Sixteen Big Ideas to change the world and create a better future

The future is hard to foretell. So instead, why not create the future you want? Photo: Aurora Borealis in Iceland by Victor Montol via Flickr (CC BY) with Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.

The future is hard to foretell. So instead, why not create the future you want? Photo: Aurora Borealis in Iceland by Victor Montol via Flickr (CC BY) with Kirkjufell Mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall.

In the fight for a better, cleaner, more just and sustainable world, it's not enough just to oppose all all the 'bads' that crowd in from all sides, writes Mike Childs. We also have to build our own vision of the future, and map out the changes we must make to get there. And that's what Friends of the Earth is setting out to do in its transformational 'Big Ideas Change the World' project.
No way we can deliver environmental sustainability by only campaigning on green issues. Much broader change is needed. And this deeper change will not come without a fight - entrenched interests are doing very well from the status quo.

If, like me, you want to honour that long-standing promise to the next generation that they will inherit a better world than we did, then this article will give you hope. Because change is not only possible - it has started.

Admittedly the context is not rosy. Trump, Brexit, tax-dodging corporations, attacks on refugees, populism, intolerance, extremism, billions of people in poverty or 'just about managing', droughts, wildfires, floods, etc. These are uneasy and uncertain times. Optimism is in short supply and change has never been more urgent.

But as our Big Ideas Change the World research project has shown, changes are already underway. Through the research project we have identified the transformational Big Ideas that need to be pursued if the next generation is going to be able to achieve wellbeing.

Some are already out there, loud and proud. Others are quietly changing the world in beautiful acts of subversion. Others need a kick-start. And right now, some are still just ideas. So although the election of Donald Trump has cast a pall of gloom, we should still be optimistic - we are undeniably in a period of change and positive change is happening.

The Big Ideas project

We kicked off the Big Ideas project to help shape the future campaigning agenda of those who want to ensure everyone, now and in the future, has wellbeing without breaking the planet.

The Big Ideas we've identified emerged from working in partnership with over 50 thinkers - mostly leading academics from many of the UK's top universities. Together we explored 10 broad topics from the future of cities to innovation to gender equality. We read and synthesised over a thousand academic papers. From this 30 Big Ideas emerged, 16 of which we showcase in this article.

Our starting point was 'smart optimism' - not to deny the current reality, but also recognising the human capacity for ingenuity, collaboration and empathy.

We didn't buy into the dystopian futures so loved by fiction-writers where the worst of human nature is dominant and hate-filled loathing trumps good; nor did we buy into the techno-optimistic visions of the future where robots do all the work and humans relax on sunbeds or play tennis.

So what did we find?

Deeper and broader change is needed

One key finding, which is important for green campaigners, is that there is no way we can deliver environmental sustainability by only campaigning on green issues. Much broader change is needed. Also not surprisingly we found that the scale and depth of change we need won't come through a bit of policy reform here and there, as important as this is.

I'm as keen as anyone to get rid of the pesticides that are harming pollinators. I want to stop fracking and the emergence of a new fossil fuel industry. And I really want to protect the developing lungs of children from harmful air pollution. But we all know these are far from enough. We know we need much deeper societal, political and economic change if we want the next generation to inherit a planet able to satisfy their needs.

No way we can deliver environmental sustainability by only campaigning on green issues. Much broader change is needed. And this deeper change will not come without a fight - entrenched interests are doing very well from the status quo.

This deeper change will not come without a fight - entrenched vested interests are doing very well from the status quo. Donald Trump is among them. But as our exploration of the history of campaigning showed, there is a long and honourable track record of people coming together to achieve massive change. Big Ideas change the world, but not without a fight.

In a tour of work, home, play, and politics below I'll share 16 of our Big Ideas for a better future out of the 30 we identified in total [1]. And I'll also share the five Big Ideas that most excite me.

Let's start with the world of work.

What's the future for work?

Many of us spend much of our waking hours working. Some of us are lucky. We get to do tasks we enjoy while using and developing our skills. Some of us are really lucky. We get to do these things for businesses and organisations that are making lives better, without harming the lives of others or the environment in the process.

If you come from a white, middle-class background and live in a relatively rich country, like me, these 'really lucky jobs' are at least a possibility. But for many people they're not even a pipe-dream. Instead, work involves dragging yourself into a work place where the bosses are only really focused on making money and have little or no regard for the wellbeing of their staff, other people, or the environment.

The good news is that there is a bit of a revolution under way. Quietly but steadily, the age of the 'purpose-driven business' is emerging.

