The Age of Ingenuity

September 11 gave us the best chance yet to reinvent the future–one idea at a time

Looking around the world today, it’s easy to lose hope. Bloodshed, poverty, and destruction dominate the headlines. There seems little anyone can do to resolve such tragedies. The mightiest forces on earth–armies, corporations, governments–appear overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. What can anybody do to make a difference?

Plenty, according to a small but growing international movement. The first step, say these feisty advocates of something called social inventions, is to stop looking to powerful leaders and large institutions for all the solutions. The best, bravest, most practical ideas often come from people outside the corridors of power. Free from the assumptions imposed by conventional wisdom, they blow fresh air into political and cultural discussions.

Another key point this movement makes is that large problems may best be tackled in small ways. A simple plan to empower African women within their families might accomplish more than a thousand foreign aid initiatives. Encouraging schoolkids to take care of one small patch of planet Earth might launch a green revolution.

Social invention simply means applying human creativity in new ways to solve social problems–something that can be done just as effectively by everyday citizens as by big shots and experts. In this cover story we explore the promise of social inventing, offer tips on how to do it yourself and present real-world examples drawn from the new book The World’s Greatest Ideas: An Encyclopedia of Social Inventions.

–Jay Walljasper

When I interviewed the brilliant Canadian social critic John Ralston Saul for Utne Reader’s 1995 cover story “100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life,” he said something that has only become more illuminating and disturb-ing with the passage of time.

Saul noted how the Greeks of Homer’s time believed that both gods and humans were subservient to fate. What the goddess Ananke, the deity of necessity, decreed was sure to happen, and there was nothing mortals or even the gods could do about it. But this all changed, Saul explained, with the rise of Athens. By building a great city and inventing many of the linchpins of our civilization, the Athenians proved the power of human ingenuity to make life better. People, for the first time in Western history, were put in charge of creating their own future.

Yet in our own day Ananke has returned, Saul said, and she is more powerful than ever. We call her the market, technology, or globalization. Our ideas and wishes as individual humans have become too petty to matter, particularly if they run counter to the will of this new Ananke . You will be digital, privatized, and obedient to the modern economy, she imperiously decrees, or you will be nothing.

During the boom at century’s end, worship of this new goddess reached hysterical levels. Then came the high-tech bust, the economic downturn, and the World Trade Center inferno, which–as commentators told us hourly–“changed everything.”

Has everything changed since September 11? No. But Americans have responded to the tragedy in creative and deeply felt ways. We gathered together to mourn and think, struggling to find a response that felt just, realistic, and honorable. We began to ask basic questions about what a society needs to become in order to survive in this perilous time. Most significant of all, we remembered that we are actors in the great drama of history, not sleeping passengers on the runaway train of global fate.

I believe that the terrible events of recent months have opened a window through which we can again grasp our birthright as human beings: to use our heads and hearts and hands to change the world according to our inborn sense of what humans need. We’ve got a chance to parlay that post-9/11 soul searching into a whole new relationship with our world.

Of course, many of us already do what we can to make a better world. We recycle, we shop and invest responsibly, we contribute to causes, work in campaigns, read to the blind, serve in soup kitchens. We’re social contributors, social sustainers, social activists.But the time has come to become social inventors.

Social inventors take a step beyond doing the right thing and try a creative new thing. They devise exciting ways for people to thrive together in their communities. They go out to–and beyond–the edge of what’s considered possible. They float all sorts of wild ideas, then work a few of them into reality, step by step. To the tough, honorable struggle for a better world they add a flash of creative fire. They’re people from every walk of life with clear eyes, sharp minds, and a willingness to turn ideas of society upside down long enough to come up with something brilliant and helpful–or just helpful.

Social inventors almost never be-come as famous or as wealthy as the creators of new technologies and consumer products, but they change our lives whether we know who they are or not. When a newly sober stockbroker named Bill Wilson sat at the bedside of an apparently hopeless lush named Bob Smith in an Akron, Ohio, hospital in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was born, and with it the whole 12-step approach to personal change. Community radio–independent broadcasting that promotes cultural diversity and off-the-mainstream opinion–was born in the brain of 23-year-old Lewis Hill as he worked in a conscientious objectors’ camp during World War II. In the puritanical Britain of 1953, a clergyman named Chad Varah, troubled by the suicide of a young girl who had mistaken her first period for a venereal disease, braved attacks on his motives and morals to set up the first crisis hot line, a phone number that young people could call with troubling questions.

Social inventors are at work all over the world, now more than ever. In 1999 Trond Sigvaldsen of Stavanger, Norway, excited his neighbors with the idea of turning their street into an open-air living room, complete with benches, tables, a pergola, potted plants, and a flag that’s raised on residents’ birthdays. This welcoming, lively block has become a Stavanger attraction. In Brazil, ex-juvenile offender and convict Roberto da Silva’s plan for community control of prisons has been given a governmental go-ahead. Plans call for construction of 30 small, humane prisons–rechristened “resocialization centers”–to be administered by boards of ordinary citizens.

