2008: The year in ideas
What were the shafts of original thinking that illuminated a gloomy world in 2008? Here, Independent writers pick 10 of the best
Wednesday 31 December 2008
The aggregation game
Who had the brainwave? Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown among others.
What's the idea? If you wanted your website to succeed in 2008, content was king -just not necessarily your own content. Aggregator sites picked the best opinion andnews reportage on the internet and collected it all in one place. The Huffington Post, forexample, begun by Ms Huffington in 2005, became a browser bookmark for Obama supporters, with its daily digest of news and video links blended with left-leaning commentary. Less than a month before election day, Tina Brown – the former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker - launched her latest project, The Daily Beast, an aggregator site mixing links from other sites' news pages with original journalism from her contacts, including Christopher Buckley, Gay Talese and Simon Schama. Meanwhile, Pollster.com proved a surprisingly accurate site for tracking the presidential election. Pollster doesn't conduct its own research, but aggregated others' polls. Reviews are getting similar treatment from Metacritic, which collects all available reviews for a film, television show, game or album and awards an average score.
Can it change the world? In an increasingly fractured media landscape,the trusted aggregator may be the future.
Don't push, nudge
Who had the brainwave? Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, behavioural economists from the University of Chicago and co-authors of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, published in April.
What's the idea? For libertarians, government brings a tricky problem: how do you make people do what you want them to if you don't believe in bossing them around? Thaler and Sunstein suggest a gentle prod in the right direction, rather than slapping nanny-state bans on unwanted behaviour. The authors call their notion "libertarian paternalism" – convincing the populace to change their ways without them realising they're doing it. The example given in the book Nudge is taken from Amsterdam airport. You can't ban men from peeing on the bathroom floor, but you can encourage them to indulge in a little point-and-shoot play by printing a small fly on the urinals – improving accuracy, and cutting down on spillages, by 80 per cent. All that's needed is to apply the principle to larger problems, such as global warming, obesity or poverty.
Will it change the world? David Cameron is a fan, but the big question is to what degree will President Barack Obama – who used the ideas of his home-town professors during his election campaign – nudge from the White House?
Online fun = real power
Who had the brainwave? Barack Obama – with the Washington-based web strategist Joe Rospars and the Facebook website co-founder Chris Hughes.
What's the idea? Mr Obama understands the power of the internet – he had a Facebook profile long before he announced he was running for president and, once he declared, he quickly built a team, headed by Rospars (the brains behind Howard Dean's online campaign for his failed 2004 nomination bid) and Hughes. The plan: to use the internet as the connective tissue between Obama and voters, especially the young. Hughes' baby was My.BarackObama.com, a social networking site that let supporters stay in touch with campaign HQ, organise locally and donate funds. By election day it had 1.5 million members. Mr Obama also made 2.2 million "friends" on Facebook and used his mobile phone to blog on the Twitter website. Web-savvy supporters were in turn inspired to make their own contributions with viral videos, including the "Don't Vote" YouTube clip (rough translation: "DO vote!") featuring celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Silverman, designed to boost youth voter registration.
Will it change the world? You bet. Every future political campaign, in the US, Britain and beyond, will learn from the internet strategies of the Obama campaign. And there will be a new place to follow the future president's weekly radio broadcast: YouTube.
Spend – and save the world
Who had the brainwave? John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). Latterly claimed by Gordon Brown, the man who "saved the world".
What's the idea? When there's a shortage of demand in an economy, you need a policy to prevent a slump. Governments can borrow to spend in a way individuals cannot, stimulating demand and output, and avoiding depression. Keynes saw that, even when interest rates are close to zero, people may be so lacking in confidence about their jobs that they still won't borrow or spend, and if they think house prices will always fall, few will take out a mortgage. This is when governments can take over, borrowing money, cutting taxes and boosting public spending to help get people back to work. Though Keynes was largely ignored here in his homeland, Keynesianism was adopted by President Franklin D Roosevelt in the New Deal, and is proving an inspiration to Barack Obama.
Can it change the world? Yes. Except for Germany, it would seem, whose government has proved vocally sceptical about the merits of this New Keynesian orthodoxy. Otherwise, the global splurge should help us avoid the worst kind of slump. But we will have to pay for all that borrowing: higher taxes will inevitably blunt the force of the recovery.
Help Iran go nuclear!
Who had the brainwave? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
What's the idea? Iran says it needs electricity, but the West says Iran is working on a nuclear weapon, and that this is the real reason why the oil-exporting Opec member state is refusing to stop enriching uranium. The result: a stand-off that has led to three rounds of UN sanctions against Iran and brought threats of military strikes by the US and Israel. Last February, the highly respected former American diplomat Thomas Pickering teamed up with MIT nuclear expert Jim Walsh and president of the UN association of the US, William Luers, to endorse an MIT initiative calling for the West to set up an international consortium to help Iran enrich uranium on its own soil. Under the initiative, Iran would be barred from producing either highly enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium, the key ingredients in nuclear bombs. In May, Iran showed interest in the offer. The West resisted. But is it time to call Iran's bluff and ensure that the enrichment is used to produce only electricity?
