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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November 2003, 08:59 GMT
Ideas that just might make the world a better place
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine

Innovations don't have to be bizarre Heath Robinson contraptions to change the world. Inventive solutions to social problems are just as important as technological advances. So get your thinking caps on...

Heath Robinson's works are on show at Dulwich Picture gallery

When a tiny village in Wiltshire was faced with losing its local shop - the only store for miles around - its customers were galvanised into action.

Many of Maiden Bradley's 300 residents chipped in what they could - from 5 to 500 - to buy shares in the store, and, once its future was assured, helped revamp the premises and work out a business plan. The shop, which reopened in summer 2002, has ditched the tinned food and sliced white and now does a brisk trade in local produce. All proceeds go back into the community, and the shop also acts a focal point in a village with few other services.

It is just such creative problem-solving that Tuesday's International Social Innovations Day celebrates. The charity which organises the day, the Institute for Social Inventions, acts as a suggestion box on how to improve living conditions around the world - the good folk of Maiden Bradley are among its past award winners.

It's certainly the week for people with bright ideas. For the more technically minded who deal in ideas about gadgets rather than solving problems, also taking place is the World Genius Convention in Tokyo. It hopes to show off people's novel contraptions to everyone passing through Tokyo Central Station in the hope that they might find a friendly venture capitalist.

Great minds

It's not gizmos which excites the institute, though - it's ideas about how society is arranged. Director Nick Temple says the aim is to encourage people to think creatively about how to solve everyday problems, or to do a bit of blue sky thinking about how to improve society now and for the future.

Woman thinking
Tell us your bright ideas
"The best ideas are the simplest - not that that makes them any easier to come up with," says Mr Temple. "There are a lot of worthy but dull projects around, but what we look for are those which look at a simple problem from a completely different angle."

Among the social innovations to pick up the institute's awards this year are local initiatives as well as more fanciful suggestions.

There is a peace hotline to connect Israelis and Palestinians; London-based Streetwise Opera, which involves homeless people in all aspects of a production; and an American architect who builds cheap houses from discarded materials. There is also a plan for governments to be renamed "servicements" to remind MPs what they are elected for.

Picture by Susanne Jansen for Streetwise Opera
Streetwise Opera performed Benjamin Britten last year
"Streetwise Opera, for instance, has come up with a completely novel way to help the homeless regain their confidence and learn new skills. There's no way anyone would think opera would be a solution to that problem, but the feedback and testimonials show that it has genuinely made a difference."

Another seemingly unlikely scheme won the institute's main award three years ago. An Indian IT expert, Sugata Mitra, installed a computer on the wall of his Delhi office facing a slum and left the local children to find their own way around this strange new gadget.

"The children were intrigued; they came up with their own names for the icons on screen," says Mr Temple. "Without instruction, they were surfing the net within a week and downloading their favourite MP3 tracks within a month."

Cut out and keep

While this project blazed a trial in bringing internet access to the have-nots, it came in for much criticism for being so far removed from the traditional educational model.

A boy tries out the computer
Learning to use the Delhi computer
But what makes it - and other such innovations as the Maiden Bradley shop - great ideas is that it is a scheme that can be copied elsewhere.

"Any other communities also facing the closure of their shop, for instance, can draw on the experience of Maiden Bradley's residents. These projects provide models for you to take into your own area, to tailor to your community's needs."

Now it is over to you - send us your bright ideas to improve society. A selection will be added to this story throughout the day, and the institute's Nick Temple will pick the best to go to a vote on Wednesday.


Send us your ideas - big or small - to improve the way we live using the form below. If there are any ideas here you particularly like, let us know.

Instead of hiring skips and filling up landfill sites, have a section at town tips where one can donate unwanted wood, masonry, metal and appliances and where people can help themselves to anything they want. Every so often the truly unwanted rubbish can be cleared out to the neighbouring rubbish tip.
Bob Bombalot, UK

Introduce a "by choice" part of income tax. A percent of your tax to be paid to the service that you personally think needs it most - hospital, library or whatever.
Shaun Smyth, France

Like on the auction website eBay, establish "reputation counters" on government websites and at schools/health care facilities, to hold accountable the doctors, teachers and bureaucrats we don't pay directly and whose monopolies we cannot afford to avoid using. Good service should be directly rewarded and bad or indifferent service chastised.
Paul Connor, Canada

Every 100 days, my company spends the entire day building a website for a non-profit or community organization. Seems to me that other businesses could do something similar.
Andrew McFarlane, US

A company, Rapid Building, is building housing for impoverished nations with interlocking concrete blocks. No mortar reduces the required skill while at the same time mobilizing the local work force to erect housing faster.
Tony, Australia

End the working week with an informal office meeting on Friday afternoons. Have drinks and nuts/crisps on hand. Selected departments can make presentations on the work they do to encourage understanding and interactivity within the company.
Amanda, UK

Office cleaning staff in high-rise buildings should be given incentives to turn off lights after hours. I have discovered, despite my own efforts to turn off the lights, that the cleaners turn the lights on to do their work and then leave them on. We could save unimaginable amounts of energy worldwide if cleaning staff could turn off the lights in every room.
Jeff Strabone, USA

