Stories for 2015

“It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it.” Philip Pullman.

In a story that frames the 1001 Stories of the Arabian Nights, a Sultan is incensed by the infidelity of his wife. In his jealousy, he decides to get his revenge by “taking” a virgin girl each night and then cutting off her head the next morning.

But just as the supply of virgins has been pretty much exhausted, Princess Scheherazade turns up. The thing about Scheherazade is that she is cleverer than the Sultan. She begins to tell an adventure story, set in a world of magic carpets and genies and he becomes entranced by it. Day after day he allows Scheherazade to live, always in anticipation of the next story. And so it is that, after telling all the stories of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade survives.

Stories have been around since the beginning of time. Humans respond to  a story, whether real or imagined, in a different way to ordinary information. People connect with the medium of story. The Arabian Nights originate from the wonderful story telling tradition of desert nomads, later written into Persian manuscript, much later translated into European languages and even more recently turned into an unprecedented number of pantomimes. These rich stories are set in the Eastern countries that we now know as Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel, Syria, and Egypt.

People Stories
Between 2007 and 2010 I worked for an organisation called Lightfoot Enterprises, which was set up to create solutions to climate change. I helped to devise the communications tools and message architecture for a community led “Household Energy Service” (HES) that would go on to advise a large number of households on ways to reduce fossil fuel use. Part of this work was to put together a regular newsletter. The newsletter updated people on available grants – for example for better home insulation and drew attention to local services – for example solar panel fitters.
A popular addition to these newsletters became known amongst us as people stories. We invited over 1,000 people who had already engaged with HES to write about how they were rolling up their sleeves and cutting fossil fuel use. Each true story explored the realities of changing – the highs and lows of travelling the world by train; the problems encountered when choosing insulation for a leaky church roof; the joys of cycling to work on an electric bike or turning a poorly insulated ex-council house into a snug eco home with solar water heater; and a wood burner that became a best friend.
image Feb Green
By the time the 3rd quarterly newsletter was being compiled, people stories were flooding in at a rate of knots.

I left Lightfoot in 2010 to set up a small writing agency. These days I work on a wide range of communications and marketing projects within the “green sector”. In reality, this covers anything from sustainable design and new technologies, to local social enterprise and community activity.  Sometimes known as “good” business, drivers such as profit  are re-balanced by long term environmental and humanitarian considerations. This implies a need for creativity – innovation – to bring about change. The green sector is a wonderful arena to work in.

When it comes to communicating, the old one-dimensional “marketing push” to sell stuff or tell people what to do is sort of outdated really. A large part of its downfall was social media, providing everybody with a new platform for exchange. Philip Pullman’s concept of back and forthness is pretty spot on, taking elemental communication back closer to its roots, returning to us just a taste of those dark connected evenings when our ancestors exchanged stories around the fire. Or if you want me to put it into snazzy language of the Internet seers: communications is now interactive, immersive and socially connected. But perhaps it always was.

An overarching story, such as the story of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, is known as a “frame story”. The people stories at Lightfoot were framed by the concept of a journey to low carbon living ~ understandably lots of people wanted to write about their journeys.

Modern communications is more of an exchange, less of a lecture and we can bring this ancient, human element of story into all kinds of contexts, to explore the realities of changing, of taking responsibility for the future.

Rachel Francis
Sharpening Pencils

First published in Broad Sheep Magazine Feb 2015 issue.


Technology and Nature

Friday 11th April at The Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth


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inside the Solar PV Roof


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sun lights


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fruit cordon


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natural materials and photovoltaics


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the WISE centre setting


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light and shade


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reflections in a window, the strawbale theatre

Green Shorts

This article first appeared in Broad Sheep magazine, April 2014 edition

This news roundup was going to appear under the title Flash Briefs, but it sounded a bit flash, and pretty brief … so I toned it down to something green and short and consequently, here are the Green Shorts:

Land for People, Knucklas Castle.

Standing close to the border between England and Wales, with wonderful views in every direction, Knucklas Castle is a hill of much atmosphere and many legends. In 2009, after years of private ownership, the castle mound and surrounding land was bought by founder members of the Knucklas Castle Community Land Project. Since then, it has been opened up to the public, with an orchard and gardens on the lower slopes, a sculpture trail and a woodland walk to the site of the old castle and hill fort above. You can purchase shares to support this project and thus become a king or queen of the castle.

Passivhaus at Kingstone. The greenest energy is the energy you don’t use.

Early this year a housing initiative that I have been involved in called Home Presteigne invited the architect, Jonathan Hines to visit and talk about a new Passivhaus development that has been approved in Herefordshire.

The proposed site will be less densely packed with houses than usual, with less emphasis on car parking. That means there will be more green space, including space to grow food, thus complementing the existing rural community.  A key benefit of Passivhaus is the energy efficiency, with expected savings of 80% on heating bills, and this is down to u value standards, air tightness, elimination of thermal bridging and orientation of all houses within 15 degrees of south, to make the most of solar gain.

