An Advocate of Slow

An interview with writer and ambassador of the Slow Movement Carl Honoré by Maria Jurkina

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An interview with Carl Honoré

An interview by Maria Jurkina

As Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen said: ‘It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place’. It is a brave step to take a break, to walk slowly in the era of constantly increasing tempo. Here, we discuss the practice of slowing down with a popular speaker and writer on the goals and outcomes of this movement, and why is it becoming more and more popular.

Carl Honoré is a Canadian journalist, writer and TED speaker. He is a globetrotting ambassador for the Slow Movement. Two of his books ‘In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed’ and ‘The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter and Live Better in a Fast World’ became international bestsellers. The Wall Street Journal called him ‘an in-demand spokesman on slowness’.
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What is the Slow Movement?

It is a cultural revolution against the idea that faster is always better. Slow is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.

You don’t have to quit your job, move to the country and grow organic carrots to join the Slow movement. You can be Slow anywhere because Slow is a state of mind. It is like changing a chip inside your head.

What is the origin of the Slow Movement?

People have been defending the value of slowness for at least 200 years — think of the Romantics, or the Transcendentalists or even the hippies. But the idea of a Slow movement, which seeks to blend fast and slow to help people work, live and play better in the modern world is more recent. Born in Italy in the early 1990s, the Slow Food movement helped recapture the word ‘slow’ as something positive, but they concentrate on food. More recently, Slow has become a universal label to explain the benefits of doing everything at the right speed: sex, work, education, exercise, et cetera.

What is the actual origin of this movement?

The Slow movement has grown faster and bigger than I could have ever imagined. When I first thought of calling the cultural change that I saw around us the Slow Movement, I entered this into Google and got zero web pages. Today you enter ‘Slow Movement’ and you get 1.2 million hits. There are now movements for Slow Travel, Slow Design, Slow Copywriting, Slow Science, Slow Parenting, Slow Education, Slow Houses, Slow Research, Slow Parks, Slow Libraries, Slow Art, Slow Fashion and the list goes on and on. Even people you would never expect to embrace Slow are doing so. IBM has launched a Slow Email movement. And there is even a strong Slow Fashion movement. I am regularly contacted by students who are devoting their university thesis to some aspect of Slow, whether it be in Design, Urbanism, Travel, Medicine, et cetera. In 2011, La Foire de Paris chose ‘Slow Time’ as its official theme. The whole fair was infused with Slow ideas and aesthetics, and it got massive media coverage.

You don’t have to quit your job, move to the country and grow organic carrots to join the Slow movement

The most exciting thing is that more and more people are putting the Slow idea into practice every day and in every walk of life. Every day, I get emails from readers around the world telling me how slowing down has change their lives, their careers, their families, their companies.

And this is the key: by telling stories about how slowing down works, the movement is helping other people take the same step. We are all scared to decelerate, so it gives us confidence to see others doing so and reaping the benefits.

You mentioned urbanism. What are Slow solutions on the city scale?

The first problem is the mentality of people living in the city. Our cities are built for cars, which are agents of speed. They do not leave enough room for nature. We have so much speed and fuss and clatter around us, especially in big cities, how to keep it outside and not to bring it inside?

The first step in any city is always to change the mentality of the people. Rushing does not always get you there more quickly – often you just reach the next red light first; and your journey becomes stressful and unpleasant. In theory you can be Slow anywhere – a tiny village north of the Arctic Circle or in downtown Helsinki. But of course it is more difficult in a big city.

So, where to start with changing settlements?

Very big question. I think wherever possible you want to encourage people to live near their work. That can mean building more mixed use neighbourhoods with residential and commercial property. It can also mean harnessing the technology to permit staff to work long-​distance.

I think the traditional suburb (houses all clustered together but no shops, businesses etc, so everyone has to drive everywhere for everything) is now a dead model. In fact, you’re already seeing people fleeing the suburbs in North America. Where are they going? Many are going back to the city centres so they can live in greater density and not need a car for everything.

As a general rule, I think commuting makes it hard to be Slow. You waste so much time, it’s exhausting, and bad for the environment. Much better to have people living in a network of self-​contained little communities complete with shops, workplaces, schools and homes, but to have those communities linked together. Sometimes, a lot of them to make up a city; other times, fewer to create a town, and, sometimes, linked mainly via technology.

