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13 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Matthew Taylor: ‘‘Film bridges the divide between aesthetic excellence and popularity’’

The chief executive of the RSA takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

By New Statesman

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

The internet. It’s not just an invention – it is a paradigm shift in human affairs.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

Man-made global warming. The science is still contested and the implications more so, but if most scientists are right, climate change and our need to respond will fundamentally change the world.

And sporting event?

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The 2012 Paralympics will be looked back on as marking a turning point in the way we think about disability: from disabled to differently abled.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

Jonathan Haidt’s hugely readable book The Happiness Hypothesis introduced me to the multidisciplinary world of brains and behaviour, a world I have remained fascinated by ever since.

A lot of music summons up memories for me. One song is Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. Unlike much of the music I used to love, I would still take Nina’s Greatest Hits to my desert island.

When I worked at Millbank Tower (for New Labour), I used to go to the Rothko room at the Tate. Often, there were only two or three of us, sitting quietly in reverie. For reasons good and bad, today’s galleries rarely offer such repose.

I also want to mention the online animation series RSA Animate, which not only has raised the Royal Society’s profile around the world (86 million views and counting) but is a wonderful example of how great talks and great creativity can make big ideas accessible to all.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Nelson Mandela is the obvious choice but Aung San Suu Kyi is also a hugely important symbol of the role that integrity, stoicism and dignity can play in bringing about peaceful change.

At the other extreme, I hope that history forever sees the century that produced the concentrated evil of Hitler, Stalin and Mao as a terrible one-off.

And author or playwright?

I am more of a reader than a theatregoer. Saul Bellow and Philip Roth told me before what it would be like to become a middle-class, middle-aged man and now they tell me I am not alone in my many frailties. I suspect that if Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith keep producing brilliant novels, they will become 21st-century literary giants.

Who is the most influential or significant artist of the past hundred years?

After some reflection, I have chosen Martin Scorsese, not just because I love so many of his films but because film manages better than many other art forms to bridge the divide between aesthetic excellence and popularity.

How about anyone in business?

Paul Polman at Unilever, who is, I think, genuinely trying to lay down the foundations for ethical capitalism.

And sportsperson?

Ryan Giggs, for transforming our expectations of a sportsman’s longevity.

And philanthropist?

George Soros.

What is your favourite quotation?

I can’t remember the exact quotation but in their book The Future of American Progressivism, Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West write something like: “It is not so much hope that leads to action but action that leads to hope.”

What is your favourite speech?

Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” address as president in 1979: it was honest, brave, relevant and massively undervalued (because he subsequently failed to be re-elected).

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

The ageing of the population, hopefully because we will not only live longer but live more healthily, too.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

Our inability to respond to the various challenges of globalisation.

What will be the most dramatic development in your field of work?

The emergence of a new set of institutions that will bridge anachronistic divides between subjects, methodologies and forms of engagement – of which the RSA seeks to be an exemplar.

What is the priority for the future well-being of the people and our planet?

Learning to become the people we need to be to create the future that most of us say we want.