Friday, January 14, 2011

tim merry: slam poet, host and social entrepreneur

anyone who attended one of the public meetings held last year by the Halifax Public Libraries about the new Central Library doubtless noticed the energetic englishman running the consultations. with live poetry, a string quartet, live streaming to the web and a steady conversation between the people in the room and the twitosphere, it was a lively adventure that produced a lot of useful information.

the circus master was tim merry: host, slam poet and social entrepreneur. i caught up with him a few months ago for a Navigator profile in Open to the World Magazine. tim was a great interview - fascinating, colourful and energetic. i'll paste a longer version of the article below - the end was trimmed off to fit into the magazine. i love writing entrepreneur profiles for progress/OTTW, as they let me run loose as a writer, making for an engaging story. enjoy!

The Storyteller
Tim Merry slammed the door of his Volkswagen Gulf and stared at the throbbing streets of Dusseldorf, Germany. It was 2000 and the twentysomething Englishman had just finished coaching a supermarket giant’s spokesman on how to use body language, posture, intonation and word choice to effectively deliver the corporation’s message.

He realized he had just taught the man how to lie.

“I stopped and took a really good look at the work I was doing and realized a lot of it was very far away from what I had imagined when I was 21,” the 35-year-old says today. “I was doing fine. I was making good money. I had a car, an apartment, a nice girlfriend. It was all pretty sweet, but there was something about the whole situation that wasn’t fulfilling for me.”

That started him on the long road that would take the professional host, slam poet and social entrepreneur from Europe to Africa before finding the perfect location for realizing his global ambitions: Nova Scotia.

His first step was starting Engage Interact in the Netherlands, a company that facilitated conversations about tricky subjects. One day Merry would work with the top 120 staff at a major Dutch bank and the next fly to Zimbabwe to work with villagers dealing with AIDS.

Business was booming, but, like all serial entrepreneurs, he got itchy feet. This led him to take long walks in remote corners of Europe, but he discovered that wherever he went, he found the same thing: people. The last straw was a newspaper article about researchers who tried to find a part of the Netherlands where manmade sounds could not be heard. They failed.

“I was like, I’m done,” Merry says. He and his wife Katie Condon dreamed up a perfect new home. It would have fewer people, a better quality of life, easy access to nature and equally easy access to the high-level communications tools he needed to do his work. They searched France, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, New England and old England before discovering Nova Scotia through Merry’s connections to the Buddhist Shambhala community.

“Six months later me and my wife were suddenly in the middle of nowhere in Nova Scotia wondering what the hell we’d done,” he says of 2004.

To celebrate, he went to the shore and belted out Jerusalem. There was not a Dutch researcher to be seen.  

“It was the beauty of the place, the feeling of spaciousness, the different speed that people were living at and the quality of life. It blew me away that people always had time to stop and chat.”

He set up shop near Yarmouth and founded the Shire, an alternative conference centre located on Mink Lake, and Spilt Rock Learning Centre Association, a non-profit organization supporting community building, youth leadership and rural livelihood.

Today, Merry is focusing on his passion for facilitating communications. When the Halifax Public Libraries wanted to hold a conversation between architects, librarians and the thousands of people who would use the planned new central library, they hired Merry.

His “World Café” approach saw public meetings streamed live on the internet while people at home tweeted questions. He invited poets to read and called in a string quartet. Merry says it’s not just ambiance.

“Human beings shouldn’t be meeting without artists. It’s just not natural,” he says. “Innovation comes a lot quicker through an artistic mindset.”

George Cotaras, lead architect with Fowler, Bauld & Mitchell, was impressed by the quality of the conversation.

“He facilitates the event to make sure we get general consensus from the entire group and avoid having one or two vocal people monopolize a meeting,” Cotaras says. 

The feedback has led the architects to alter aspects of the library’s layout. “It’s also reinforced what we’ve been doing in the design all along,” he says.

The process reflects Merry’s belief that no one person has the solution to modern problems. It’s only by melding everyone’s perspectives that things can improve.

“Nova Scotia is the perfect laboratory for social innovation. We can learn things here that can then go to scale across nations,” says Merry, who now lives near Mahone Bay.

Merry is reluctant to talk about the negatives of his adopted home, but agrees it has “challenges.” Things move too slowly for his liking, though he accepts that’s part of the visionary’s lot.  “You live a fairly frustrated life. Visions come very quickly; realities take longer and a lot more hard work,” he says.

Nova Scotia’s risk-averse culture and few tax breaks discourage entrepreneurs, he says, pointing out that Engage Interact was sheltered from major Dutch taxes for three years. It’s also hard to find the accountants and lawyers he needs for his unconventional, international work.

But for the father of two young children, the abundant advantages of a land plugged into the 21st century yet retaining the perks of an earlier time vastly outweigh the downsides.

“I can sing Jerusalem as loud as I want and no one is going to complain,” he laughs. “It’s like breathing again.”

blog comments powered by Disqus