Some years ago I came across the notion of "social invention." A social invention is an idea that has a major impact on human behavior — on the way we think and on what we do. For example, the notion of the "space age" is widely accepted today. But there was a time when the space age was a distant, if not fantastic, idea, something for a Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon movie. Space travel, aliens, other planets, wars of the worlds, and so on were great fare for the Hollywood film industry.
But all that changed with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet
Union. Sputnik was a satellite launched into space in the late 1950s. It sparked the space race between the superpowers — the US and the USSR. It also sparked new thinking. Space colonies became a possibility. Moon walks became a reality. Outer Space was put off limits to warfare through international agreements. "Star Wars" technology was offered. Spy satellites, space blankets, and Tang all came to us as part of the space age. In a scholarly book published in 1965 on the space age, there was mention of the fear among the public in the 1800s that railroad travel generated. Going 60 miles an hour on a train would certainly scramble one's brains, or so it was thought.
I became attracted to the notion of social invention as a result of
the articles in Professor Bruce Mazlish's book, entitled "The Railroad and The Space Program." It caused me to realize that there are concepts and notions that rival new technologies with regard to impact on our lives.
In an Internet search for information on social inventions, I came
across various organizations in Europe that focus their attention on
social invention. Many of these organizations refer to themselves as
"idea" banks. London, for example, has an Institute for Social Inventions and a Global Ideas Bank, The Netherlands has the Institute for Social Inventions, Sweden has the Swedish Institute for Social Inventions (SISU), Norway an "Idebanken," Germany a Global Challenges Network. France boasts several organizations whose activities focus on the future and social inventions.
The UK's Institute for Social Inventions holds a contest every year to identify "imaginative and feasible ideas or projects for improving the quality of life." It seeks ideas from the public worldwide and offers a total of 1,000 pounds (UK Sterling). Some of the innovative ideas they've received in the past include the following: No garbage, no garbage bill; a memorial for extinct species; Local Agenda 21 as a way to influence councils (Agenda 21 is a report that came out of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, calling for the environmental protection of various ecosystems); the use of lottery payouts as a reward for good deeds; a declaration of the Rights of Nature; development of software for saving the planet; packaging taxes (the more packaging a product has, the higher the tax on it); deposits on newspapers; deposits on all kinds of batteries; an "environmental legislation" ideas bank.
Many of the social inventions are planned ones. They are ideas for
creating a better future as seen through the eyes of the inventor.
However, the notion of a Space Age was not a planned invention. I believe that the ramifications of that notion for societies around the globe (not just the engineering hardware associated with it) were not really foreseen. Perhaps the notion of Global Change will prove to have been one of those unintended social inventions. Like the Space Age, those who designed the notion of global change had no idea of its potential impacts on societies everywhere.
What may have started out as a way to gain increased funding for
scientific research (e.g., the Cold War is over — we need to focus on something new — why not global environmental change?) turned out to have had a major impact on the way we think and the way we behave as well as the way we view the Earth. Now, just about every major academic institution has a teaching program centered on global change. Congressional research funding also favors the notion of global change. People talk of sustainable development, reforestation, arresting desertification, preserving marine life, recycling, energy efficiency, and so on.
The interest in global change has penetrated into our school systems
from grades K to 12, as well as into the universities and halls of
government. It has been, in large measure, responsible for the ratcheting up of the public's awareness of environmental issues. It does so without necessarily telling us what to do but, rather, lays out the benefits and costs of protecting a particular portion of the Earth's environment. We, individually and as a society, get to decide what to do and how to proceed.