Decentralizing is much better for the environment, for quality of life and often for productivity too

I think all countries need to resist the tendency for all the jobs to congregate in one area – decentralizing is much better for the environment, for quality of life and often for productivity too.

How to reach this harmony? Can you give any examples of Slow projects?

That’s where urban design comes in. Big cities are starting to take steps to help people slow down. Here in London, for instance, the mayor has introduced a network of 6,000 public bicycles docked all round the city. This allows people to cycle instead of drive, and has changed the feeling on the roads – cars are less inclined to feel they can drive as fast as they like. Paris and many other cities have done the same thing. Britain also made entry free to all its museums and art galleries and that creates wonderful oases for slow contemplation in the middle of London and other cities. Cities everywhere are creating more green spaces and making room for farmers’ markets where people can buy slow food. Lots of cities are closing roads to traffic on weekends to allow people to walk, rollerblade, cycle and play in the streets unmolested by cars. Cities are also trying to vary opening hours for public services so people can do bits of bureaucracy or see a doctor without having to rush to do so before 5 pm. Some cities are staggering school times so that not everyone is arriving to or leaving school at the same time, thus easing congestion. The list is long.

Copenhagen is a fine example of a slow city. It puts a huge emphasis on cycling and walking. It also has lots of green spaces and public art. The Danes work relatively short hours and quality of life is a top priority.

I’m also a big fan of the bike-​sharing or bike-​rental systems that are popping up in cities all over the world. This gets more people cycling and changes the dynamic in the streets.

Book cover

In Paradise of slow” by Carl Honoré

How does the Slow Movement affect the use of technology and vice versa?

There are more and more examples. The Kit Kat campaign to set up No Wi-​Fi zones taps into the same vibe. A programmer in Barcelona recently unveiled a video game where players can only make one move per day. The idea is to slow people down and foster reflection. Many travel apps supply local information so that travellers can move beyond off-​the-​shelf tourism to get to know the culture and people of the places they visit in a deeper, slower way. There are also many apps now that help people to meditate.

These days, everyone is jumping on the Slow bandwagon – even those who don’t really belong there. Many brands are now using the language of Slow to sell us stuff. Audi launched a sedan in Britain a few years ago under the slogan: ‘The slowest car we’ve ever built’. And they didn’t mean their new sedan would struggle to overtake a Lada on the highway. They meant: ‘We built this car with care and attention’. They really meant: ‘The best car we’ve ever built’.

The Orange telephone network ran a campaign saying ‘Good things happen when your phone is switched off.’ Not an act of commercial suicide: they know we will always use our phones. But Orange wanted to link itself to the growing desire people have to unplug from technology so the can slow down, enjoy the moment and connect with other people in a way that is deeper and more meaningful than a text message.

Everyone is jumping on the Slow bandwagon – even those who don’t really belong there

In a similar vein, Haagen Dazs recently launched a new line of ice creams in Spain. You have to take the ice cream out of the freezer and wait 12 minutes for the centre to soften and for the flavours to develop. And the advertising campaign made a virtue of slowing down and waiting for that perfect moment of pleasure.

So Slow became trendy?

The danger is that companies and brands use ‘Slow’ to sell products and services that have nothing to do with the Slow philosophy. This is inevitable. And some are already stretching the link with Slow to breaking point. One example: last year, the world’s first Slow Mall opened in downtown Santiago, Chile.

But I think people are intelligent enough to see through the dishonest use of the Slow creed. And on the positive side: the fact that so many brands are using Slow to market themselves, even if they are not ‘Slow’, it shows just how far this cultural revolution has spread.

It also adds to the chorus in favour of deceleration. Advertising is the wallpaper of our lives, and it usually bombards us with the message that there is never enough time and we have to buy more and more things to help us to do everything faster and faster.

My hope is that introducing even just a few ads that sing the virtues of slowing down makes it easier for us to contemplate putting on the breaks.

How would you imagine an ideal Slow city in 50 to 100 years?

They will be places of tremendous energy but built on a human scale. That means: lots of green space and Nature; a culture of walking and cycling; zero pollution; minimal noise; lots of real-​world spaces for people to come together to work, play, create and chat; a healthy balance between work and leisure; zones that are free of technology.

I’m not a utopian thinker. I don’t think that we will ever get to a place where everyone does everything at exactly the right speed. But I do think we can get to a place where we, at least, could try.