Championed by the B-Corp Movement, these are businesses that legally commit themselves to doing social good. Making money is not an anathema to them, but their prime purpose is doing something good for society. And they know they can't do that while exploiting their own staff or the planet.

These are the kind of businesses that could, with encouragement, go the extra mile. They could, and should, use their marketing clout to help consumers not only choose more carefully but also consume less, as some trail-blazers such as Interface and Patagonia are doing.

The idea of purpose-driven businesses isn't entirely new - there is a healthy world of cooperatives and social enterprises out there. But B-corps are adding a new dimension, some real buzz, and the movement is growing fast.

But they won't win out unless we - those of us who want a brighter future for our children - fight to give them a chance to succeed in a world skewed in favour of giant incumbent and unsustainable companies. There isn't much I agree with Donald Trump and Nigel Farage on, but they are right to say that the excessive influence of giant corporations must be stopped.

Frugal innovation

As our research has shown, despite over 100 years of anti-trust legislation that was meant to prevent the emergence of monopolies and oligopolies, these anti-competitive dinosaurs are absolutely everywhere.

At a national level there are dominant supermarkets and banks, and at a global level there are oil, agricultural and pharmaceutical giants. The market and political power they wield is truly shocking. We need to campaign together, both on the left and on the right of politics, to break-up these monopolies and oligopolies and to ensure greater competition.

Greater competition is good because it offers more opportunities for creative, disruptive businesses and organisations. Which given the challenges we face, we need plenty of.

We need disruptive innovation to be particularly focused on doing more with less. This so-called frugal innovation is critical for billions of people to live sustainably on the planet. And grassroots innovation particularly helps build communities and is more democratic.

One area in which we desperately need innovation is finance.

New approaches to finance, such as crowd-funding, smaller ethical banks such as Triodos Bank, regional banks, local currencies, and citizen's incomes, sit alongside technological approaches such as Bitcoin as ways to shake up the money world and free us from the 'too big to fail' tyranny of the Big Banks. We need to re-wild the finance industry.

So in the world of work we have four Big Ideas:

  • Help purpose-driven businesses flourish, and break up the oligopolies,

  • Get businesses to use their marketing power to encourage less consumption,

  • Back innovation and disruption, particularly grassroots innovation,

  • Re-wild the finance industry.

These Big ideas may seem like an impossible dream. It's certainly a dream that will be fought against by powerful incumbent industries. But transformation is possible. And in places it is emerging.

Our job, those of us seeking a better future for the next generation, is to make this transformation a reality.

What's the future at home?

As well as change at work, things also need to change at home.

I know it's trite, but it's true. Planet Earth is our only home. If you want to read about the myriad challenges our 'home' faces then take a look at my old boss Tony Juniper's book, 'What's Really Happening to the Planet'.

The root of the issue is that we are treating the planet like a machine, a bit of kit to tinker with as if we knew how it worked. We are failing to recognise its dynamism, its interconnectedness, its complexity and its fragility. We need to treat the planet more like a living system, because that is what it is.

One expression of this would be replacing giant intensive monoculture farming with a multifunctional mosaic approach to how we farm our land and seas. This would be more productive and less susceptible to boom and bust. This approach is being championed and practiced by the agroecology and agro-forestry movements, and by farmers including some in the UK who reject the use of bee-harming pesticides and instead produce sustainable rape seed oil.

It is a world away from the industrial farming practices championed by the giant agri-businesses, such as Cargill and Monsanto.

At its heart, this Big Idea rejects the notion that we have dominion over nature and rejects the enthusiasm of those who embrace the idea that we are now in the Anthropocene as a reason to manipulate the weather and the critters we share the planet with for our own purposes.

Instead it suggests we should do our utmost to constrain our impact on nature, for example prioritising energy saving, eating sustainable diets with less meat, and empowering women to choose to have fewer children.

The idea that we are in control is nothing more than hubris. Once this truth is accepted then fast-developing technologies such as genome editing, robotics, and nanotechnology will be developed more cautiously, rather than a reckless approach in the search for a quick profit.

Home is not just Planet Earth. For most of us, it's also a town or city

For many who have been driven to the city because their land has been grabbed, because of poverty or because of a lack of job opportunities, the growth of cities is a necessary evil. But for others, cities are places of opportunity, excitement, and a chance to escape the social conservatism of rural areas.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs, cities are growing and that presents great opportunities. Cities can drive progress on the great challenges society faces - as the C40 Cities Network's work on climate change and air pollution shows.

