by your head of department, now commissioning editor. The controller was like a king with a lot of regional baronies who had a great deal of power.”

As an ambitious young producer, Lloyd flourished in this environment. By 35, he had The News Quiz, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image to his credit.

“I think he’s the cleverest person I know,” says John Mitchinson, who has worked with him for 12 years as co-producer of QI. “He has a proper philosophy, and he thinks about things in an astonishing amount of depth. Get him talking about the theory of comedy.” The day after we speak, he sends me Lloyd’s 1997 review of Howard Jacobson’s non-fiction book Seriously Funny. It is extremely rude, in both senses of the word. 

He claims that “The entire experience of theatre-going, for the Greeks, was phalluscentred . . . Ken Dodd’s tickling stick is clearly in the ithyphallic tradition.” I love that “clearly”. Clear is what it is not: less than one reader in cent mille knows what ithyphallic means. Patronising it is, bien sûr, and also cojones . . . Now, it was I who once convinced the controller of BBC2 to broadcast the Cunnilingus Song. Genitals tickle me as much as the next man. But this is commitment of a different order. After 85 pages of knobs and arses, Hopi Indians lobbing shit at each other, satyrs balancing amphorae on stiffies and Scandinavian deities plaiting their pubic regions to goats’ beards, I thought: “Is this guy getting enough?” 

Later in the same review he writes: “It is not animality, or mortality or all that stuff we feel when offered a good joke. It is delight: delight at the unexpectedness, the neatness, the logic of the uncoupling of the mind from one train of thought to another.”

When we meet, Lloyd tells me that the funniest person he knew was Peter Cook, who would keep him in stitches for hours, although it was always impossible to remember any of his jokes. The same was true, he says, of Kenneth Williams, with whom he worked on Just a Minute. “He was this very unprepossessing, tiny little grey man in his grey raincoat, anonymous in the street, and he’d come into my office to prepare. He’d be there for two hours and he would just put on voices and I would be just weeping with laughter. And then he’d leave, go back to being a little grey guy in the raincoat, and I could never remember one thing that he said. Not one thing. There is something very pure about people who are that funny.”

But apart from talent-spotting, what exactly does a TV producer do? “Stephen Fry once said to me, ‘The great thing about you, Lloyd, as a producer is at least you don’t make things worse.’ Great, thanks,” he says. “But thinking back on things, that’s a really high compliment, because a lot of producers do.”

“Stephen Fry once said to me, ‘The great thing about you, Lloyd, as a producer is at least you don’t make things worse.’

Lloyd believes that the first series of everything he’s made has been crap, because he has always been trying to do something new rather than replicate a formula. He argues that one of the roles of the producer is to be a drill sergeant: “to act as the conscience of people and not allow them to do substandard work”. This, he thinks, is where his reputation as a “perfectionist” (read “pain in the arse”) comes from. “They think, ‘Yeah, well, I would’ve won the Bafta anyway if you hadn’t been here.’ No, you wouldn’t, it would have been shit.”

In Lloyd’s early career, his two nicknames were Mad Jack, because of his obsession with getting things right, and Mr Grumpy. He says now that he has only two positions, “correct and not good enough. I don’t have a ‘that’s fine’ button.”

He applies this critical eye to his own work, and can, without rancour, tell you exactly what is wrong with it. When I ask him what in his 30-year career makes him most proud, I’m expecting to hear about the final episode of the fourth series of Blackadder, set during the First World War, with its heartbreaking slow-dissolve into a Flanders poppy field. Or the achievement of getting discussions of the laws of thermodynamics on to the BBC at 8.30 in the evening.

Instead, he names the adverts he directed, mostly during the 1990s: Rowan Atkinson for Barclaycard, Harry Enfield’s “Armadillos!” spot for Dime Bar. I must look surprised, because he explains, quickly: “At 30 seconds or a minute, every frame can be as good as they can be. But there are no perfect editions of Blackadder or QI.”


In 1990, having just won his Lifetime Achievement Bafta, with a happy family, and a country cottage to go with his house in London, Lloyd felt a black fog descend. On Christmas Eve he began to wonder what the point of it was: all those years spent demanding perfection. By his own admission, he then spent three years crying under his desk.

“I’d always been a bit melancholic, but the heavyweight depression came like a safety curtain descending; it went clunk, just completely blotting everything out.”

