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Social Inventors

By Craig K. Comstock

in Elmwood Quarterly (sponsored by the institute founded by Fritjof Capra)


Visiting Moscow as a foundation director early in the Gorbachev era, I spoke with Gennady Alferenko who, after seven decades of Leninist control from the top, found a way to throw open a national suggestion box. A young engineer from Siberia, Alferenko was also a dance enthusiast and had managed to start, outside the official system, a little club for fellow ballet lovers. In Western Europe or the U.S. such a club would have been just one in a dense network of non-profits in every imaginable field. In 1986, however, the Soviet Union was still not allowing private associations: everything required permission from the "center."   

for young people, he invited readers to send him their own proposals for other social inventions. He was astonished to receive tens of thousands of letters, suggesting, for example, ways to care for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, reduce the person-hours wasted in shopping, improve the health care system: on and on.


In a society where the Party and government had professed to take care of everything, Alferenko then invited readers to send rubles to a new private foundation that would make grants in support of the best ideas. Again, response was enthusiastic. This was an early step in the creation of what Russians began calling a "civil society." In this transitional moment, Alferenko had been able to use an organ of the Party, the newspaper of the youth organization, to encourage decentralized private initiative.

It turns out that Alferenko’s own initiative was inspired, in part, by the work of the Institute for Social Inventions, founded in London by Nicholas Albery. Along with educational and publishing programs, the institute sponsors an annual contest for the best social inventions, asking each entrant to sketch "a new and imaginative solution to a social problem, or a new way of improving the quality of life—for instance, a new social service, a new way for people to relate to each other, or a new combination of existing ideas"...

In 1991 the institute awarded a prize to a Swedish program called The Natural Step, which provides an excellent example of how far-reaching a social invention can become.

Dr. Karl-Henrik Roberts, one of Sweden’s leading cancer researchers, worked within his country’s scientific community to reach a consensus on sustainability. Developing a method for identifying root issues and for enlarging common ground, Roberts guided the emerging policy statement through 22 drafts...

The scope of Robert's achievement in Sweden can be appreciated by comparing it with the quality of national discussion on sustainability in the U.S. Far from having reached a consensus on how to convert to a sustainable economy, most Americans have not yet even acknowledged the problem...    

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