These ideas–and many, many more–are among the riches between the covers of The World’s Greatest Ideas: An Encyclopedia of Social Inventions (New Society Publishers), a new collection of inspired suggestions from around the world, gathered by the nonprofit Institute for Social Inventions (ISI) in London.

The ISI provokes and promotes social ingenuity with an accent on community building, sustainability, and small-scale endeavors. A considerable social invention in its own right, ISI is the brainchild of the late Nicholas Albery, a charismatic Oxford dropout who dropped in to the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene (see sidebar on page 60), then returned home to become an alternative journalist, social activist, and leader of London’s counterculture. He died last June in an auto accident.

Since 1985, ISI has been gathering ideas: everything from sober, policy-oriented plans to flaky flashes of inspiration. Staffers scour both alternative and mainstream media, while scads more ideas arrive by mail and e-mail–in response to an open invitation on ISI’s Web site (www.globalideasbank

.org). The ideas involve everything from an apprentice program that connects young workers with “masters” in their field to a suggestion for a Web archive where scientists can record their experiences of the holy.

The Institute for Social Inventions is part of a broader global network of social inventors, made up of think tanks and “idea banks” in Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, and Catalonia. “The vast majority of submitted ideas come from ‘ordinary’ people,” says Nicholas Temple, an editor at ISI. “Everyone from retired TV directors to frustrated accountants–who always say the same thing: ‘I may be an accountant, but I’m creative and interesting.'” Right there is a key to the ISI approach: empowering all kinds of people to think and dream about changing the world, or at least one small part of it.

It also may be the best way to solve problems. Most professional groups and bureaucracies, though they’re crammed with experts, are just about the last places on earth from which you can expect real social invention to come. Nonexperts can see things that professionals can’t see.

(But let’s be honest: not all social inventions are for the betterment of humanity. Slavery, concentration camps, and chain letters also qualify as bona fide social inventions. But so do the ways we have overcome major problems, such as the abolitionist movement or human rights activism.)

If some of the amateur schemes that ISI welcomes seem a bit dotty, well, that’s part of the plan too. “Something Nicholas [Albery] always said to us,” recalls Temple, “was that the best ideas are often the ones that seem completely pie-in-the-sky, but which, brought down to earth, were possible and retained that original spark of innovation.” You can put in that category Blindekuh (Blind Cow), a restaurant in Zurich that employs blind waiters. So far, so good–a good-hearted, offbeat scheme to help the handicapped. But add the fact that the diners are served in total darkness, and you have a social invention that helps the sighted “see” what it’s like to be blind–plus a sensory-enhancement-by-deprivation experiment that highlights the aroma and the taste of the food and emphasizes good talk over looking good. (The restaurant has a four-month waiting list.)

Among the Albery-inspired ideas that ISI has worked to realize is the Natural Death Centre, which helps people plan inexpensive, environmentally friendly funerals and burials in woodlands rather than cemeteries. Among those who have been buried according to Albery’s holistic principles are romance novelist Barbara Cartland and the mother of stage and film actor Ralph Fiennes.

Needless to say, the social-invention midwives at ISI don’t measure their success by the number of celebrities who pick up their ideas. Nicholas Temple points to a philosophy professor in the United States who has made submitting ideas to ISI part of a class he teaches in critical thinking. “As a result,” says Temple, “there is a whole swath of American students thinking positively and creatively about how to solve the problems of society. The encouragement of that positive mind-set is almost as important as the ideas becoming a reality, especially where younger people are concerned.”

I would go further. I think that the power and value of social inventions is one of the central lessons that we learned in the 20th century. The great, all-altering political panaceas–from Soviet communism to fascism to religious fundamentalism–were presented as fate, not choice, and they failed or are failing. The great force that we hail as the victor over these rigid ideologies, globalized corporate capitalism, is focused primarily on transforming politics into the mere administration and protection of wealth. The spirit of social invention, more than the might of the modern economy, is doing the best job today of aiding hope and freedom around the world. A labor union helped bring down communism in Poland. Cafés and theaters in Prague were the incubators of a velvet revolution.

Social inventing can be frustrating, too. While technological and market-driven change is usually speedy, social progress shows a natural sluggishness. Patience is called for. Yet social in-venting is thrilling, too, from the very first moment–when you decide to explore the marriage you can make between your social concerns and your wildest imaginings. You have all the qualifications you need: You’re a social animal with a brain and a heart.

As musician Brian Eno, a patron of the Institute for Social Inventions, says in the introduction to The World’s Greatest Ideas, “Just as cheetahs have a talent for speed, humans have a talent for imagining–for wondering how else things might be.”

Jon Spayde is contributing editor of Utne Reader and co-author of two new Utne Reader books, Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life and Salons: The Joy of Conversation.

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