Will it change the world? Yes, if it stops a war, which appears inevitable unless both the West and Iran change course.
Who had the brainwave? Chris Anderson, below, editor-in-chief of the US technology magazine Wired and author of the 2006 business bestseller The Long Tail.
What's the idea? In The Long Tail, Anderson explained the success of the firms which sell niche goods (such as rare DVDs and out-of-print books) to a large number of enthusiasts over the web. Anderson's next book, to be published in 2009, will be titled Free. In the March issue of Wired, he set out his "freeconomics" ideas, demonstrating how the most forward-thinking companies (Yahoo, Google) increasingly give their services away, then bring in money in other ways (advertising, upgrades to pay-for premium services and so on), and how this rush to the bottom of the price pile is spreading to every consumer-driven industry, from travel to communications and entertainment. In a digitised world where customers won't pay, he argues, companies are being forced to find new and innovative ways to fund their products.
Can it change the world? "We are entering an era when free will be seen as the norm, not an anomaly," Anderson writes. As consumers seek value in the hard times ahead, freeconomics may grow and grow.
Invest in sport and society wins
Who had the brainwave? Collectively, the British Olympic Association.
What's the idea? When London landed the Olympics, in 2005, Tony Blair said it was a chance to show the nation's belief in youth. Anyone aware of the relentless sale of school playing fields was as underwhelmed as all the young people whose nearest playing fields, tennis courts and swimming pools were long bus rides away. But, sure enough, investment in sport did pay dividends this year. Olympic success in Beijing provided evidence of a nation's potential when proper funding is supplied. But could it be an antidote to street crime, drug use and disaffection with an uncaring adult world? Many are arguing that sport is not a luxury but a vital force against disillusionment.
Will it change the world? With public spending deemed one way of fighting the recession, and the hard-up Olympics on the horizon, there has never a better time to reverse Britain's decades-old neglect of youth sports.
Let the banks beg
Who had the brainwave? The British commercial bank Standard and Chartered, the Bank of England and the Treasury.
What's the idea? How best to throw a lifeline to the banks? The problem was that many around the world were (and some still are) desperately short of capital to cover their losses following the collapse of trust in them as institutions. One idea was suggested by the US: the government should buy the so-called "toxic" loans from the banks. The problem was that no one knew what these loans were really worth. A second idea was outright nationalisation, but that would have been hugely expensive, and unnecessary in many cases. Then Britain hit on the notion of voluntary partial nationalisation. If banks could raise their own capital, fine. But if they had to come to the Government, it would offer capital on tough terms. The result: UK taxpayers have ended up with some two-thirds of the Royal Bank of Scotland group and a large chunk of HBOS and Lloyds. It may be a burden on the taxpayer, but the banks did not go under, and the UK taxpayer may well end up with a profit. Not bad.
Will it change the world? It already has. It's the idea being used in modified form in many countries around the globe.
Who had the brainwave? Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple.
What's the idea? Since it was launched in January 2007, an army of geeks had been assaulting the iPhone's security system, hacking in to adapt it for use on unauthorised mobile networks or to install games and other pieces of software – such as a simple, brilliant, ball-through-a-maze game that uses the iPhone's tilting sensor. At first, Mr Jobs was determined to boost security and lock them out. Then, in March 2008, came the U-turn: he flung open the doors, selling the important codes to wannabe developers and letting them have free rein. It was the making of the iPhone, as it moved from an old-style "walled garden" of approved software, to an open platform. The online App Store, where the downloads are sold, launched in July and offers more than 10,000 different titles, from maps to Monopoly. This explosion of creativity turned the iPhone into one of the world's most popular games consoles, a musical instrument and even a light sabre – in short, into one of the most fun things on the planet.
Can it change the world? By harnessing the collective brainpower of the geeks, future generations of smart phones, electronic devices, games consoles and computers could have more functions than anyone alone – or any one company – can possibly conceive.
Who had the brainwave? Leonard Cohen.
What's the idea? The greatest hallelujah of the year should go to Leonard Cohen, who reminded the world that hard times can lead to new beginnings. Cohen, now 74, was living the dignified life of a grand old man of music – revered by fans but largely forgotten by the wider public – when disaster struck. Ripped off by a former manager, he lost millions of dollars. His solution was, after years of semi-reclusiveness, to go back on the road. The resulting world tour was hailed as the most triumphant live music event of 2008. His song "Hallelujah" was sung by the finalists of The X Factor and occupied the top two spots in the Christmas pop charts. Could there be a more important, inspiring lesson at a time when the dreams of millions are likely to be crunched beneath the wheels of recession? "Even damnation," Leonard Cohen once wrote, "is poisoned with rainbows."
Can it change the world? As inspiration for the millions around the world who have lost it all – or who will next year, it just might.
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