Method in the seeming madness (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Culture

EVERLASTING postcodes, a computer having an out-of-body experience, five ways to end the recession, 554 ideas for Northern Ireland, a harness for sex in space, plaques to mark road deaths, holistic lawyers, and a slimline version of the English language. All these ideas, and a host of other schemes ranging from the eccentric to the inspirational, can be found in the recent outpourings of the Institute for Social Inventions, an organisation designed to encourage people to use their creativity to solve social problems.

Based in Cricklewood, north London, the Institute was the idea of Nicholas Albery, who sums up its objectives as: 'To help improve the quality of living through imaginative schemes'. He set up the Institute in 1985, after discovering a number of people involved in entrepreneurial social schemes that he felt deserved a wider audience. Properly managed, a good idea could begin in the neighbourhood and work its way through to global significance, he thought. Or, to put it more practically, he decided to 'bung a couple of Lords on the notepaper to help with the leverage.'

In the eight years of its existence, the Institute has spawned projects such as the Natural Death Centre, the Council for Posterity, and a Hippocratic oath for Scientists. It produces a regular journal, and publishes The Book of Visions, a collection of 'over 500 of the best ideas from around the world'.

An annual prize of pounds 1,000 is also offered for the best non-technological idea, vision or project sumbitted by a member of the public. (You have until 1 June to think of something.) For social ideas in general, and the competition in particular, Mr Albery invites people to ask themselves: 'What problem do you have, big or small, that you can solve in such a way that it solves similar problems for other people?' Intermittently on this page, we shall be showing some of the most striking ideas submitted. For the moment, however, let us enlarge on some of those mentioned at the start of this article.

Everlasting postcodes is a delightfully simple idea suggested by Barry Austin. Each person, at birth, would be allocated a postcode for life. When you move house, you just tell the Post Office. 'People writing to you need only put on the envelope 'Austin28748STA' and it would reach you wherever you are.' With modern letter-sorting technology, there should be no problem. 'And you could give out your code without fear of people knowing where you live.'

You could probably dispense with the 'Austin' in the postcode too, as Omar Mahmoud would very probably agree, since his 'Grammar needs no prepositions' suggestion envisages a language stripped entirely of redundancies. 'Do we need all the prepositions that were once necessary for developing languages?' he asks. 'People can now grasp the meanings from the key words alone.'

Taking the baton from another contributor who had advised the rationalisation of spelling, he says: 'Instead of saying: 'discard surplus letrs in English spelling. These ar a major sorce of dificulty for lernrs and writers' one could say 'Discard surplus letrs English spelling. Major sorce dificulty lernrs and writers.' This gives 11 words instead of 17 (saving more than one-third).'

'I do think there's something deeply disturbed about most social inventors,' says Mr Albery, referring to their common need to change the world to meet their own requirements, but that does not mean their ideas need be selfish or bad. The harmfulness tax levied on noxious substances and those plaques for road deaths, to make drivers more aware of the hazards of the car, all sound eminently sensible and potentially valuable contributions to the quality of life.

Finally, some career advice: Are you balding? Do you tell lies? Do you have thin lips and small eyes? Then why not become President of the United States? According to an extract from US News & World Report, published in the latest issue of the Social Innovations Compendium, 'the same psychological skills that give leaders great self-control in times of crisis also make them skilful liars'. Physiognomy has also been shown to be 'an important element of a leader's persuasive powers'. All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that lying, thin- lipped, small-eyed men make the best leaders.

For further details see The Book of Visions - an Encyclopaedia of Social Innovations ( pounds 14.99) available from the Institute for Social Inventions, telephone: 081-208 2853.