Be the Einstein of Social Ideas

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.

Jon Spayde is a contributing editor of Utne Reader.

Wanted: Your Great Idea
The most important ideas aren’t conceived in well-funded think tanks or lavish corporate offices. That’s the message of the emerging social inventions movement. They believe that people from all walks of life can use their creativity to change the world. And so do we. That’s why Utne Reader is offering a $500 prize for the best idea to improve life on planet Earth–any interesting innovation that enhances the world in ways large or small. (Please remember we are seeking social inventions, not new gadgets or technological breakthroughs.) We will publish some of the great ideas in a future issue, and forward all suggestions to the Institute for Social Inventions in London.
Entries should be submitted to Great Ideas at Utne Reader, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403 or

[technology section, linked to above article]
Social Inventor’s Toolbox

 Institute for Social Inventions
ISI’s Web site contains, among other things, descriptions of all the social inventions published in the institute’s books. 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA, UK; phone: 44-020-8208-2853; fax: 44-20-8452-6434

Web sites
Norwegian idea bank, modeled on ISI but listing only social inventions that have been put into place, mostly in Scandinavia. Less quirky and exciting than ISI, but more real-world.

A provocative site of mostly ecology-oriented social and technical inventions.

New Civilization
A very comprehensive site covering ecological, holistic, and spiritual culture, including many links to futurist and social-inventions sites.

The Book of Visions: An Encyclopedia of Social Innovations
A 1992 collection, edited by Albery, of great ideas from the Institute for Social Inventions. Loompanics, Box 1197, Port Townsend, WA 98368;

Fanning the Creative Spirit
By Maria Girsch and Charlie Girsch.
One of the wittiest and most useful books available for releasing creative potential–right now. Creativity Central, 684 Lincoln Avenue, Saint Paul, MN 55105;
The World’s Greatest Ideas:
An Encyclopedia of Social Inventions Edited by Nicholas Albery, Retta Bowen, Nicholas Temple, and Stephanie Wienrich (New Society Publishers, 2001). Select compilation of ideas gathered by the ISI, including the last contributions from Albery before
his death last June. $18.95 from or 800/

Newsletters and Magazines
Bioneers Letter
A biannual newsletter focusing
on innovative work in agriculture, environmental science, and natural health. $35 membership includes
2 issues, from 901 W San Mateo Rd., Suite L, Santa Fe, NM 87505;

In this bimonthly publication,
the emphasis is on technical innovations for sustainability–but a social idea or two can be found here, too. $10 from Foundation for Global Community, 222 High St., Palo Alto, CA 94301;

Whole Earth
“Access to tools, ideas, and practices” is the slogan of this magazine, descended from the venerable Whole Earth catalogs. Not much purely social invention, but a lot of inventiveness. $24 (4 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834;

Yes! A Journal of
Positive Futures
“Good news” stories from the
frontiers of sustainability and
spirituality. $24 (6 issues) from
Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110;

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.