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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study


Despite COVID-19, the IAS plans to hold a full programme of virtual lectures and seminars. Further events will be added to this page as they are scheduled.

On the Tipping Point - Panel Discussion

4th June 2015, 19:30 to 22:00, ICAEW, One Moorgate Place, London, EC2R 6EA, Sir Tim Smit (Eden Project), Tony Juniper, Professor Alex Bentley (University of Bristol) and Professor Neil Ferguson (Imperial College London)

The idea of tipping points, when a system reaches a point of no return, is both intriguing and alarming. In this event a panel of leading thinkers from a range of disciplinary areas will explore the dynamics of tipping points and their effects. They will consider a variety of questions including: How can we recognise tipping points and their causes? Can we really predict tipping points? Should we simply learn to live with uncertainty? Can – and should - we initiate tipping points to achieve social and environmental changes? Do apparent similarities in tipping points in such areas as climate change, disease epidemics, social change and economics signify deeper underlying principles, holding out the promise of a unifying science of tipping points? How can different disciplines collaborate to understand tipping points and their effects?

Our panellists for this event are:

  • Sir Tim Smit KBE (Co-founder of the Eden Project and restorer of the Lost Gardens of Heligan)
  • Tony Juniper (environmentalist, former Director of Friends of The Earth and author of “What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?: How Money Really Does Grow On Trees”)
  • Professor Alex Bentley (social scientist at Bristol University who has worked on a major multi-disciplinary research project on tipping points)
  • Professor Neil Ferguson (epidemiologist at Imperial College, conducts research on infectious disease epidemics

This event will build on the success of our previous London events, including last year’s popular ‘Lights in the Sky: the search for meaning’ with Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Professor Bob Layton, Dr Serafina Cuomo and Professor David Wilkinson.

Organised by the Institute of Advanced Study, this event offers the Friends of the IAS and the wider Durham alumni network, colleagues and members of the public an opportunity to come together for what should prove to be a stimulating and engaging occasion.

Date: Thursday, 04 June 2015 Time: 7.30pm – 10.00pm Venue: Chartered Accountants’ Hall, One Moorgate Place, London, EC2R 6EA Format: Drinks and nibbles will be available from 7.00pm before the event starts at 7.30pm. This will be followed by a drinks reception for guests to mingle and chat with speakers.

Cost: Free


Places must be booked in advance. Please contact or to register.

The Panel


Sir Tim Smit KBE read Archaeology and Anthropology at Durham University. He worked for ten years in the music industry as a composer/producer in both rock music and opera. In 1987 he moved to Cornwall he and John Nelson together ‘discovered’ and then restored the Lost Gardens of Heligan. Tim remains a Director of the gardens to the present day. He is the Executive Chairman, Eden Regeneration Ltd and Founding Director of the Award winning Eden Project near St Austell in Cornwall, as well as being a Trustee, Patron and Board Member of a number of statutory and voluntary bodies both locally and nationally. Tim has received a variety of national awards including The Royal Society of Arts Albert Medal (2003). In 2002 he was awarded an Honorary CBE in the New Year’s Honours List and in January 2011 he was appointed an honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. This appointment was made substantive in June 2012 when he became a British Citizen. Tim has received Honorary Doctorates and Fellowships from a number of Universities, and was voted ‘Great Briton of 2007’ in the Environment category of the Morgan Stanley Great Britons Awards. He is the author of books about both Heligan and Eden, and he has contributed to publications on a wide variety of subjects.

Neil Ferguson is Director of the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling and the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit for Modelling Methodology. He uses mathematical and statistical models to investigate the processes shaping infectious disease pathogenesis, evolution and transmission. His recent work has focused on the use of models as contingency planning tools for emerging human infections (notably Ebola and pandemic influenza), bioterrorist threats and livestock outbreaks, though he also undertakes research on the dynamics and control of vector-borne diseases (dengue, yellow fever and malaria) and pathogen evolution. He was educated at Oxford University where he also undertook postdoctoral research, then held a readership at the University of Nottingham before moving to Imperial College. Neil is a Senior Investigator of the National Institute of Health Research, a Fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and received an OBE for his work on the 2001 UK foot and mouth disease epidemic. He advises the UK and US governments, WHO and the EU on emerging infections and modelling.