At the same time, his career – until then almost charmed – foundered. A film script was rejected for being late; he was fired from projects he started. He has previously described it as “like being bullied by a giant bear, and every time I tried to pick myself up, I was smacked down again”. In fact, nothing had changed except him; look back to the creation of Not the Nine O’Clock News, and you can see how it was born out of rejection and frustration. The difference this time was that the pre-depression Lloyd had been able to shrug that off as an inevitable part of the creative process. Now his resilience was gone.

For him, the cure was knowledge. He took to walking around Oxfordshire and reading everything he could lay his hands on.

“I think I increasingly piss off people who are depressed. It’s a lot to do with you,” he says now. “The only thing you actually control is your attitude.” He tells the story of a friend of his wife who saw a therapist for 35 years – ending only when the therapist retired. “What are you going for?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s impossible to go anywhere for 35 years and not get better. You could learn to do anything in 35 years: you could play 17 instruments, you could be the world’s best ski instructor, you could cook any dish in the world. But somehow you’ve managed to go through all of these lessons and not managed to change yourself one inch. That is wilful, isn’t it?”

I tell him that many people with depression find any kind of “snap out of it” rhetoric offensive. “After 35 years it’s hardly a snap, is it?” he counters. “A snail could have got out of it with a broken leg that’s been stapled to the floor . . . People want to wallow.”

Along the path to his recovery, he says, he discovered “that cheerfulness was a virtue”. He smiles. “It never occurred to me. I thought the virtues were things like intelligence – but that’s not a virtue, it’s a gift. You can’t make yourself more intelligent.”

Somewhat improbably for the greatnephew of a brigadier who went to boarding school, he is now a devotee of yoga. (“Ten years ago I would have rather cut off my head than be seen on a yoga mat.”) Once a year for the past five years, he has gone on a yoga retreat with his wife. And, having read his Marcus Aurelius, he is also a Stoic. “I feel really sorry for people who have no working philosophy. People don’t know what to do when they get depressed, or unhappy, when they feel they are belittled at work, when they feel their life is pointless. Where do they go? Unless you’re a happyclappy Alpha course person . . . That’s why it’s so easy to get mullah’ed into fundamentalism: because of the certainty.” 

His own working philosophy applies to his shows for television: he believes in democratising knowledge, turning the pain of learning into the pleasure of discovery. That is the essence of a Lloydean television programme. And even though it is tempting to think that the brand of humour he champions appeals only to white, middle-class, middle-aged people who also like The Archers, recycling and couscous, that’s not true.

“We get very good demographics 16 to 30 and younger, but people my age don’t watch QI – they’ve barely heard of it,” he says. “It’s counterintuitive. Well, they don’t watch television at all, really . . .

“I know an awful lot of 13-year-olds who know our books off by heart. A lot of kids in their early teens, this will be the show that they remember in their forties.”

Really? Not obviously youth-oriented (and accordingly garish and hyperactive) comedies such as BBC3’s Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show? “We beat Eight Out of Ten Cats, Mock the Week, all those people, we always have. Young people don’t want to be patronised . . . it’s not even about brainy ones, it’s not Oxbridge kids, it’s all kids who go to school and think, ‘It cannot be this boring. I just saw this thing about the 18th century from Stephen Fry, and now I’m learning the same thing.’ Teenagers understand that QI is, in its very quiet way, a revolutionary act, in the way that Spitting Image was for the 15-year-olds of the early Eighties.”

This thought segues into one of Lloyd’s bugbears – the bureaucratic, managerial nature of television comedy commissioning, particularly at the BBC, and the consequent messing-about with shows because of lack of confidence. As Mark Lawson wrote in a blog for the Guardian this summer: “there’s a case for arguing that a framed set of the reviews and ratings for the 1981 first season of Only Fools and Horses should hang on the walls of all UK television commissioners, as a warning. Receiving an initially mediocre reception from viewers and reviewers, the show did not become a hit until its fourth series, sustained until then only by the comedy department’s faith in it.”

Or take QI. When the show launched in 2003, each episode would premiere on BBC4 and then be broadcast on BBC2 a week later. In 2008, for the sixth series, the show moved to BBC1, with extended repeats on BBC2. In 2011, it moved back to BBC2.