Cities provide opportunities for sharing resources much more efficiently, aided by the density of population and the growth of digital networks. We drew up a radical agenda for cities (pdf), with the idea of 'sharing cities' centre-stage.

But let's not deny the real challenges living in cities can bring. In many, such as London, the price of housing is a real barrier to wellbeing, with people on average incomes spending up to two-thirds of their pay-packet on rent alone. For these challenges, deep changes are needed (pdf), not simply building more homes and more urban sprawl, as necessary as more homes are.

So for our future home the idea that humans have dominion over nature has to be a thing of the past. Instead working with nature and respecting its limits must be the norm. Here's four Big Ideas:

  • Stop treating the planet like a machine

  • Prioritise cutting energy use

  • Cut meat and dairy consumption to free-up land for nature

  • Make our cities 'Sharing Cities'

What's the future for play?

Playing is recognised as an important part of childhood development. And let's face it, playing is good for all of us, young and old alike. It can also be an important part of how we define ourselves - whether we see ourselves as a footballer in a local club, a singer in a choir, or a collaborative gamer on the internet.

A secure sense of identity is important to wellbeing. But as our research showed, identities are increasingly shaped by what we buy and through competitive displays of what we own. Competitive consumption is the new game in town.

Competitiveness is embedded early on in many countries through education. In the UK, schools are being forced to obsess with testing regimes (pdf) which restrict the time for creativity and play. Think-tank Compass described the UK education system as one aimed at churning out "worker ants and turbo-charged consumers".

This is the last thing we need from education. Instead we need to empower young people to navigate the truths, half-truths and downright lies that make up the world of politics; we need them to develop confident self-identity without having to resort to competitive displays of consumption; and we need great innovators if we are deliver wellbeing for all within environmental limits.

Sadly, education appears to be doing exactly what political leaders and economists want, as they desperately try to get people shopping to keep consumer-based economies afloat.

More positively there is a growing band of parents and teachers who are against the obsession with testing in the UK education system, from teachers unions opposing testing to parents taking their children out of school on test days.

Encouraging play for all ages is perhaps a surprising, yet radical Big Idea to address the over-consumption that many politicians and economists see as essential. Of course playing isn't a magic bullet - mindfulness, sustainable marketing, and promoting empathetic consumption are all also important parts of the mix. But play can change the world, and help develop more sustainable identities.

So playing should take centre-stage in our lives, our identities and our education systems. After all, who really wants to be a worker ant and turbo-charged consumer? Here's two Big Ideas to help us get off this treadmill.

  • Put play centre-stage in education for all ages and kick out the testing obsession.

  • Deploy mindfulness to develop less consumption-focused identities.

What's the future for politics?

Of course, lots of people are said to 'play' at politics. And 'politics' has a bad name nowadays.

But politics is everywhere - it is inherent in all the decision-making from parish councils, to business investments, to the UN Security Council. Political decisions influence everything, from which potholes in the road to fix, to whether you can get decent health-care, to whether the next generation will have a planet fit to live on.

Because politics shapes everything we do we should all be actively involved in politics, and politics needs to change to accommodate all voices. Currently decisions are largely held in the hands of the few - largely wealthy powerful white men in political parties and corporations.

If we are to save the planet and look after people we need the ideas and experiences of many. In most, if not all societies this requires a transformation, particularly in empowering women.

Decisions should be taken at as local a level as possible. Across the world there are good examples of how, when citizens take control of decisions such as how to spend budgets, more gets spent on what the community needs, such as schools and hospitals.

As well as power needing to be devolved and distributed, networking grassroots groups enables them to be more powerful by enabling them to share ideas, learn lessons and coordinate in pressing for change, for example as grassroots anti-fracking groups are doing right now in the UK and internationally.

Of course it's critical that if power is devolved and distributed that it isn't distributed to local elites, and that all citizens are empowered and enabled to take part - including through continuing education opportunities for all people that not only enhance the skills and abilities of learners but also capture their lived experience and expertise of participants.

This devolution of power, if it truly involves everybody, can lead to decisions that recognise the needs of the whole community. For example, in transport, far too often the needs of car drivers are prioritised above the needs of those without cars or those who opt to cycle or walk.

This leads to unjust outcomes, and has little regard to the impact on the environment or the wellbeing of future generations. Transport systems need to provide freedom of movement but also need to be fair.

The idea of citizens taking a more active role in decision-making isn't restricted to the local. Increasingly the availability of digital tools and technologies means they can also get involved at the global level, protecting the global commons - our climate, atmosphere, oceans and even Space.

