She’s most famous for being a young, striking woman snapped up by the modelling industry at the age of just 14, but British star Lily Cole has spent the last three years working on a very different project.
Cole, 28, has moved on from modelling and launched Impossible, a social platform with a twist: it allows people to help each other for free.
Users on Impossible can ‘wish’ for something – assistance with moving house, a piano teacher or emotional support in a difficult time, say – and others on the platform help them with their time, skills and possessions.
The idea is to create an online gift economy, backed by the idea that relating to others in a way that doesn’t involve money can make us all happier.
Cole with Paul McCartney when he spoke to Impossible users
Cole arrives for our interview with her baby daughter, Wylde, who was born in September to Cole and her partner Kwame Ferreira.
Working part-time now that she is a mother, she is grounded, opinionated and quietly determined – seemingly untouched by the pretentiousness one could expect from someone brought up in modelling and acting.
When Impossible launched in 2013, it was called both groundbreaking and idealistic; descriptions that Cole doesn’t shy away from. “Well, we called it Impossible,” she says, laughing, “so the name kind of gives away the idealism that’s implicit in it. But obviously it’s also a challenge to that idea, because we do believe it’s possible or we wouldn’t be bothering.
“I think it is potentially a bit of both of those things, and I don’t see either of those things as a negative. I think that the internet is quite wonderful because it does offer us the opportunity to create new platforms and do things that change the game a little bit.
“In the big scheme of history, the proposition itself isn’t that groundbreaking, I think it’s quite a simple proposition about community and doing things for others without money involved, [which] is arguably a big part of how the world operates and has operated for thousands of years.”
Impossible – which launched first at the University of Cambridge where Cole studied, and has so far been used in 118 countries – is harnessing technology to better enable this instinctive giving, she says: “There are precedents for it, but not a huge number.”
Some people told her it couldn’t be done, but the project has had much more support than cynicism. “I don’t think it is actually that far fetched, I just think it’s slightly different to what we are kind of encouraged to do all the time. I think there were some early cynics, but there were many more supporters. And I measure that cynicism as a very subjective thing from the people who are being cynical,” she smiles.
“They are always really small gestures,” she says of the wishes that people post on Impossible, one in five of which get fulfilled. “Today I saw a girl had posted a video she had made about struggling with autism, and then we had another girl on the platform who’s got autism and you just see their dialogue around their experiences with it and that’s quite touching.”
Cole herself has used the platform: “I’ve had quite a lot of practical support. I got somebody to help me when I was studying for my driving test, just sitting in a car chatting to me as a legally qualified driver.
“I’ve had piano lessons, the guy who gave me them has been giving other people those on the platform. I let someone who was looking for a piano borrow mine. Someone offered to cook for me, and then that became a friendship and now he’s a friend and we’ve helped them set up a café.
“At the end of it I do feel like I’ve got a little community that I’m part of, of people around London and around the world. They don’t become necessarily your best friends but they become your community. Once I see them post something I’m more inclined to help them, and vice versa, you see the pay-it-forward logic.”
Cole arriving at a party in London
When trying out the platform, I was surprised and moved to find someone whose ‘wish’ was simply for some reassurance. They were struggling with their studies and couldn’t sleep.
I tell Cole about this, and she nods: “The more human and honest something is, the more traction they get from the community.”
Users get rewarded with online ‘thanks’ when they help someone else and can use that thanks as currency to buy things from some on Impossible online partners. This is an idea of social status based on generosity that is also embedded in many societies, Cole says: “If I see somebody and if I go into their profile and I see they’ve got loads of thanks, that immediately endears them to me.”
Impossible has attracted the support of a number of high-profile advisors, including Chelsea Clinton, Tom Uglow from Google’s Creative Lab, branding guru Brian Boylan and Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia who Cole is close friends with.
“He deeply understands what it’s all about and why we’re trying to do it, and how open source technology works and how open source communities work – he’s a good practical and moral backbone to what we’re trying to do.”
Her biography on Wales’s own site, Wikipedia, describes her as a ‘model’ and ‘actress’ before ‘businesswoman’, despite her doing little modelling for almost a decade. This amuses her: “I just find it quite funny actually. I love Wikipedia, and Jimmy’s a very good friend, and I think that it’s brilliantly innovative, but Jimmy would say himself that it has its limitations.