Although QI is now delivering 1.8 million viewers on BBC2, Lloyd is not appeased, remembering that Not the Nine O’ Clock News got 17.5 million in its heyday. “Schedulers now think if you get good ratings, it’s because they’ve scheduled you very cleverly, not because it’s good. They should put us Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, it doesn’t matter what, but 9.30pm on BBC1, and we would be delivering consistently five million.”

But isn’t the era of mass viewing – of Only Fools and Horses topping 20 million on Christmas Day – over? Isn’t everyone watching American dramas on Netflix, or endless repeats on Dave? “I reckon there are about ten million people in this country who want to watch the kind of things that I like,” Lloyd shoots back. “I’m so close to Middle England. I just don’t think that you have to be quite so vicious.” He likes offbeat sitcoms such as Peep Show, and grudgingly admires but dislikes The Office, but his taste is more The Two Ronnies, or Friends. “Everybody can watch Friends. My mum can watch it. I like it, my daughters like it; that’s what the Two Ronnies used to do, what Morecambe and Wise used to do. It’s beyond class, age, gender, demographics; it’s just a great, warm, big, funny comedy.”

This comes back to Lloyd’s own rationale for his success – that he is an ordinary man, with ordinary tastes. He doesn’t have to imagine what some putative audience wants to watch; he is determined to make programmes that hewants to watch. In his view, the commissioners and controllers are not part of the great mass of Middle Britain, and therefore their enthusiasm for programmes is invariably ventriloquised into the mouth of some “average person”, probably created in a focus group, who doesn’t exist.

Of the BBC’s tastemakers, he says: “They care far too much about what people think, and it’s not even what they think, it’s what they think they think.” He expands, lapsing into an uncanny impression of what A A Gill calls a “Tristram”: “That’s how you get the programme where ‘people would probably like that’. Well, do you like it? No, I don’t like it – I live in Notting Hill and I’m very cultured and I go to the opera – but them, they’ll like this. They like cakes, and singing competitions, and skating, apparently.”

He sighs. “We never used to do that. Somebody would say: you think that’s a funny idea? Brilliant. You know, Rowan Atkinson as a prince in the Middle Ages? OK, if you think that’s going to work, go for it.”

There have been signs that many inside the BBC agree with Lloyd’s analysis. Shortly after he moved to the corporation from Channel 4 early this year, the new head of comedy commissioning, Shane Allen, praised Mrs Brown’s Boys, a knockabout sitcom that got savaged by the critics but has consistently attracted ten million viewers. “Before Mrs Brown’s Boys there was this self-appointed cabal saying what was cool and what was great,” Allen told the Guardian. “I think sometimes people in TV land make TV for people in TV land, and Mrs Brown’s Boys is a perfect example of how to serve an audience.” For his part, Lloyd says that if, by some terrible accident, he were forced to take charge of the BBC comedy department tomorrow, he would pick his five favourite comedians, sit each of them down in a room, and offer them the budget and support staff to do whatever kind of comedy programme they wanted. “You could blow the thing open in three months, you really could.”

He remains unperturbed by the idea that his criticisms of the system might make him unpopular. “I’m probably making a lot of enemies, but fortunately . . .” he trails off. Earlier he had told me: “If you press my commissioning editor management button, I just get so cross, because all I want to say to these people is: ‘Get out of my f***ing way. I have a relationship with an enormous audience that you don’t know anything about . . .’ They are arrogant idiots, really.”


Perhaps all this gives the impression that Lloyd is a grumpy old sod after all. That wouldn’t be fair – first, because I pushed that button and also because those lower down the ladder are inevitably reluctant to speak honestly about how TV channels commission comedy. The BBC dominates the market, with Channel 4 coming in second, and if you blow your relationship with either . . . well, good luck getting your original comedy accepted elsewhere.

Second, Lloyd works hard at being cheerful, having discovered its virtue, and according to John Mitchinson he “laughs, really laughs, like no one else I know. It’s the most open, generous thing.” He also works hard on being interesting; when I let drop early in our conversation that I’ve heard an anecdote before, he looks pained. “You’ll just have to keep plugging away at me, Helen, however long it takes, because I’ve done a lot of things today . . . so if you press me, I’ll get on to something fresh.”

