Mark Stevenson, at six foot one, is preppy slacker chic with a razor-sharp mind and rapid-fire speech. He is so lively and enthusiastic that his own cartoon speech bubbles would probably be the size of the sparse-modern room at the KL office of the London Speaker Bureau, where we meet.
Words like ‘future narrative’ and ‘cultural engineer’ lay innocuously like hangers-on of an entourage in Mark Stevenson’s officially-released public profile, so, of course, it is imperative I demand he ‘break it down’ for me. This need becomes more insistent when Nobel Prize winners and centuries-old periodicals with reputations beyond reproach, alike, have praised his book. In retrospect, it was good that I wasn’t aware of this at the time, because the author is far more interesting when you come at him with non sequitur questions and latent scepticism.
Because he takes it all in genuine good-natured humour, even if he is exhausted by a whirlwind two-day-stopover that is the Kuala Lumpur leg involving the highly-fascinating pit stops of airport, office, perfunctory press interviews, a speaking engagement and airport. In that order.
It’s ground zero before Stevenson’s next-day speaking engagement, one of many globally where he imparts his own eclectic brand of sage advice, findings, observations and very charming deadpan humour.
The blue-eyed, former vocalist of a music band and first-class Honours graduate has some serious conversational chops.
But do not imbue him with the cult status of a “personality”, because he is much more than that.
For starters, he actually has personality. I paraphrase this from his off-the-cuff gem-of-a-quip during the photo shoot.
‘Adept communicator’, too, comes to my mind after trading serious and unserious verbal volleys with him. Stevenson is almost a force of nature on his own, the living embodiment of the phrase, ‘don’t join a movement: BE the movement’.
Stevenson is a change-meister, a thought-propeller and idea-celebrator.
It seems money-minting corporations and government bodies take him seriously, even if he does deliver his sermons in a vaguely rock-star fashion of laconic cool.
“There are various biographies of me with various different attempts to describe what I do,” he laughs lightly by way of a self-deprecating preamble, but he believes “the only way you can change society is by shifting culture at its roots.”
“I have made it my aim in life to put optimism of ambition and pragmatism of approach back into the centre of culture.”
He tries to do this in every way he can think of. The words are uttered as an earnest statement of a genuine belief that he can, in fact, help change the world around him. He must be succeeding in this aim somewhat, I deduce, if lots of people are paying to jet him to far-flung places wherein he speaks to hundreds, asking them to rethink what they’re doing. But with wit and authenticity.
He has set up a learning consultancy, he responds to my verbal poke about how his thoughts translate into concrete action, “where we work with cultural institutions and schools, mostly in the UK, and now we have a subsidiary in Delhi.” They’re trying to design an optimum learning environment, he explains, where critical thinking is key, where spaces are created for people to ask the right questions, and where they can learn research-based skills to solve problems.
I am briefly reminded of a phrase where it was said the new millennium would be marked not by learning, but by un-learning and re-learning.
And this partly happens when I thumb through his much-lauded 2011 book of essays: “An Optimist’s Tour of The Future – A Curious Man Sets Out to Answer What’s Next?”.
In the book, Stevenson travels far and wide and speaks with a mind-bogglingly diverse group of people, and he writes of an equally wide-ranging tableau of subjects. The reader is faced with questions such as
“Would people get married if they knew they would live forever?”
or that despite advancements in communication technology, humans are still making the same mistakes and yet, the world is becoming less violent. Stevenson challenges some deep beliefs and long-ingrained “truths” and perceptions, and it is fascinating.
It helps enormously that he delivers his observations – such as how world leaders still don’t quite get it – in an intelligent, calm yet very funny, glib and occasionally cheeky voice.
This is a far cry from his days as the vocalist of a band that “enjoyed some notoriety in Japan” or from his work as a cryptographer or his stint as a stand-up comedian. He’s done battle in corporate fields and been hailed as something akin to a genius, but he was, frankly, bored by it. It’d be quite easy to disregard it as his mid-life crisis-come-early if he didn’t make a lot of sense, really.
“The other way (to translate this work into action) is by public engagement,” he adds. “I want people to understand what’s happening with science and technology, because the world is going through a very big shift now. The digital revolution was just the beginning,” he asserts with that unwavering blue-eyed gaze that punctuates his keen resoluteness.
Most books written about science and technology are read by people who read books about science and technology, he quips, not without a trace of good humour at the edges, but he wants to make people like his mum and heads of countries and corporations understand – that we have the tools to handle the future with its looming gargantuan problems such as climate change, and that there are “bigger things” than each of us, at stake.
“This is an attempt to let people see a different narrative of the future,” he explains, “and sometimes you have to lose more times than you win at the beginning, but I get emails saying,
‘I read your book. It changed my life.’.”