'Keeping it clean' with John Curtis
The second of a blog series, which features interviews with a variety of experts within the world of sustainability, clean tech and future mobility.
Last week I had a tea break, and great chat with the brilliant John Curtis — Lawyer, turned leading low carbon, circular economy and sustainability expert, entrepreneur and journalist, with more energy than the National Grid and more passion than Rasputin (his words not mine!).
As seen on TV, heard on radio and chairing conferences for the BBC’s CountryFile Live and Channel 4’s Grand Designs Live.
John is proud to be a Go Ultra Low Ambassador, spreading the word about electric and low emission vehicles, and currently resides in the Scottish Lowlands.
John, it’s fair to say you’ve had a very interesting and varied career; what was the biggest driver for you to move into the EV sector?
It was actually something my Dad said when I was a young lad, that it’s always best to get in at the ground level and you should always try to be part of the solution.
It was around the same time that my passion for cars started, so when someone in the Scottish Government came to me years later and said, ‘would you like to work on something different’, I swiftly replied, ‘yes please, something with cars’!
The timing was very well aligned to the new legislation on emissions… as a lawyer, I began reading the background docs and found something that astounded me; 40,000 people a year in the UK were dying from poor air quality… 40,000! And the majority of this pollution comes from transport, and at that point I knew that I wanted to become the part of the solution and to make an impact.
Where did that take you?
Firstly, I just knew I wanted to make a difference, but also appreciated that ideas are great, but we needed to raise the money to make these things happen, to support and implement the things we knew were ‘right’. These ranged from networks of chargers, hydrogen buses, biofuel companies — including one which changes whiskey residue into fuel for cars, isn’t Scotland great!
I then expanded to look at all things transport across Scotland including walking, cycling and any way of getting from A to B, and soon became the Head of Sustainable Transport for Scotland, and I really felt like there was nothing we couldn’t do!
What inspires you?
Failure, fear of failure , the feeling of never being good enough… I am also driven to succeed, but certainly find failure a stronger personal driver.
Also my Mum, she was a real ‘people person’, very warm and caring and taught me that you get things done through people. Understanding this changed me, and when you lose the fear of asking, you find that lots of people who are happy to help and support you… not just a few, but many hundreds of people… people are everything!
Grab hold of the people who make your party more interesting! Trust them, let them know that you trust them, and they might stick around… and if they do, they’ll look after you!
Do you enjoy working with disruptors? And why?
I am an anarchist at heart…. I hate the phrase ‘we’ve always done it that way’ — there is always a better way! Disruptors think that way and nothing stops them! They are hard work, they keep challenging and keep pushing, which others may struggle with but when these efforts are channelled in the right direction, the outcomes are incredible!
A great example for me is Elon Musk, he didn’t just build a Tesla and then sit on his hands, he built a Tesla and then moved into the world of space and into energy production. He recognises one core truth that we can all do better! Do the stuff you’re good at and keep finding ways to do it better.
What values do you think the most successful people in this sector share?
Firstly, a social consciousness and environmental awareness, people who are driven to deliver things that matter. They all have a vision, one for a better future. Next, they understand the value of connections, and sharing rather than speaking in a vacuum; it’s key to be able to articulate a vision to people in a way that is interesting. Lastly, resilience and a thick skin; to be successful you need to believe in what you are doing, know it is making a little bit of difference and keep on pushing forward!
Successful people work across functions, geographies, business and see opportunities that most people don’t see!
Those of us who have chatted to you, know your enthusiasm is limitless. What drives this and how can others learn from it? (to give some visual insight, John is currently sitting in a little green train on our zoom chat)
I think it’s the alternative... I want to make sure I am the best version of me that I can be. The people who have inspired me have all been enthusiastic, positive, challenging and sensitive human beings. The alternative is being a grumpy old man with a dog shouting at people in the street for being noisy, and I’ve decided I don’t want to be him!
How do we make the goals and vision of a more sustainable world a reality?
I think it’s a mindset shift, a behavioural change and a desire to do the right thing.
To embed change we need a reason and a catalyst, it generally needs to be personal and matter to individuals. It’s important to understand why people change their behaviour — what’s in it for me? Since people often put themselves first, we need to appeal to everyone’s inner sense of doing the right thing.
This is best driven by people with answers, people who understand that there is a better way, and love to share this with others. The more simple, visual and interactive the better. There is no better way to get people into electric transport than to stick them in an electric car and let them have a go. In my experience no one ever gets out and says ‘that was shit’, so I for me, and for many others, doing is believing.
For me, I just love what I do and want to keep inspiring others. I am a passionate person, and truly believe that the key to success is having a passion for what you do, and if you do then you are my kind of person.
If we all made small changes, the collective difference would be huge! We as a planet need a green recovery for a better future.