Lloyd the perfectionist-pain-in-the-arse undoubtedly is still driven, but he has relaxed considerably since the 1980s and 1990s. He and his wife, Sarah, both work seven days a week on the QI empire and they have amassed a loyal band of “elves” to help with the research for the show and its ten spin-off books. These include Molly Oldfield, an archaeologist who is an expert on museums; Andrew Hunter Murray, who divides his time between QI and Private Eye; the former accountant James Harkin; and Stevyn Colgan, a policeman-turned-illustrator.

“Why has John had such a good hit rate? Firstly, he does have a real comic instinct,” says Colgan over email. “I’ve sat through script readings with him and if something isn’t quite right, he’s the one who spots it and he nearly always has a better suggestion. I think it helps that he’s not naturally a performer; he doesn’t actually seem to like being the one in front of the cameras or mikes. John is able to bring out the best in performers because there’s no clash of egos – what matters is the show.” Over lunch, I ask Hunter Murray what the secret of Lloyd’s success is. “Hard work,” he says simply.

When I asked Lloyd what he was working on now, he began to reel off an enormous list: building the QI website, presenting The Museum of Curiosity, putting out three QI books this year, editing the K series of the show. He also runs an advertising production company, QI Commercials, which ploughs its profits back into the ever-expanding QI empire. “The Czechs, the Turks, the Canadians and the Portuguese all think they might want to do a version of QI . . . then there are the lawyers and the rights situation with Fremantle, and then there’s the rights situation with the BBC . . .”

Hang on, does he enjoy it? “I enjoy the result of it and I mean . . . look, it’s the most interesting job in the world, isn’t it? It’s not called Quite Interesting for nothing . . . I am not working because I want to win a prize – I grew out of that a while ago – or because I want people to think better of me. Or because I want to be rich. I work because it’s worth doing for its own sake. You do believe me, don’t you?”

As it happens, I do. 

Afterliff by John Lloyd and Jon Canter is out now (Faber: £9.99). “John Lloyd: Liff of QI” will be at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1, on Saturday 5 October, booking on 020 3108 1000. For further details visit:

John Lloyd, photographed by Lydia Goldblatt for the New Statesman.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Moonshots for the Earth: are there technological fixes for climate change?

As the world gathers in Paris for the latest UN climate change conference, are there technological solutions for global warming? And where are the tech-utopians working to find them?

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short

At the end of August, as the northern hemisphere’s hottest summer on record drew to a close, a group of inventors, designers and engineers assembled in a grand stone castle an hour’s drive west of Paris. Château de Millemont was hosting a five-week ‘innovation camp’ for the pioneers behind 12 new projects, chosen for their contribution to achieving a world without fossil fuels. POC21 (Proof of Concept) was set up as an active, grassroots foil to cop 21, the 21st UN Climate Change conference in Paris, which begins at the end of November.

“Global emissions have doubled since the first UN climate summit in 1995,” says the POC21 video, amid images of environmental catastrophe, so “Let’s move from talking to building a better tomorrow.” The objective was to create workable open-source technology in the fields of energy, food and waste – life, basically.

Products that made it to the final 12 included a pedal tractor, a smartphone-controlled greenhouse and an antibacterial water filter. Daniel Connell, one of the chosen inventors, travelled to Paris from the UK for the event. He was picked because he’d created an impressive cost- and resource-efficient wind turbine design. You can make it for about £20 out of aluminium sheets, a bike wheel, rivets, washers and nuts and bolts.

“It’s entirely built from recycled or upcycled materials, and can be assembled by anybody with basic hand or power tools,” says Dominik Wind, core organiser of POC21. “While this makes his design a perfect fit for the people that need it most (the poor, the marginalised around the globe), it’s also the perfect design to build upon: it’s the basis to start from with more customised, possibly also more complex and more expensive iterations.”

Connell has been creating prototype technologies and tutorials for solar and wind designs while moving around the world over the last 10 years, traversing Canada, France, India and Spain. A 3D animator by trade, he is self-taught – he describes the Solar Flower, a DIY solar energy collector he created, as “my degree” – and set out to make an existing design for a wind turbine cheap and easy for people to use. “Technically, it could be $5 if you just pay for the rivets and get plates and a bike wheel for free,” he said.

