Networks: Winds of change
John Pontin thought that his career had reached its peak when he founded design-and-build construction company the JT Group in 1961. Almost 50 years later, however, he returned to his entrepreneurial roots to set up The Converging World, a charity that invests in renewable energy technology in the developing world and uses the profits to fund sustainable development and social projects.
Pontin, who has been a Fellow for more than 25 years, credits the RSA with providing the framework he needed to generate the idea for his project. The Converging World has its genesis in the Coffeehouse Challenge, a scheme organised to mark the RSA’s 250th anniversary in 2004. Pontin was invited to reenact the role of William Shipley – who founded the RSA in a coffee house in 1754 – by bringing together Fellows from his local community in Bristol and engaging them in purposeful debate.
“We were guided by three ground rules: patience, a can-do attitude and a no-blame culture,” Pontin remembers. “It made for a really exciting day.”
The group discussed strategies for the creation of a zero-waste community in Chew Magna, a small village near Bristol. Four projects were born out of the ‘Go Zero’ initiative: Waste and Recycling, People and Consumption, Transport and Energy, and The Converging World.
The idea behind The Converging World was a bold one. “We wanted to create a sustainable development model that would link developed and developing communities,” says Pontin. “So we decided to twin Chew Magna with Tamil Nadu, a southern Indian state that is home to one of the best wind farms in the world.”
In August 2008, The Converging World used its first £1.2m – a donation from the Pontin Charitable Trust – to build a wind turbine in Tamil Nadu. Not only did this deliver green energy to local households, it also yielded profit from sales of electricity to the local grid. Three quarters of this revenue was reinvested into building a second wind turbine, while the remaining 25% was used to fund social and environmental projects run by a partner charity in India, Social Change and Development (SCAD).
Cletus Babu, chairman of SCAD, is grateful for The Converging World’s support. “Only through continuous funding can we implement our health, nutrition and education programmes,” he explains. “This partnership will benefit many local villages in the years to come.”
The carbon credits generated from using renewable energy in Tamil Nadu are sold to purchasers in Chew Magna, helping businesses to offset carbon emissions that they would otherwise struggle to reduce. As the scheme progresses, both communities will move closer to their goal of zero waste. As Pontin explains: “We estimate that it takes about 20 years for one turbine to generate enough profit to build five more – we call it the ‘breed a turbine’ model. It’s unique in that the flow of money is just as important as the flow of energy – which gives us the potential to grow into the biggest community-based bank in the world.”
As more and more private and commercial investors recognise the benefits of investing in low-carbon infrastructure, The Converging World model is growing rapidly. With two turbines already up and running in Tamil Nadu, the charity has plans to commission the construction of four more in August and hopes to increase the total to 10 by the end of the year. “We’re focusing on India for now, but we hope eventually to expand to other areas, such as Latin America,” says Pontin.
Pontin is also keen to share ideas and expertise with RSA Fellows in the Bristol network. In December 2009, he organised a series of workshops at The Converging World’s Bristol headquarters, Bush House, covering a range of environmental issues related to the United Nations Climate Change Conference. This reflects The Converging World’s growing concern with promoting sustainable development at home as well as overseas – with Bush House serving as a networking hub for Fellows interested in the charity’s social and environmental agenda.
And Pontin’s enthusiasm hasn’t waned. “This is the most exciting project I’ve ever been involved in and I’m working on it eight days a week,” he states proudly. “I feel as if I’m doing what I was born to do!”