An entrepreneur, a visionary and counter-current thinker, Philippe Barre invested his entire fortune in the Darwin ecosystem project in Bordeaux. It is a unique location with 20 000m2 dedicated to eco-creative activities with a business incubator, co-working space, an organic restaurant, an urban farm, a nautical club and much more.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Bordeaux on the other side of the river in Ambarès-et-Lagrave between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers. That’s where I developed a profound attachment to “the river”as an older generation used to say. Then, when I was 4, my parents and I moved to Arcachon.
What did you dream of becoming?
When I was little I wanted to be a hairdresser but that didn’t last long…then I decided I wanted to be an archeologist. At 13, I went to an archeology camp and hated it because I couldn’t keep what I found. Later, I wanted to become an architect but I wasn’t good enough in school so I decided I wanted to be a designer.
Where did you go to school?
After graduating from high school, I went to Bordeaux. I tried a few preparatory classes like “Sciences Po” (political science) and “Tech de Co” (business) but they didn’t work out. So I left for Boston to study marketing but a year later I was too home sick. I came home to study fine arts but I didn’t like it at all.
That’s an eclectic selection!
Yes, it is…but I started lots of things and finished nothing. I wasn’t cut out for studying in France. However, I loved it in the States. Especially collective work. The teachers there don’t judge you like they do in France. They accept all kinds of individuals, from different backgrounds whereas in France you have to fit into a standard format and I was anything but that.
Is that when you went into business for yourself?
Yes, at 23, with my cousin and my buddy, we created Inoxia, a multimedia agency. That’s what it was called back then in ’95. It was the very beginning of the internet revolution and we were part of the pioneers in France.
And yet you were the opposite of the quintessential start-up…
Yes. Our offices were in the countryside, in Amabarès, far from the fancy buildings of Bordeaux city-center. At that time, new economy start-ups in Bordeaux all hung world clocks on their walls with the time in Bordeaux, Sydney, New-York, Tokyo… as a reaction to that, we hung the time in Ambarès-et-Lagrave, Knokke-Le-Zoute et Palavas-les-Flots (tiny local villages) with the same time on all three clocks. We didn’t work on the assumption that we were “going to make millions”. We had a far more frugal approach. We didn’t overheat the offices in winter but wore thicker sweaters. In summer, we didn’t have air-conditioning, so we sometimes worked in our boxers.
“When I’d leave the door open, my grandmother used to say “you’re heating the street”.”
Was it about being financially or ecologically frugal?
Both. I’ve always been eco-minded for various reasons. First, because I come from a family whose values are deeply rooted in farming culture and the countryside. My grandmother used to say “you’re heating the street” when I’d leave the door open. At the time, it was for financial reasons, not the environment. She came from a generation that had lived through the war, so they were careful with what they had, like most of our grandparents.
And then, I discovered ecology at 9 years old during a trip to Germany, where I felt ashamed to be French. I discovered sorting trash in the family kitchen. I still have that image in my head today. There was paper and cardboard piled up in one container, cans cleaned, rinsed and sorted neatly in another and glass bottles lined up… It left a mark. I felt like I was part of a backwards culture, that we weren’t modern at all.
And finally there was surfing. When Tom Curren launched the Surfrider Foundation, as a surfer myself it was natural to be part of the association. I’ve also been a member of Green Peace for several years.
How did you go from your own business to Darwin?
I felt stifled at our Inoxia offices and I wanted to create a project incubator that would foster sustainability, environmental and social issues within companies. I needed around 1500 m2, around 400 m2 for Inoxia and the rest to house companies and NGOs that would share our values. I had found several options, the Niel barracks being one of them but the city of Bordeaux had just purchased it and was planning on tearing the whole thing down.
How did it all come together?
In 2008, Bordeaux was a candidate for European City of the year in 2013 and suggested that we carry out our “green business center” project at the Niel barracks. We weren’t part of the key projects presented and yet Bob Scott, the President of the jury told Alain Juppé (Mayor of Bordeaux) that although he didn’t know whether Bordeaux would be selected to win or not, he did believe that Darwin was the best project he had seen among all the other projects from all the other cities. That is how Mayor Juppé decided to support us from the start. He knew he had to let us do our thing and that our project truly had a future.