A seasoned squatter, Connell made his project possible by sifting through scrap heaps, fixing up bikes and living on a few pounds a day so he wouldn’t have to work and could devote his time to the wind turbine. Connell’s ethos is inspired by the self-sufficient communities he grew up in as a child in New Zealand, and that country’s culture of ingenuity and making stuff. Since POC21, his product has improved and he’s showing it to students, retirees and other people who want to get off grid via workshops.

Connell is one of a number of green inventors working to ease the world’s transition to climate change. As wildfires spread, countries sink, species go extinct, floods and drought increase, seas rise, storms devastate, glaciers melt, crops fail, pollution decreases life expectancy and the potential for conflict grows, eyes look to the inventors, geniuses and entrepreneurs who surely can figure out a way of saving the planet.

When Pope Francis, in an unprecedented speech earlier this year, rejected market solutions for climate change, attacked “unfettered capitalism” and made a forceful moral plea, it raised the question: if individual behavioural changes aren’t realistic or enough, can’t technology provide a route out of the problem? Where is that technology? And is ‘techno-utopianism’ realistic in the context of the climate crisis?

Major companies are already divesting from fossil fuels – most recently the Rockefeller Foundation, the Church of England and Norway’s £900bn sovereign wealth fund – as burnable reserves run out and the climate change threat becomes more apparent; but local attention is also turning to how to transition to a greener world.

In the bowels of an east London theatre on a foggy Sunday afternoon a month or so after POC21, a panel discusses whether Hackney Council should divest its pensions away from fossil fuels. “There is an energy transition happening,” says Carbon Tracker’s Luke Sussams. Dr David McCoy, an expert in global public health, says, “We face an existential threat in terms of eco collapse… My 14-year-old daughter’s future does not look good.” He explains how global warming will affect disease patterns and prompt conflict over scarce resources. Yet there is some optimism about green developments in electric cars, renewable energies and Tesla’s new battery technology.

Bill McKibben, the campaigner and author who brought global warming to public consciousness with his 1989 book The End of Nature, and more recently the founder of international pressure group, is positive and excited about innovation in the green world. “The price of a solar panel dropped 75 per cent in the last six years,” he said, speaking from his home in Vermont. “The world’s engineers are doing their job; and doing it extraordinarily well.”

The move to renewable energy is under way. An Apollo-style research programme to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels recently won the backing of Sir David Attenborough and high-profile businesspeople, politicians and economists. Even Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, has warned that the “vast majority of reserves are unburnable” if global temperature rises are to be limited to below 2C. But others think that it’s not enough, and consider geoengineering to be the grand techno-fix.

First presented as a big-idea solution to climate change in the 1960s, geoengineering proposals range from the seemingly fantastical – brightening the clouds; stirring the seas to change their temperature and cool the Earth; turning the ocean into a gigantic bubble bath to reflect the sun; covering the deserts in mirrors and sending parasols into space; mimicking the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo – to the more mundane: removing carbon from atmosphere and storing it somewhere else.

Although a number of scientists and researchers – including the Royal Society, which held a geoengineering ‘retreat’ in Buckinghamshire in 2011 – think geoengineering is an option worth considering, no one is actually doing it yet. Well, apart from Russ George, the businessman, entrepreneur and “DIY rogue geo-vigilante” who dumped 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific ocean, triggering a 10,000-sq-km plankton bloom (plankton blooms suck carbon out of the atmosphere). Though the efficacy of his actions is still unclear, George was criticised for eco-terrorism, and was said to have contravened UN conventions.

The big problem with DIY geoengineering, and any geoengineering for that matter, is its potential for danger: we don’t know what would happen. David Keith, a professor of engineering at Harvard who developed a giant air-sucking wall to capture carbon, told the New Yorker’s Michael Specter, “It is hyperbolic to say this, but no less true: when you start to reflect light away from the planet, you can easily imagine a chain of events that would extinguish life on Earth.”

On the other hand, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) doesn’t seem, on the face of it, like playing god with our weather systems or trying, fruitlessly, to find a dimmer switch for the sun. A company called Skyonics claims its Skymine process can capture harmful pollutants and turn them into marketable products such as baking soda and bleach.

But to what extent can sucking carbon out of the air work? Sabine Mathesius, a climate modeller at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, wanted to see what CDR could achieve if five gigatons (an enormous, hypothetical amount) of carbon dioxide was removed from the atmosphere each year. Simulations found that the impact of this level of removal would not be significant at all, especially in terms of protecting the ocean, which is acidified by human-produced CO2.

