Busking outside his comfort zone on Climate Quest

Climate change

02 August 2016

John Elkington, Executive Chairman of Volans, writes about his experience at Climate Quest, a three-day retreat in July 2016 that brought together leaders and influencers who are working to address climate change.

It was a stunning start to Climate Quest at Rich Mix on Monday evening, organised by Leaders’ Quest and We Mean Business. Phyllida Hancock of Olivier Mythodrama kicked off with a session on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which left me gasping for more.

As You Like It

Happily, there was a two-hour session on Wednesday morning with Phyllida, which I opted to join. One element of the process involved a small group of seven or eight being handed a piece of timber. We were told it was a sword, and – in the spirit of the play– asked to consider which element of our defensive armoury we would now lay aside.

I chose to lay aside my use of humour as a social lubricant in boardrooms and C-suites. Though I undermined the promise by not following earlier ‘It’s a Sword’ or ‘It’s a Big Stick’ renderings and instead stood it on its end, noting that part of my role as court jester has been to stand things on their heads!

Whereas some chose to think of the stick as a weapon, considering how they could stop beating their colleagues around the head, figuratively, it struck me that my positioning was symbolic. My role has often been to say that there is a big stick out there, in the form of NGOs and activists, and using the threat to encourage responsible behaviour – including more open engagement with civil society.

White City

On Tuesday, I was part of a small group of perhaps 10 participants that went across to White City to meet David Gunn of White City Noise. We were introduced to the dynamics of a complex community in a bleak urban landscape where the BBC has traditionally been an oasis, or perhaps a ghetto, and where three developers are involved in what is billed as Europe’s largest redevelopment project.

It took me way back to my roots in city planning and public participation in the early 1970s. The high point, at least for me, was recording three choral (to put it politely) bursts in the stairwell of a high-rise building that will be demolished within three weeks. (My own contribution to one of these channelled a fading air-raid siren.) This was part of an acoustic palimpsest being compiled as a Requiem or Elegy to the BBC Television Centre’s East Tower.


We were later taken under the energetic wings of Susana Silva and Natalia Cerqueira, two buskers who regularly perform on London’s Southbank. Call it denial, but (despite the Climate Quest programme), I had simply not considered the possibility that I would be called on to make a musical instrument, co-write a song on climate change, and then perform it to all and sundry on the South Bank – hard by the skateboarding area.

But that’s what transpired, and I ended up kicking off the singing! Working with Susana and Natalia forced me to think long and hard about how we can best engage new audiences around climate change and wider sustainability issues.


To be in such company for several days has been a tremendous gift, for which I thank the IKEA Foundation among those already mentioned. Being part of such a gathering of such extraordinary people was a real pick-me-up and shake-me-up.

Apart from reading Shakespeare in a new light and following up on the myriad conversations that began as we moved from Rich Mix to the final sessions at the Ugly Duck in Shoreditch, I feel a growing need to help the entire climate change movement jump to a different level.

It was a glorious mix among the 50-60 invitation-only participants of (1) people I knew, (2) people I'd heard of and wanted to meet, and (3) people I hadn’t met but enjoyed getting to know better. Happily again, there wasn’t a fourth category.

For a longer version of this article, and for more of John’s musings, see his blog