The garden of Eden

The Lottery gives people the chance to take a risk. And, explains Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden P

People gamble because they hope to win. If you don't take risks, you're not in the game. It has always struck me as ironic that a country that could justifiably lay claim to being a mother of invention seems to have spawned a social and institutional apparatus so resistant to change and frightened of risk. Worse, the individuals who unwittingly act as the brake are usually open-minded and forward-thinking. They are simply stuck in a system where the penalties for failure are so Draconian as to make the risk not worth it.

The National Lottery confronts this paradox and has had a significant impact on the social landscape of Britain. There have been many successes and remarkably few failures, considering the breadth of schemes that have been undertaken - cycle paths, space and science centres, village halls and greens, the National Forest, aquariums, canals, art galleries, environmental parks, botanical gardens, sponsored athletes, the purchase of works of art and historical papers and a new university, to name but a few.

Much has been written about the Eden Project and the so-called "Eden effect", which has generated more than £500m in new revenue for Cornwall. Eden has so far welcomed more than five million visitors through its doors in three years. It has, to a degree, been responsible for a change in the public's attitude to Cornwall and is thus seen as a symbol of regeneration.

It is also a challenge to traditional economic thinking. Had Eden borrowed the entire £120m capital cost, it would not have been viable, yet the returns to the wider community are such that a high-street banker would rip your arms off for the business. One of the great strengths of the Lottery grant system is that it insists, to a varying degree, on matched funding being found elsewhere. This is positive in that it proves a test of the management skill of those in charge of the projects.

Eden has about 450 staff, making it the second-largest private employer in Cornwall. Our sourcing policy means that about 90 per cent of our food and 60 per cent of our retail comes from within Cornwall, with the other 40 per cent of the latter being largely accounted for by camera film and books. In the early years, we frustrated some of our sponsors by refusing to accept sponsorship from major global suppliers, on the grounds that this would prevent us from supporting our own community.

I wince when I visit some major projects and see their public space dominated by advertising for global brands, with nothing to root them in their locality. What I have learned from Eden is that you must be rooted in your community, not a growth on it. Lottery-funded projects such as ours can make a huge difference; entering into long-term contracts with suppliers gives local communities the confidence to expand their businesses without the vulnerability associated with constant renegotiation of terms.

Eden has pioneered several initiatives that it is starting to extend beyond its own boundaries. The first is Waste Neutral, a system that tries to reach equilibrium between the recyclable materials consumed on site and waste produced from it. The measuring of this is ingrained in all our working practices.

Almost all our transactions are measured according to the assessed impact they will have on the social, economic and environmental domain. The course of action chosen is that which meets with the least general disapproval. We want to explore what it means to be a sustainable organisation, and hope to open our working systems to public scrutiny on the web so that we can continually improve our performance and others can be inspired to implement similar procedures.

The Eden Project has been incredibly fortunate to be involved with people who dared to do things that they could easily have found excuses not to. We are entering a new age where people aren't content simply to earn a living - they want it to have meaning. Half the Eden team are people who left highly paid jobs elsewhere to follow their hearts.

The British are not very good at getting past the "means to an end" mentality. The greatest battle our generation faces is to make it OK to be idealistic and follow our hearts. The Lottery has done a great deal to spur this on. It has released an energy into civic projects that could never have been managed by central government. Lottery projects have ownership written all over them, and hence real meaning - an amazing achievement in an age shorn of symbols.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bleak morning in America