Alexander Bentley is a Professor and former Head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol. Among his many research interests are the study of decision-making and the spread of behaviours, both historically and in the online age. His recent work has sought to understand the dynamics of collective decisions by using discrete choice theory and social influence to model statistical patterns in big data. Bentley has used similar analyses to understand cultural evolution across longer time scales in historical and archaeological data. He also studies how the emotional content of books and online media contains information about past socio-economic conditions. A recent book, I’ll Have What She’s Having: mapping social behaviour was published in 2011 by MIT Press.


Tony Juniper is a campaigner, writer, sustainability adviser and a well-known British environmentalist. For more than 25 years he has worked for change toward a more sustainable society at local, national and international levels. 
He currently works as a Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, having previously worked (2008-2010) as a Special Advisor with the Prince’s Rainforests Project. He is a Fellow with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), and a founder of The Robertsbridge Group, which provides advice to major companies on how best to meet ambitious sustainability goals. In November 2012 he was named as the first President of the Society for the Environment.

He is a Trustee of several organisations including Fauna and Flora International, Ecologist-Resurgence magazine and the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. He is the chair of the Advisory Board to the Industry campaign Action for Renewables. He is also an ambassador for the National Trust's vision to restore a large area of Cambridgeshire wetlands around Wicken Fen. He works as an Associate with the Economic consultancy Indepen and is an advisor to the Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance. 

A frequent speaker on environmental and sustainability questions, Juniper also writes extensively and contributes to a wide range of publications. His book What has Nature ever done for us? was published in January 2013 and won several awards including a gold in the US Independent Publishers’ 2013 Living Now Book Awards. The sequel What Nature Does For Britain was published in February 2015. He has authored and co-authored several publications including Harmony with the Prince of Wales and Ian Skelly (2010), Saving planet Earth (2007), How many lightbulbs does it take to change a planet? (2007) and Spix's Macaw: the race to save the world's rarest bird (2002). From 2009 to 2012 he was the Editor-in-Chief of GREEN magazine.

He worked with the Wildlife Trusts and then Birdlife International before joining the staff of Friends of the Earth in 1990, where he was widely recognised for his work in elevating the profile of environmental issues. From 2003 to 2008 he was the organization's director in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and from 2008 he was also elected Vice Chair of the 70-strong network of national organisations that comprise Friends of the Earth International.

Robert Barton is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, founder of Durham’s Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group, and has been President of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association. He studied Psychology and Zoology at Bristol University and his subsequent research interests have been at the intersection of evolutionary biology, psychology and cognitive neuroscience. His PhD was on the behaviour of wild baboons, but these days he works mainly on the evolutionary biology of the brain. He was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College Oxford in 2011, participating in an international interdisciplinary project on human cognitive evolution, and has recently held a Leverhulme Fellowship to write a book on ‘Rethinking the Brain: an evolutionary approach’.

Additional Information

There are multiple tipping points in the complex systems that we inhabit. Their causal factors link micro and macrocosmic scales, short and long-term temporal frames, and human and material events. A shift in ocean currents might be linked to anthropogenic changes in climate and temperature; an outburst of social unrest may emerge from pressures on material resources; or radical changes in ideas and values. The idea of tipping points is now widespread in culture, politics and science: is this because it contains a fundamental truth about the nature of change, or merely because it is a catchy metaphor? 

Tipping points potentially occur in all systems: ecological, financial, social and political. They can be intensely negative: ecosystems undergo sudden changes to which their inhabitants cannot adapt; economic systems collapse. They can be positive, leading to beneficial systems of governance, or less risky behaviours: for example the regulation of the financial sector in response to a banking crisis. It is often the prospect of tipping points in climate, in resource availability, or in political equilibrium, that spurs societies’ efforts to imagine and initiate different futures. Activists across the political spectrum – religious leaders, conservationists, free-market aficionados, management ‘gurus’ – employ the concept of tipping points in promoting change. Thus the proponents of de-growth economics hope to tip the balance of dominant ideas and replace growth-based economic modes with more sustainable practices; counter-movements concerned with social justice hope to induce shifts towards democracy.

Tipping points are both intriguing and frightening. Societies’ capacities to anticipate them may be critical in avoiding catastrophes. But predicting them has proved elusive: it is necessary to consider causal factors in a range of areas, and on different scales, and to understand how these interact. Research on tipping points therefore requires an interdisciplinary approach which brings together social and environmental processes and elucidates the relationships between them. Drawing on Durham University’s Tipping Points research, and as part of the IAS’s 2014/15 research theme, Emergence, the IAS panel will discuss the dynamics of tipping points and their effects.

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