The vision thing and the vision thingybob: Poop-scoop schemes, carrier-bag art; Grannycare shops: the Institute of Social Inventions promotes clever ideas with a conscience. Sue George reports

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WHAT DO the Samaritans, Live Aid, the Open University and Which? magazine have in common? They're examples of social inventions: beneficial services, projects or ideas that started off as somebody's brainwave. Spreading the word about other bright ideas is the purpose of the Institute of Social Inventions. It collects ideas from all over the world, promoting the weird and the wonderful, the commonsensical and the 'why didn't we think of that before?'.

Nicholas Albery, chairman and founder, says: 'We set it up because there were too many people doing imaginative things in isolation, and we thought we would make more progress this way.'

Started in 1985, the institute is a charity, working extensively in schools, awarding prizes each year for the best ideas, and publishing books. It is funded through a combination of membership subscriptions and grants from charitable trusts and sympathetic commercial concerns. Its most recent publication, The Book of Visions, is 350 pages and contains more than 500 social inventions, covering every imaginable aspect of life.

Hundreds of ideas are submitted every year. 'If people send in good ideas, we try to encourage them,' says Mr Albery. For instance, Robert Hart, whose Shropshire forest garden uses every available inch of space with minimal labour to provide fruit, nuts, vegetables and herbs, saw his idea made into a booklet that sold more than 4,000 copies.

Although only the best and most practical ideas are followed up, more bizarre or disturbing ideas are also submitted, such as the anti-rape device, patented in the US, that cannot be removed from a rapist's penis without medical intervention. Isn't this a dangerous idea that should be dismissed? Mr Albery agrees: 'Some ideas we receive are crazy, and that particular device is counter-productive. But most worthwhile ideas seem foolish when first considered.'

At the other end of the scale, the institute promotes ideas of global significance. In 1990 it initiated two conferences for Eastern European politicians and constitutionalists, held in Switzerland and Malta, and funded by the Swiss government. Estonia and Ukraine now have constitutions directly benefiting from this process.

Some of the most workable ideas come from the institute's schools workshops - more than 3,000 have taken place so far - in which an institute member goes to a school, getting the children to find creative solutions to problems in their community. One London primary school set up a 'Children's Pooper-Scooper Action Squad'. It persuaded Westminster council to bring to the UK the first pooper-scooper motorbike, which has a vacuum attachment to remove dog mess from pavements.

Although not the first of its kind - the National Suggestions Centre existed from 1968 to 1974, with Richard Luce, the former arts minister, as its first chairman - the institute has inspired others in Sweden, Germany and Russia. Spreading the word on social inventions is a priority, and the overall winner of the institute's 1992 Social Inventions Competition was Gregory Wright, a Californian, with his 'IdeaNet' project. This is an electronic suggestions box, accessible by computer and modem around the world, using existing computer networks.

What makes social inventors? 'They're slightly psychopathic, but their anti-social instincts go towards changing society rather than vandalising it,' says Mr Albery. 'They are rebellious, slightly eccentric, the sort of people who write letters to national newspapers.' He should know. Mr Albery, a former psychotherapist, is an enthusiastic letter-writer himself, and originator of 32 ideas in The Book of Visions.

The same names crop up again and again in the book, particularly from the institute's directors. Nicholas Saunders, founder of most of the businesses at Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, in central London, is one. He submitted 22 ideas, from art on carrier bags (spotted in Denmark) to coin-in- the-wall phones, where coins for public phones are collected inside a building, rather than in the usual breakable box. Another is Margaret Chisman. Her seven items in The Book of Visions include Grannycare (as opposed to Mothercare) shops, and she is the author of the booklets Opening the Mind's Eye, Exercising the Imagination and Being True to Yourself.

Ordinary members, who come from as far away as New Caledonia in the south Pacific, also submit many ideas. According to the institute's Who's Who of Social Inventions, their wide interests include 'hermetic contemplation', 'investigating the health effects of power lines and radio waves', 'comic strips for social criticism and change', and 'Italian Renaissance painting'. Ideas are sent by non-members, too: the Policy Studies Institute suggested making Britain a double daylight-saving zone.

Anyone who would dismiss the institute as merely a bunch of New Agers should look at the list of people connected with it. From Fay Weldon to Sir Peter Parker, they cover a range of interests. 'Forming a body which has titled people involved gives our ideas leverage,' Mr Albery says. 'But we're also arguing for a society that's decentralised. We are Utopian in that sense.'

Anita Roddick, in particular, has promoted the institute by offering prize money for its awards, as well as setting up a department for social inventions within the Body Shop. The department's objective is to 'clean up more than our share of the mess' and to 'promote the extraordinary into all pockets of the company'.

Mr Albery is optimistic about what the institute can achieve. 'Society can seem unchangeable, but we can alter it to our desires, and put power back into the hands of the average person.'

Institute of Social Inventions, 20 Heber Road, London NW2 6AA (081-208 2853; fax: 081- 452 6434). 'The Book of Visions', edited by Nicholas Albery, is published by Virgin at pounds 18.60 (incl p&p), or pounds 14.99 from bookshops.