Be the Einstein of Social Ideas

| March/April 2002

Get ready to play.
Like other types of creativity, social inventiveness flourishes when you begin thinking outside conventional boundaries. Charlie Girsch, a St. Paul, Minnesota–based creativity consultant, suggests that you start by playing with obviously absurd explanations for everyday events. "If traffic is slow, you’ll be tempted to say, ‘Hmm. Must be an accident up ahead.’ Instead, try saying, ‘Must be a family of turtles crossing the highway’ or ‘I expect there’s some kind of alien abduction going on.’ You’ll be amazed how soon you will be looking at familiar problems in new ways." Girsch’s book, Fanning the Creative Spirit (Creativity Central, 1999), has scores of other exercises for limbering up the inventive part of your brain.

Generate a zillion
far-fetched ideas.
Concerned about the homeless in your neighborhood? Imagine a Homeless Parliament, a Homeless Circus, homeless families forming an orchestra, a homelessness museum . . . and on and on. Generate like mad with no regard for feasibility in order, as social invention pioneer Nicholas Albery advises, to "overcome worthy-but-dull ideas." Eventually the two or three best ideas will begin to stand out.

Take your wildest idea and
bring it down to earth.
How about that Homeless Circus? Could it turn into a forum for homeless people to display their creative talents? A performance series about homelessness? A neighborhood carnival with the homeless as guests of honor? Your flakiest idea may have a germ of brilliance that actually makes it more attractive, and thus more feasible (and fundable), than its worthy-but-dull cousins.

Look for inventions that solve
more than one problem.
The Slow Food Movement, born in Italy, boosts local farmers and regional cuisine traditions and restaurateurs at the same time that it "feeds" our hunger for authentic tastes, healthy eating, and a more leisurely, saner style of life.

Accentuate the positive.
"A very common question that I get when I work with people in communities is ‘Why doesn’t anybody care about our problems?’" notes Michael Patterson, a social inventor and activist in Massachusetts. "What a worthless question. ‘Why?’ questions are for philosophers. Ask ‘How?’ and ‘What?’ questions—they are a lot more practical." For instance, Patterson asks, "What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?"

Give it a rest.
Walk away from your favorite idea for a while, forget about it, let it sleep. With your conscious mind out of the way, your subconscious gets to fiddle with the concept for a while, and you just might have an unexpected insight or breakthrough.

Practice "yes and"
instead of "yes but."
No matter how tempted you are to say "Yes, but this will be hard because," or "Yes, but a million other people are doing this," shift the conjunction to "and" and see what sort of positive refinement or change emerges. "Yes, and we could concentrate on immigrants." "Yes, and we can make it open to all ages."

Get your idea into the world.
This is the tough part. Charlie Girsch points out that a social invention that is aligned with a social movement has a better chance of coming to birth than one that isn’t. You might seek out the help of activists who will take a shine to your ideas. Or become an organizer yourself. Paul Glover, the social inventor behind the Ithaca Hours alternative currency system in Ithaca, New York, counsels: "If you have an idea you believe in, write a pamphlet with your phone number on it and post it in Laundromats and bookstores. If three people call you, have lunch with them and call yourselves an organization. If five more people call, meet with them and issue a press release." Presto, you’re launched.

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