The school day in Canada ends at 3:45pm (a hold over from when kids were expected to go home and work on the farm). In the hours before parents can pick up them up, schools should be kept open with extra gym, library and study space access. The subsidies and fees governments and parents pay for day-care could be redirected into the schools to make them more vibrant and relevant.
Caz, Canada

Buy "car commuter" tokens from your local shop. Use them to travel into work in your neighbour's car. When he's collected enough, he can cash them in. Any driver earns as much or as little as he wants.
George Marsden, London

1) Whatever the job you have, you get paid an annual salary equivalent to 1,000 for every year you've been alive. No exceptions. This would mean an end to fat cats and people would be able to plan ahead into retirement.
2) Time-specific marriages: you agree on a time period after which it comes up for renewal. You are both optioned to each other, so can't negotiate with new potential partners until you're free of the contract.
Chris Coombes, UK

Get local shops to set up a local bus service, half paid for by the council. This would loop around the local shops, reducing the traffic in local areas and reinventing community life. Give the driver a mobile - if you want a ride, ring him.
Hugh, UK

All town centres to designate an area where busking and other street entertainment is positively encouraged. This would help the arts at grassroots level (instead of relying on Pop Idol to find new talent) and contribute to the regeneration of zombified urban deserts.
Phil Hands, London

To promote cultural awareness, pair willing families from different countries. Start with letters and e-mails, with the hope of one-day making visits, and perhaps even exchanging children for short periods.
Lizzy, USA

Rebuild closed-down hospitals into social housing, or convert them into accommodation for nurses and police officers. Tax all disused industrial sites, to encourage their use instead of decay, and allow these to be sold off for redevelopment.
Darren, UK

A karma website which allows people to network and equalise society's karma to get things done. You lost your job, but what do you have to give? Maybe someone else just took up a new post and is looking for someone just like you! The builders next door just trashed your wall, but you are great at renovating banisters.
Gregory Deacon, UK

It's a crazy idea, but it might just work... do a (genuinely) good turn every day. The combined force for good of all these little things would certainly make the world a better place.
Lucy, UK

To encourage car-sharing, let cars with 3 or more people in them to use bus lanes.
Geoff Gunson, England

Bring back the stocks in town squares for those caught defacing the area (litter, fly posting, graffiti and vandalism). There is no permanent harm done to the malcontents, but an hour being pelting with rotten eggs might prove a strong disincentive to the antisocial element.
Kevin, England

Impose VAT on new homes, and remove VAT from renovations and home improvements. This will cause house builders to stop concreting over our countryside.
Joseph Smallwood, Belgium

Set up volunteer "job centres", with details of local volunteering opportunities, to encourage people to do something worthy in their spare time.
Jason Holdcroft, UK

More police patrolling on bicycles rather than in a police car. Bicycles are environmentally friendly and allow the officers to access footpaths/cycle tracks inaccessible to cars. This also makes police presence stronger as officers can stop to talk to people and get in touch with the neighbourhood.
Brenda Lyall, UK

To reduce street litter, remove the VAT on food eaten inside. At the moment we are given a financial incentive to take food away. If it was the other way round, more food would be eaten inside, saving on litter. If the government won't do this, perhaps local authorities could subsidise it, using the money saved on collecting and disposing of litter.
CJ Evans, UK

Instead of a war on terror, what if we were to take 10% of G8 defence expenditure and invest it in local aid programs within unstable countries to help the people work themselves out of instability? We are talking about a whopping $60bn here, and 90% of that leaves any defence force still intact.
Daniel Vockns, Britain

Renegade Housing Associations to forcefully co-habit over 'carfield' sites and test the limit of the current planning climate. The latest advances in lightweight demountable structures and packaged power/sanitation units will be used to minimise the environmental impact of stilted villages that could appear over under-utilised space that at the moment is swallowed up by parking areas for retail developments.
Gerry, UK

Give every school child a bicycle. Cycling will be huge. Also huge drop in future NHS costs, by cutting obesity and meeting national exercise targets. Drivers will become more considerate as cyclists will no longer be faceless road-users to be hooted at.
KJL, UK

Scrap road tax and instead increase tax on petrol. Therefore the amount of tax you pay is equivalent to the amount you use the public roads. Also, there can be no tax avoidance and surely lots of money will be saved through lack of costly administration.
Alison, England

MPs should be forced to live in their constituencies, and ministers should be replaced by a small, annually-appointed board of professionals from a relevant profession. Only then will the government realise what issues really matter in our society.
Chris J, UK

Fit cowls to streetlamps and canopies to neon shop signs, thus focussing the light down onto the ground. This could cut light pollution and help us all gain a decent view of the night sky.
Mick, England

To help combat voter apathy, we should be able to vote for and against a party or candidate - this should provide a more representative and democratic result. The present system allows people to abstain. This is a waste of a vote.
Keith McDonald, Spain

Set up wireless LANs in hospitals so that patients can have something to do rather than being bored to death - they could be extended to provide free access in the surrounding areas too.
Dennis, UK

How about setting up libraries in hospitals instead?
Mike Shepherd, UK

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