Community engagement has helped to shape the project, resulting in features such as a cycle path link, winding lanes, retained native hedgerows and car free space for children to play. The houses are designed simply for contemporary living, with good daylight, quality of construction and emphasis on comfort of living, including a ventilation system that keeps in 90% of heat whilst maintaining a high standard of fresh air circulation.

You may think these houses sound very expensive to build and therefore to buy or rent, but actually the whole idea is based on simple quality, using super-insulated panels that are locally made from local materials and no “bling.”  In this way it is possible to build fairly inexpensive homes that will, of course, be exceedingly cheap and also green to live in.

At a global level the Chief Executive at APPLE, Tim Cook, recently told climate sceptics amongst Apple share holders, who questioned the company’s environmental efforts, that Apple’s burgeoning green policy made full economic sense. He added: “We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.”  Cook finished by saying that if anyone disagreed with that approach, they should “get out of the stock”.

The economic angle is interesting when you consider that Insurance payouts relating to the recent floods here in the UK are expected to reach £1.1bn, according to new figures from the Association of British Insurers (ABI).  The cost of these latest flood-related claims has already hit £446m.

Richard Branson of Virgin has also weighed in on the subject of climate change, saying he “wholeheartedly” agreed with Tim Cook at Apple, and he’s actually doing some great carbon neutral stuff on his islands in the Caribbean and just as importantly speaking up about it.

I wrote a while back about Pelamis wave power and can now update this story because recently Pelamis have been awarded a £1.4m project from The Energy Technologies Institute to fund development work and to enhance the cost-effectiveness of wave energy converter arrays in UK waters. The funding will support the first phase of work this year ahead of a larger demonstration programme if the results prove encouraging.

Written by Rachel Francis

What If the Economy

“The decision to replace the old economic model is great news for lots of people who are currently trying to get pointless jobs that they don’t enjoy because they cant afford not to. But of course it’s not going to suit everybody”

This morning the government announced plans to change the way the economy operates. “We have decided the economy is washed up,” explained a refreshingly expansive George Osborne, wearing old jeans and comfy canvas shoes, “So we are going to change it.”

no more over-use of the word “fiscal”

“We are going to stop being bullied by bankers and carbon heavy corporates and just re-evaluate everything. We want lots more local vegetable growing, youth theatres, children with muddy knees, mixed farms, car free streets, new soup recipes, renewable energy, knitting, guitar lessons, singing at the office, cycling to work, fresh air, home made jam and we want safe places for hedgehogs to cross the road,” he continued.

“So we have decided to adjust the economic model accordingly” added the Prime Minister.

 “Yes,” continued George, “We are fed up of bankers bonuses, fossil fuels and, above all, over-use of the word “fiscal”.  If we don’t stop soon, the whole world will go bonkers!”

“We now have a situation where some children live on coca cola and big macs instead of food. When we grew up, we ate food. It wasn’t a class issue,” said Caroline Spelman, popping her head around the door, “Its got to a situation where nobody can afford to do nice things anymore except a few powerful people who are fixated on restoring the growth economy so that they can continue to keep thoroughbred racehorses, a helicopter, various sports cars, the pad in Dubai, the fridge packed full of cocaine and the Range Rover,  that they don’t  really give a stuff. And these same people are still going around thinking that if they ignore climate change and poverty, it’ll go away. We suddenly realized that a few funding streams were not going to counter all this nonsense, so David decided to drop the current economic system altogether.”

The economic system was invented by men who smoked in the 18th century, maybe that’s why it’s no longer working

“This old economic system” explained Vince Cable, bringing a little gravitas to the occasion, “was fomulated by political economists in smoking jackets during the eighteenth century and is underpinned by the myth of Homo Economicus … a formulaic model of a man who makes choices based on what will maximize his personal wealth in the easiest way possible. A number of other people, including philosophers, modern economists, climate scientists and women (who asked them!?!) have pointed out that this model is flawed but its taken a financial crash, a miserable austerity budget and a biosphere on the edge of collapse to finally drive the message home.”

At this point David Cameron managed to get a proper turn, “The decision to replace the old economic model is great news for lots of people who are currently trying to get pointless jobs that they don’t enjoy because they cant afford not to. But of course it’s not going to suit everybody”

And he is right. Nuclear weapons and airports will now be built on an entirely voluntary basis as part of the Big Society. Other pursuits, such as deep drilling for oil in the Arctic and mining tar sands in the Canadian wilderness will also become voluntary, although there will be funding streams to help. These will be administered by  NEXPUE (National Endowment for previously Profitable Unsustainable Enterprises) and will involve Labour-esque quarterly reports and the fabricating of slightly irrelevant but measurable targets.


The first edition of this  post was  published in Broad Sheep  magazine July 2011 edition.

Social Enterprise is a verb

This November I attended the first Social Enterprise Wales conference in Swansea, organized by the Wales Cooperative Centre. The first day of the conference coincided neatly with announcements from the Bank of England that the UK economy is experiencing a period of  Zen-like stillness. Not everyone thinks this is good. And needless-to-say, it appears that early sightings of  “fresh green shoots of growth” a few months back were but a mirage. Whilst the prospect of exciting corporate jobs for all of our young people has become but tumbleweed to chase across the desert, blown by the wind of fate.