“In the beginning I was surprised,” she said. “Like many people I also hoped that geoengineering could be a way to undo the harm we did with our CO2 emissions. But if you see how much CO2 we can get out of the atmosphere with the current technologies and what we are expected to emit in a business-as-usual scenario, you can already see that the impact of CO2 removal cannot be that big.”

CDR could be used as a supporting measure to avoid the worst scenario if emissions are reduced at the same time, Mathesius concluded. “What is not possible is just emitting the CO2 as usual and further expanding our industries and then using CDR to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Reducing emissions is the cheapest way to keep the CO2 levels low; and also the easiest way.” More promising technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture or artificial trees, would also require fertile land or would cost astronomic amounts, Mathesius says. So where then would she place her hope in terms of a techno-fix to solve climate change? “Clean energy to make it easier for people to emit less CO2.”

Carbon capture and storage gets short shrift from McKibben. “If you step back and think about it for a minute, it’s silly,” he says. “You can do it, obviously, but can you do it at a cost that makes any kind of sense? You can’t. No one’s been able to yet. You’re way better off just building the windmills in the first place. All it is is a solution designed to try and appease the power of the coal industry and offer them some kind of future.”

Those looking into this techno-fix are quite clear that solar radiation management or carbon capture is no substitute for reducing carbon emissions anyway. Bodies such as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and the Royal Society contain wary caveats, that geoengineering is not an alternative to reducing carbon consumption. McKibben calls them an “absurd set of ideas where people throw up their hands and say, ‘There’s no way we can solve this problem, so instead let’s fill the atmosphere with sulphur’.”

On the last day of April, Elon Musk entered the stage at his Tesla Design Centre in Hawthorne, California to thumping dubstep, whoops and ripples of applause. The billionaire business magnate nodded to the crowd of adoring fans and set out his vision for a complete transformation of how the world works. His 20-minute speech explained how a new invention – the Powerwall battery – would advance a complete overhaul of the world’s energy infrastructure. “This is how it is today… it sucks,” Musk began, gesturing to slides depicting factories belching out smoke.

The solution to getting from fossil fuel hell to a renewable-powered future, he explained, was his new product. Because “existing batteries suck,” he had developed the Tesla Powerwall: a wall-mounted, household battery on sale for $3,500 (£2,300). His statements were punctuated by cheers and screams from the crowd, especially when he revealed that the whole event had been powered by solar and Powerwall.

Musk believes that transitioning to electric cars and solar energy will contain the worst effects of climate change. His electric cars are improving all the time; the mass-market model is expected to be ready before 2020. Tesla open-sourced all its patents and technology in 2014 to encourage other people to advance the electric vehicle industry; and lots of major names in the automobile world have followed with designs for electric cars. “We need the entire automotive industry to remake, and quickly,” said McKibben. Musk has also proposed the Hyperloop, a new transport system he describes as “a cross between Concorde, a railgun and a hockey table”.

Advances in batteries radically change the picture of renewable energy, electric cars and transport systems; and important improvements are happening. At the end of October 2015, a group of Cambridge scientists made a major breakthrough with a rechargeable super-battery that can hold five times more energy as those we’re used to and can power a car from London to Edinburgh on a single charge.

Improved battery storage will change everything for green energy enthusiasts like Daniel Connell in the next few years. “This is why, apart from [a lack of] political will, we don’t have renewable energy: because storage levels don’t reach grid level. But before the end of the decade they will,” he explains.

One of the projects chosen for POC21, the French eco-castle retreat, was a design by a team from Berlin. Sunzilla, a diesel generator without diesel, fuelled by the sun, can be assembled by anyone. Germany is leading the way in the energy revolution with its energiewende, driven by Green politicians and the support of local citizens. In 2014, just over a quarter of German energy came from renewable sources; in 2050, the goal is 80 per cent. The German Green Party politician Ralf Fücks, author of a new book called Green Growth, Smart Growth, is a techno-optimist with faith in society’s ability to find a way out of the ecological crisis, although he cautions against the hubris of large-scale techno-fixes. Investment in green technologies and renewable energies are more realistic, he writes, than carbon capture and storage.

