January 20, 2015 by The Ascending Staircase
Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) recently played host to a high-profile guest. Lily Cole – supermodel, actor, and environmental and humanitarian activist – was invited by MMU’s Big Impact Project to speak to staff and students about sustainability and her website, impossible.com.
Personally, I was very excited by her impending visit; Lily, admiringly, works on whatever project she views as interesting and important, which is why her career so far has been rather colourful. Another reason for my excitement is that, alongside Amanda Wright from MMU’s Environment Team, I was given the opportunity to interview Lily for the event. Yet as I approached the lecture theatre, my excitement faded and I grew more and more nervous. I had never interviewed a celebrity before. What was she going to be like? What if I messed it up?
Lily arrived and brought with her a sense of infinite calm. Dressed casually in jeans and an oversized shirt, she was completely relaxed throughout the entire event. During the interview, she was confident in her answers, speaking directly to the audience and asking questions of her own for us to ponder. After an introduction by MMU’s Ryan Waugh, who organised the event, we spoke about her innovative project that is bringing people from all over the world together – and, in fact, brought her to MMU to speak to us –impossible.com.
Impossible is a community in which knowledge, skills, freebies and time are offered and received by those who use the platform. It is all about non-direct return, so don’t expect to get something back for helping strangers, though when your turn to ask for a favour comes around you may be pleasantly surprised with the response.
Lily said that, as well as reaping the benefits of a gift economy, Impossible “Creates relationships between people and releases body chemicals that make people happy.” It seems that universities are one of the best places to trial ideas like this; “I’ve always been interested in university as a place for Impossible,” explains Lily, who believes in universities as open-minded spaces, where people can explore new ideas and meet new and different people. This is exactly the attitude that the website suggests and impresses upon its users, which is why it was tested in universities first.
Like the Big Impact Project at MMU, Impossible is all about small acts building together to make a big difference. To show this, each member of the audience received a small tag made of card as they entered the event, upon which they could write their own personal wishes and also the skills that they can offer to others. These tags will be made into a wishing tree in MMU, joining us with cities like Sydney, Cambridge and sites within America where Lily has previously created these trees. It is a great way to link people together through what they want to achieve and what they can give in return.
Lily, when asked about the charity work she has been doing to aid environmental and humanitarian causes, stated that David Attenborough is an influential figure for her work, and that global warming is the single biggest problem we face today. She said, “If we don’t have [the environment] to rely on in 50 years time, then every other issue will be superseded by that.” So what can we do about it? The best way to tackle many of the environmental and humanitarian problems facing us today, according to Lily, is through a combination of charity work and good business ethic. Lily believes that this is the best course of action, so she is currently channelling her energies into building good, ethical businesses and helping to support the ongoing work of the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Of course, this particular project may be difficult for students and staff like those present from MMU to achieve. Instead, Lily gave some practical advice on how we, as individuals, can make a difference; she explained that we each have a political voice, which we assert every time we buy something. One of the ways in which we can change the tactics of big businesses is by thinking carefully about what we choose to buy and adopting a ‘buy less, spend more’ mantra. This not only tackles some of the environmental problems that our throwaway society is creating, but also paves the way for a fairer economy; buying cheaply does not make sense when you think of the amount of people who have helped make the item. Lily also urged people to reap the benefits of the gift economy by doing things for others without considering the monetary gain, and to be open to those people trying to help you. Most importantly, she insisted that you should not be afraid to fail. Impossible nearly failed multiple times, yet perseverance has made it a successful and a vitally important online platform that everybody across the world can benefit from.
The event was insightful and influential. Lily, who is currently playing Helen in The Last Days of Troy at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre, has shown her passion for the charity work that she is involved with. As people filed out of the lecture theatre, they were thanking Lily, talking about Impossible and filling in their wish cards. Witty and knowledgeable, Lily Cole has definitely inspired all who were present to go out into the world and try to change things for the better.