However, all is not lost. Bare soil does not necessarily make a desert. Take Wales. Take Social Enterprise. What is this thing?

Sometimes, we misunderstand words. And sometimes some other people deliberately manipulate the meaning of words, as if they actually want us to misunderstand them. It happens.  So, if you think you don’t like social enterprise, or its just a phrase to put in your funding application, then perhaps it’s time to put aside your preconceptions and get excited about the real thing.

Liam Black, a keynote speaker at the conference, is an award-winning social entrepreneur in the UK and has founded and led several leading social businesses.  From 1997 to 2004, he was CEO at Liverpool’s FRC Group, one of the UK’s pioneering social businesses, selling goods such as pre-loved furniture and providing livelihoods for hundreds of formerly unemployed people. With Jamie Oliver he grew “Fifteen” into a global brand with businesses in Europe and Australia. His presentation at the conference is disarming … describing himself thirty years ago as a guy whose “ambition was to travel around the world and find out interesting shit”

He speaks openly in favour of profit. We live in a capitalist society and we have to square with that. One option is to be funded> Another to be a volunteer (and starve?)> The third is to decide to put a value upon your work in the social/environmental sector.

By the end of Black’s speech, I have become a social entrepreneur. Finally able to see beyond the rise and fall and seasick sway of the FTSE, and the struggle for funding and the beckoning ghost of the dole queue; toward the beginnings of a new, and kinder, economic purpose.

According to Black and indeed many of the excellent speakers … David Le Page, Lis Burnett, Jerr Boschee, Brian Popsys, Duncan Goose, Edwina Hart to name a few … social enterprise can change the world by changing the way we do business. And that’s because, as Black puts it,

“Social enterprise is a verb (a doing word) … it shouldn’t have been made a noun.”

The second day of the conference, brings social entrepreneur Duncan Goose, on his motorbike, in the fog, all the way from London.  His entrepreneurial story is about trading water for water.  But it begins with him travelling around the world on a motorbike … and encountering, amongst other things, trouble in Afghanistan and the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch. You cant see the world and how people live, without being changed by that.

Back home in the UK, Goose learned that there were 1 billion people in the world without access to clean water, and decided that if he could help clear a house of mud with with a group of people and some roof tiles for tools, he could damn well do something about water. And so begins the tale of “One” … a hugely successful water and food trading scheme that puts 100% profit back to helping people in poverty.

It’s important that we remember the real resource we have is us. We just need the right environment of “enablement” to flourish again. Social enterprise is a kinder way to do business. It takes us right back to our roots … the place, the people and above all it’s not just a word you use to secure funding. S ometimes you have to say the “wrong” thing, because it’s right. Like Profit can be Good. This is the world of the social entrepreneurs … taking the challenges, cutting to the chase, making solutions happen, despite everything. I came away refreshed, despite the arid landscape of the UK economy, and ready to turn social enterprise back into a doing word.

It’s all about RE-SHAPING THE CULTURE OF BUSINESS by putting a financial value upon our work. Because to create sustainable and viable models for social and environmental change, for young people, for humanity, for the natural world and for the future, is really the most valuable thing we can do. And to echo the hopes of another speaker, Jerr Boschee, I don’t think we will quit until the miracle happens.

November 2011

Banks and Maypoles

On August 3rd 1732, the first stone of the Bank of England was laid in the garden of Sir John Houblon, in Threadneedle Street. This is commemorated on the back of the fifty pound note. The building was close to The Bourse … a square at the intersection between Threadneedle Sreet and Cornhill … where wealthy merchants traded, often in competition with local producers. The Bourse was later renamed “The Royal Exchange.”

Cornhill, with its modern office blocks and towering financial centres, is one of the three ancient hills of London. A little further back in history it was the site of the famous Cornhill Maypole, featured in the writings of Chaucer and Samuel Pepys.

The original Maypoles were associated with revelry and that is why they were banned and chopped down.  But the Maypole also stood at the heart of community … as landmark, as gathering place for seasonal celebrations, even as place to display local produce. Each local Maypole was different, connecting people to a particular place and reinforcing a sense of belonging. And when banks make decisions nowadays, they are very far from being connected in this way.

Credit Unions have been around for over 150 years. They were created to provide co-operative credit for small business and rural communities in the wake of the industrial revolution. They spread from their origins in Europe to the rest of the world and are especially popular in rural parts of America where they are called community banks. Credit Union’s are financial institutions, offering their members a safe and convenient place to save, plus access to low cost loans.

A credit union is not a charity nor a funding body, but a service. At times like these, such a service is important because we need to keep our food producers and local systems of support in good heart and equally we need a trusted place to put money safely. The beauty of a local bank is the capacity to build local “capital”. Credit Unions do not have hidden costs – no arrangement fees, no charges for setting up overdraft facilities etc and loans are made in proportion to savings.