Fücks speak slowly, carefully and with an obvious delight in the natural world. “Spider silk is a wonderful substance,” he says at one point. “It’s more flexible than rubber and more solid than steel and we now have the skills to discover [its] molecular composition.” He cites the smooth skin of the shark and the self-cleaning surface of the lotus blossom as examples of biological productivity we can learn from and use for our own purposes, while decreasing CO2 emissions.

But biomimicry is in its early stages, and renewables have already crossed to the point of no return, as Fücks puts it. On the plus side, though, costs for solar and wind power have decreased considerably over the last five years.

Fücks sees opportunities for young entrepreneurs and startups in a world without global celebrities such as Bill Gates or Richard Branson. The environmental reform of industrial society, in his view, demands a combination of big and small. There is room for more Elon Musks.

The world of food is fertile ground for big ideas and green tech innovation. Last summer saw the publication of new technology proposals to turn the waste shells of prawn, crab and lobster into nitrogen-rich chemicals for use, say, in pharmaceuticals, carbon sequestration and animal feed, which would avoid industrial production using fossil fuels.

Farmers, too, are innovating worldwide. In Devon, Rebecca Hosking is using new land management techniques to make a contribution to fighting climate change. She uses a grazing method that purposely locks atmospheric carbon back into the soil. Instead of ploughing, her long-grass grazing technique keeps carbon in the roots, ploughing release-carbon from soil into the atmosphere. The more organic matter there is in the ground, the more it can trap in the carbon.

“Once you lock it in, and as long as you don’t plough or let your grassland dry out, then the carbon stays in the soil,” she says. “You know that climate change is happening, we do our bit and suck out as much carbon as we can.”

This method, which French farmers are also keen to implement, is similar in the way it works to a new, low-methane, genetically modified rice. SUSIBA2, the new rice, uses smaller roots, and produces less methane, one of the chief greenhouse gases. Scientists have also developed a feed supplement for dairy cows that could reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent.

Global warming is posing serious challenges to water supply; and we all know that the melting of glaciers is one detrimental effect of climate change. Cue another climate hero: Chewang Norphel, an 80-year-old retired civil engineer, has made 12 artificial glaciers in the last 30 years to provide water for the people of Ladakh, India. The Ice Man, as he is called, realised he could divert water through canals into frozen ice sheets, which would melt in spring and provide water for irrigation, agriculture and general local use. “Getting water during the sowing period is the most crucial concern of the farmers because the natural glaciers start melting in the month of June and sowing starts in April and May,” he told online news portal the Better India.

Ocean farmers are also growing kelp again to encourage a move away from environmentally costly meat-based diets. Indeed, 3D ocean farming proponents GreenWave quote a study that found a network of seaweed farms the size of Washington state could provide all the dietary protein for the entire world population.

Pope Francis’s recent address sounded a note of caution around technology as a solution to climate change. “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience,” he said.

Bill McKibben believes the key is solving the “structural systemic problem rooted in the balance of political power on our planet.” To make a difference, he says, an individual must “join with other people to build the kind of movement that can change those balances of power.” In Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, she writes about the Hollywood action movie narrative that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us are going to be saved: “Since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be god that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures.”

But, while some techno-fixes recall the Greek hubris myth of Icarus, there is work to be done and hope to be found. Around the world, people are working to improve 3D printing technology and the usability of tutorials to explain how to make Connell’s DIY wind turbine or the German Sunzilla. Demand Logic, a company based in London, is using data to sweep big, commercial buildings in the city and work out where energy savings can be made.

Of the UN Climate Conference in Paris, McKibben says it will be most interesting to see whether countries will come up with the money to help poor countries leapfrog technologically. But he maintains that engineers and innovators are focusing their efforts in the right place, speeding up the transition from fossil fuels. Despite the Pope’s cautionary note, the industry of technology is crucial in the shift to a newly balanced planet. McKibben praised the good, cheap solar panels we already have, but said they could be much more efficient and easier to adopt. “There’s no shortage of crucial and interesting work for architects, engineers and financiers, and none of it requires telling yourself science fiction stories, the way that you have to if all you can think of is, ‘Let’s put a giant piece of film in space to block the sun’.”

This article originally appeared in The Long + Short, Nesta's magazine of innovation, new ideas and how the world is changing. Follow them on Twitter, @longshortmag.