“I’ve always believed in strength in numbers.”
Why did you decide to settle down in a location where you share the premises with others?
I’ve always believed in strength in numbers and that sharing is more cost effective. When we launched Inoxia, we started in what had been an old gym. We slept there in our rooms, there was a locker room, a kitchen counter, a ping pong table and fuss-ball. It was more than just an office. Soon after, some friends of ours set up their own company and naturally started squatting with us. It was a hub, so we immediately and naturally wound up with a hyper-collective model.
What is the first thing you did at the barracks?
The first thing we did was to open the skatepark in 2010. We used “positive transgression”, meaning that we didn’t actually have authorization but we did it anyway because we thought it was a good thing to do. Today the Darwin skatepark is the biggest skate club in France with 2500 members. Had we waited for all the authorization paperwork to go through before starting, we wouldn’t have done anything and Darwin wouldn’t exist today. You should never hesitate to act. He who dares wins!
You invested all your savings in this project. Was it a crazy bet or a calculated risk?
It was definitely a risk. I didn’t have the money needed to do what we did and have today. But it was always a calculated and reasonable risk.
How did you find the rest of the necessary funding for the project?
I invested all my money to finance the initial engineering, working with consulting firms, architects…Then, I founded an investment fund called “Archipel” to acquire the land and get a bank loan. I went out and met with CEOs and company managers offering them the opportunity of investing in a socially responsible investment fund rather than investing in the stock market. Thanks to “Archipel” we were able to borrow 10 million euros and save the barracks from being torn down.
How many entities now share the space at Darwin?
We have 150 companies, which is over 400 people who work here. It is mostly small companies or freelancers with 2 to 5 employees, representing a total combined turnover of 60 million Euros.
How do you select the companies that wish to set up offices at Darwin?
There is a specific mindset you need to have. You have to accept to share, to go along with more frugality and saving energy. We monitor energy consumption of our companies including water consumption and mobility, which allows everyone to see what the overall energy consumption is at Darwin.
Any advice to encourage companies to invest in sustainability?
We need to be more responsible. We need to stop thinking that everything should come from the government, or from others. Responsibility comes first and foremost from within. We need to push CSR, environmental and cultural boundaries as much as we can, regardless of what country, region, neighborhood or even building we are in. If you don’t change your perspective now, 20 years from now you won’t exist.
“We need to go outside our comfort zones as regularly as possible.”
What is an innovative company for you?
It is a company that accepts to no longer own everything, a company that accepts to share and no longer think in terms of possessing. I believe in cross-disciplinary and hybrid activities. We need to constantly adapt and refuse comfort because it is be the death of us. We need to go outside our comfort zones as regularly as possible. That is the key to being innovative. Adapting and rebounding.
Many companies in Action Sports have chosen to refocus on their core fundamentals and values. Do you think that is a good thing?
If it’s real, yes. I despise the hypocrisy that certain brands put forth relative to their responsibility to kids. We need to have real values, respect nature, respect others and quit localism. We have to learn to share our passion and sport. I was in the water in Guéthary on Sunday morning and was surprised to see that at a spot like Parlementia there is a certain respect that the older generation imposes and that I found very healthy. I believe we need to be inspired by that sort of thing.
People often ask you to go make another Darwin elsewhere. Are you tempted?
Certainly not. We managed to create this project here because this is where we are. I have a tendency to think that we are but a component in a free living worldwide software of urban renewal. I found inspiration from other locations like Lisbon, Berlin, San Francisco, the UK, and Danemark to implement what we have here. Dali said “there is no creation without copy”. I want people to come here and find inspiration to then go and build their own project and not just do a copy and paste.
We started a nautical club “Les marins de la lune” (Sailors of the moon) at the Garonne shipyard site. It used to be a shipyard that we are now trying to reactivate with a boardsports project based on green nautical sports. But hush! I can’t say anymore about it for the moment.
– Darwin –