This approach of subsidiarity and citizen power is something that is often talked about by politicians across the political spectrum, but sadly rarely practiced when they are in power. It is also something that would meet enormous resistance from those who currently have disproportionate power - like the giant corporations and the wealthy elite who travel to Davos every year for an annual World Economic Forum meeting with presidents and prime ministers.

Harnessing the power of digital technologies

The rapid development of digital technology is however making change inevitable. Let's not kid ourselves that digital doesn't come with problems as well as opportunities.

After all, post the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the USA there has been much talk about how algorithm-driven social media may be reinforcing prejudices, narrowing exposure to different views and spreading 'fake news'. But digital can be a tool for better decision-making.

Tools such as Loomio, which was developed by the Occupy Movement, is just one example of how digital platforms can lead to fairer decision-making.

But if we are to have digitally-aided democracy, we will also need to prevent the kind of snooping laws just introduced in the UK, which have been described by lawyers as the "most extreme spying powers ever seen". Internet privacy should be the norm, with spying on an individual only allowed if sanctioned by a court.

Changing who, how, and where political decisions are made is not enough on its own. For good politics, we also need to change mind-sets. There has been an alarming decline in empathy in countries such as Australia, the United States and the UK. Empathetic decision-making would have surely led to different responses to the refugee crisis.

It would surely have led to less scapegoating of 'others' as was so prevalent in the Brexit debate and US Presidential election. It would surely have taken more notice of the thousands dying every year due to extreme weather caused by climate change.

It will take real effort to turn around these declines in empathy, but there are approaches that work, such as taking babies into schools for kids to observe to human libraries.

Our politics clearly needs transforming, here's six Big Ideas for how:

  • Ensure gender equality so women's talents inform political decisions at all levels.

  • Devolve decision-making and empower disadvantaged communities to take part

  • Network communities locally, nationally and globally to build their power

  • Put justice at the heart of decision-making, for example in transport.

  • Use digital technologies to enable all citizens to protect our global commons

  • Turn around the decline in empathy

Where next?

We set off on our Big Ideas Change the World journey hoping to identify the transformative changes needed if we are to turn around the huge damage we are doing to ecosystems, human welfare and the prospects for the next generation.

We'd be very arrogant if we pretended we'd identified the perfect route-map forward or all the Big Ideas. But we have identified 30 powerful opportunities for transformational change, 16 of which we've sketched out here.

The transformational changes we are suggesting will not be easy because by its nature big change is resisted by vested interests. This is especially true when the changes threaten to transform the economic, political and social systems that benefit them above the majority of the population and the environment. But we owe it to the next generation to do more than just policy reform (although policy reform can nudge us in the right direction), we need to pursue these bigger changes.

Out of the Big Ideas we've identified, the five that most excite me - alongside important policy reforms to save the bees, cut air pollution, and get off fossil fuels, etc. - are:

  1. Fundamentally reform education, make it life-long and focus it on creativity and critical-thinking, building empathy, and helping us all understand the complexity, inter-connectedness and fragility of the ecosystems we are part of and depend upon.

  2. Empower our cities to drive change, particularly utilising the opportunities of density and digital to become 'sharing cities' that reduce resource consumption, share resources more equitably and help build communities.

  3. Champion and make space for purpose-driven businesses as well as cooperatives and social enterprises. This will require the breaking-up of corporate oligopolies and monopolies, which is no mean feat.

  4. Empower women to help transform politics, policy and practice.

  5. Embrace and support innovation, particularly grassroots innovation that is aimed at doing more with less; and particularly innovation that disrupts the giant incumbent corporations.

The 16 Big Ideas we have identified can't be delivered sequentially - rather they are all different 'fronts' of activity, many of which reinforce one another.

And these Big Ideas won't be delivered rapidly. If there is one thing we learnt from our exploration of the history of campaigning - carried out in partnership with the academic History & Policy network - it is that change takes perseverance and time. These transformational changes will take years and decades, not months and weeks.

Campaign choices, including policy reform, need to be informed by whether or not they contribute to these bigger changes. Transformational change will happen. In many cases, it is already underway. Now is the time to be a Smart Optimist.



Mike Childs is Co-lead of Friends of the Earth's Big Ideas Change the World research project.

The 'Big Ideas Change the World' project was led by Mike Childs, Duncan McLaren, Joanna Watson, Adam Bradbury and Phil Byrne.


[1] Friends of the Earth, 2017, '30 Big Ideas to Change the World'.

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