“I think it’s more like a mirror to the collective zeitgeist of the time, and that just indicates that most people don’t see what I’m doing every day of my life, they see an image as opposed to maybe a reality, but it doesn’t really bother me. I get called so many different things, and in campaigns in the past I’ve often asked just to be called human, you know? I’m bored of those labels.”
She feels her fame has been both a help and a hindrance to setting up Impossible. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she replies.
“I feel grateful because I think that it’s been a help, both in terms of being able to get media attention on the project which is obviously important, but also through enabling me to kind of meet people from lots of different fields and build up quite an amazing support network around this, and I’m sure that’s helped because of the industries I work in.
“That said, I think that that help only gets you so far, and most projects that have worked in the past haven’t been backed by a famous person. Having that backing is absolutely no guarantee of success, because the real guarantee of success is if you’re actually providing value, [and] if you have a good product-market fit. It doesn’t matter who’s promoting it; you can’t fake that.
“It helps to an extent but the real kind of value and essence has to exist without me attached.”
At the launch of a short film she starred in for Sky Rainforest Rescue in 2013
Cole has always been ethically conscious – Peta recently named her sexiest vegetarian of the year (“I was proud of that one,” she chuckles.) Through her fashion campaigns as a model, she increasingly aligned herself with brands that she felt were trying to have a positive impact on the word, such as The Body Shop. “That felt a much more comfortable fit for me, so I could kind of still do that kind of work but believe in what I was saying and bring a kind of journalistic aspect to it, not just a photographic aspect.”
“I don’t really do any modeling nowadays, and for the last eight years I’ve actually done very little, but what I tried to do was as I moved away from fashion I became more interested in supply chains and the impact of business, which is kind of what anticipated the work we’re doing now with Impossible.”
I ask her if she’s comfortable using her looks and modeling talent to campaign for good causes. “Um. Yeah I think it’s quite convenient.”
Cole in a Body Shop advert
She does think she could have achieved everything she has done without being a model – “Probably not the campaigning side, because as you said the campaigning’s quite predicated on profile, but in terms of the business I think certainly, because people are founding start-ups all the time without any kind of pre-existing media relationship.”
She came up with the idea for Impossible while on a trip to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border in 2010.
“Me and my friend Kate had the idea on the way over, before we’d got to the refugee camp, so it wasn’t inspired by it. But it was actually quite poignant thinking of looking back on the fact that we had that idea in the context of that trip, because in the camp there was the most amazing sense of community.”
“There is very little money as you can imagine in this camp, and it was very small and the people had rationed supplies, yet without wanting to romanticise it – there was such a sense of community really and happiness that comes from that, from the people we met, in a way that is really subtle and you can’t quantify, so it’s really hard to say ‘Hey guys we’re missing something over here.’
“But I do feel like there’s a kind of wealth in a way that communities like that sometimes have where there is so much financial and material poverty.”
Cole visiting Burmese refugees
Cole thinks the generosity that Impossible inspires could easily be applied to help the current refugee crisis in Europe. “We did a small thing at the height of the crisis a few months ago, asking for donations and got quite a few clothes and objects to donate.”
But longer-term, she’s meeting with refugee organisations and hopes to use the Impossible database to connect people directly with refugees “so that our users can help refugees integrate better into the community and learn English, and maybe seeing what refugees can offer to our community because I think that’s an often overlooked part of the media narrative, how much refugees actually have to give.”
At the moment, Impossible doesn’t fulfill the needs of people who are truly desperate – you won’t see a post from someone who is starving, for example. “I don’t think it’s majorly tapped into that yet,” Cole says, “for a few reasons. Mainly because of the practicalities of if someone’s in really desperate need, them having access to a computer or a smartphone to post is questionable.
“But we have had people in our community posting on behalf of people in desperate need,” she says. “So today, for example, I saw someone post that they wanted donations of coats to give to homeless people.
“I saw a post a while ago from a guy in Manchester who was posting on behalf of a homeless man who lived on his road. It was winter and I guess he was really upset that this guy didn’t have a tent, so he posted if anybody could help get a tent, so I helped get a tent and then we went and gave it to this guy, it was really sweet.”
“The thing I think I’m most proud of is we’ve got an active community using it, two years in, to still kind of go to the site and see people I’m familiar with but also new people constantly appearing and connecting with each other, and connecting with this idea, means a lot.
