How important is it for people to contribute to society in some way? After the tragedy of 9/11, some people have become preoccupied with this question. Tragedies have a way of making people rethink their values and find a new focus. They make people think, on some level, about what a society needs in order to survive. Not just basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, but deeper needs, relating to the health and values of society. Many people find themselves asking: how can I find more meaning in our society? What can I do to make a difference?


The notion of doing something to take control of society or of our fate as humans is not something that developed just after 9/11. We might date this impulse back to ancient times, when the Greeks believed that humans were subservient to the gods, and that both gods and humans were powerless under fate. What was fated to happen was going to happen, and there was nothing that they could do about it.


Somewhere in the late 20th century the notion of “fate” returned with new faces—globalization, the market, or even technology. People in Western society began to feel powerless in the face of these large looming forces that were shaping our society for us. Now, in the early 21st century, we may be perceiving a need for significant social change and new values, people who call themselves “social inventors” are trying to take back some control over society’s direction once again.


A social inventor is not necessarily a social activist----an activist fights for social change. Nor is a social inventor a social contributor; a social contributor might be someone who supports social causes financially, or emotionally. And finally, a social inventor is not necessarily someone who works in a high-tech industry or invents new technologies and consumer products. A social inventor is different because he or she is using the power of ingenuity, or creative thinking, to come up with ideas for change in certain communities or sections of society. Social inventors have a vision of a better world and create new systems or practices. Their ideas may seem offbeat or impossible. Most social inventors are not famous or wealthy because of their inventions. They are usually quite ordinary people; they may even be people you know. Or we may never know who they are. But some of these creative thinkers have powerfully, and quietly, changed the way we live.

Some examples of social inventions may sound familiar to you. The organization of “Alcoholics Anonymous,” a support group for people with addiction to alcohol, was founded in 1935 and has been going strong ever since. This was a social invention because an individual named Bill Smith, himself a recovering alcoholic, came up with a 12-step process for creating personal change. The idea caught on, communities and support groups formed around it, and millions of alcoholics have changed their lives ever since.


Social inventions do not have to be organizations, however. Sometimes they are new designs for neighborhoods or communities, allowing for more interaction among people.


Sometimes they are systems, like new ways to help prisoners in jails receive an education or re-enter society. Sometimes they are very simple ideas. For example, some movie theatres in Boston and New York have recently started implementing a social invention to solve the problem of babies crying in movie theatres. To accommodate parents with babies, who would like to keep up with current movies, some theatres now offer special “mother’s hours,” a daytime showing of a film in which they are free to bring babies or young children. The lights are not turned down as low so that they can keep an eye on their children while they watch the movie.


The idea of social inventions or social ingenuity has become so popular in recent years that “Idea Banks” of social inventions have shown up on the World Wide Web, books have been published on the subject, and Institutes have been founded. The Institute for Social Inventions, based in London, connects think tanks and idea banks throughout Europe. It has a website that invites ideas from anyone and that I’ll write here on the board: www.globalideasbank.org. You can search this website by category to see the types of ideas that ordinary people come up with. Looking at a wide range of them gives you some sense of the extent to which people desire to make a difference in our society and not remain powerless.