Release the future

On a recent trip to Berlin we visited the Zoo. When you have a child of 3 years 11 months in tow it seems a sensible thing to do. I hadn’t been to a proper large scale zoo since my childhood and Berlin’s is world famous.  I was really looking forward to it.

We walked around in temperatures just above zero. We saw a whole host of animals that looked in despair at their confines. A rhino running up to each of the walls of his pen in turn, a leopard roaring up and down from one side of his cage to the other and a polar bear that was simply standing, staring. 


Some of the giants of the animal kingdom simply reduced to biding time in an environment far from ideally suited to them.

We spent quite a time in the monkey enclosure.

When I watched the new version of Planet of the Apes I was stunned at the time at how much they had managed to make the ‘apes’ look like they had emotions.

During our time in the zoo I watched a family of ‘apes’ play together in their small confined space, attempt to explore further and be frustrated in doing so. Their eyes looked alive and sad. I felt sad. They have real emotions. This wasn’t where they belonged.

In the bird enclosure we could see birds that had been flown in from South America. Instead of splendid and bright they looked docile and dull. My daughter explained, unprompted, that she didn’t like the birds being kept in cages as they couldn’t fly properly. It made her sad.

I don’t have an educated position on animal rights and I’m not an expert on zoo design. I said to my daughter that when she grows up I don’t think they will have zoos like this anymore, because they won’t want to take animals from their homes unless they will be happier in the zoo.

I remarked to my wife that the modern zoo felt like an absolute anachronism. If you had never heard of the concept of a zoo and I showed you a monkey and told you i) I was going to take it from its natural habitat ii) I’ll keep it in a cage iii) I’ll do that simply for our entertainment then that would sound barbaric. The zoo is a hangover from a past age, where we collected wonders of the world in one place so people could be amazed at their existence. We now know better and, whilst The Discovery Channel isn’t a straight substitute for the real thing, it is surely more acceptable.

The Berlin Zoo fails the beermat test. If it wasn’t invented and I sketched the idea on a beermat whilst we were chatting in a pub you wouldn’t think it made sense. You might create conservation areas and animal sanctuaries and all sorts of things like that – but not the old fashioned zoo.

Much of the modern world fails the beermat test. If it wasn’t in place there is no way that you would design it that way.

I’m not an anarchist in the workplace and I don’t think I qualify as an idealist. I’m pretty pragmatic but I do principles. Going into the New Year I’d ask people to think how much of their company structure, customer experience and ways of working would fail the beermat test. If you designed it from scratch is that what you’d do?

If it isn’t, then just sit down with a few people in the New Year, work out what you would do and do it.

It makes more sense than your workplace becoming something that you couldn’t sensibly explain to a child. If it is only like that because of the past – and won’t be like that in the future – surely it is what you should be changing in the present.


9 thoughts on “Release the future

  1. Can’t beat a story to highlight the need to always be curious and question why we do things a certain way.
    On a practical zoo point, I’d definitely agree with the recommendations. I’ve never been to an overseas zoo that comes close to what we do in the UK (says the worldwide zoo expert?!!!)


  2. London Zoo, who also run Whipsnade and Bristol all work to help endangered species, they are working zoos and very caring about their animals.
    They are working very closely with many animal projects around the world, which is what zoos are supposed to be about, they only let people in to help raise money to pay for their work.


    1. Hi Nigel, it’s been really nice to hear people being so positive about UK zoos. My observations were based on the one trip to Berlin, and as I mentioned, I think zoos created with the intent of preserving species, providing sanctuary etc would still pass the beermat test. David


  3. San Diego zoo is amazing! It’s inside Balboa Park which is a beautiful space with art galleries and museums galore. If I sketched Balboa Park in all its glory on a beermat, you’d love it I think. Your trip to Berlin zoo reminds me a little of London Zoo, which I don’t recall being up to much. I hope you enjoyed the trip, zoo notwithstanding. Love the beermat idea.


  4. A food for thought there. This piece extends beyond the zoo to other areas of life especially the workplace. We should begin to think of better ways of doing our work. It shouldnt be ‘this is the way we have been doing it’. We should be receptive to change.


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