Impossible has been so far funded through gifts from several individuals, companies and a grant from the British government. It hasn’t yet turned a profit – Cole funds her life through the proceeds from acting work and she, her partner and sister (who also works with Impossible) all work for free.
Being photographed in London
She’s started trialling revenue streams this year for the first time, to try to make the business sustainable. Impossible now has a shop, selling ethical products whose supply chain you can see thanks to a partnership with Provenance, an online tool that shows the story and where a product has been made.
She had to think hard about creating the shop, but is happy with it: “If they want to apply that value set to consumerism they can, and I actually think consumerism is really important and can have a very profound impact on the planet and on people. That kind of speaks to a lot of the work I used to do in fashion.”
She’s also piloting the option for users to pay to subscribe and get an impossible.com email address, on a donation basis “because we want to keep the platform free for everyone”.
Other tweaks include improving the navigation and the site’s wording: “We test different things, like framing it more as giving versus framing it more as asking, and which way we want to position it.”
Cole is excited by the rise of sustainable fashion, which she feels has moved far beyond the cliché of a hemp bag. “It’s extraordinary. I still think we’re in the early days of it, but every week we find new brands that are really trying to operate in a cool way, and I know from having worked on companies like that myself how hard it is to run an business ethically and trying to make it work.”
Cole at a dinner last year while she was pregnant
The Impossible site refers to recording your acts of generosity because “We reckon it’s easier getting a job or a partner or a friend if people know how kind you are,” so could people’s ‘thanks’ profiles be used on CVs, or for job applications? Cole’s eyes light up when I ask about this: “My partner would be so happy to hear you ask that question.”
In some ways, she feels Impossible trying to solve a huge social problem. “I think the problem that I saw in the initial conversation about it was a kind of crippling dependence on one way of trading, i.e. through money. So when you have things like the economic crisis of 2008, whole societies will fall apart when they lose the financial economic stability of the community, and I think that’s actually quite unhealthy, to be so dependent on one means of interacting with each other.
“I think it would be very healthy for us to have an ecosystem of different ways of trading, and interacting with each other, and I think that it would be really healthy to have a more cooperative model on a kind of peer-to-peer, interpersonal level. I think the effect of that would be very, very subtle, but really important.”
Everyone would certainly be happier if they gave more, she says: “You have to remember every time someone gives, someone receives. So our message has been just as much about receiving as it has been about giving. And even that language I find we get a bit handcuffed in, because giving’s been hijacked by everything from Christmas adverts to charity campaigns. Really, it’s just about trading without money being the intermediary.
“And I do actually believe that when you go to communities, and there are lots round the world, who are potentially less financially dependent, or less affluent, who have a more natural ebb and flow of trade between individuals in a community, that brings a lot of happiness and a lot of cohesion and value.”
If that’s so, why don’t we do this more in the UK? She sighs. “I think probably for lots of reasons. I think that there’s no business model around it, so we haven’t had the kind of massive investment in infrastructure and also kind of media campaigns around that type of behaviour that we have had in commercial activities. So it’s kind of a bit overlooked almost.”
“And I also think that as our societies have gotten more complicated. I live in London and have done for most of my life, you meet so many people every day that you have no capacity to absorb all of those people’s information, whereas in an old school community you would not just know the names and faces of people around you but you’d also have a sense of whose generous, who’s not generous, who has what skills to offer, who has what things to borrow.
“I think in our much more alienated atomized society in cities, we’ve just kind of lost that because it’s to hard to compute. What Impossible is questioning is whether computers can do that computing, so we can bring that back.”
She’s enjoying being a mother, a new major focus in her life: “Oh I love it, it’s the best.”
Cole used Impossible last year to share the news that she and Ferreira were expecting their first child, posting a picture of a toy dinosaur next to a post-it note that said: ‘I am having a baby’.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus – an Impossible advisor who Cole visited in Bangladesh to see his work with a system of microcredits for small businesses – calls Cole Miss Impossible, and her boyfriend Mr Impossible.
So naturally when their daughter was born, Cole joked that she was the ‘Impossible baby’, reflecting the fact that she and Ferreira met through the site and their baby “wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for impossible”.
She hopes their child will share their values, but wouldn’t push them upon her. “I wouldn’t want to try and force anything on her, but I believe in trying to live your values, and not that I live them absolutely but I do try and practice what essentially this preaches. So hopefully as a consequence she will sort of by osmosis absorb some of the thinking.”
Impossible is free to use at Impossible.com