20 ideas for a better world

by David Lomas / 26 December, 2009
Imaginative New Zealanders share their ideas on how to make the world a better place.

Christmas is traditionally a time of possibility and fresh hope. So, what more appropriate time to ask how we can make the world - or New Zealand - a better place? There are the obvious ones. Eradicate poverty and war. Get rid of those annoying little stickers on fruit. Wave a magic wand, and allow us to understand other languages. We can agree these would make the world a better place. (Although there are some surprising hold-outs on the issue of stickers on fruit.) But what else could we do?

How about a revolutionary form of transport that's easy on the environment? Christchurch inventor Grant Ryan has done what might once have seemed impossible - improved the -bicycle. His electric bike - the YikeBike - costs just 5c a day to power, glides through traffic jams at 20km/h, and folds up into a compact package that can be carried into the house or office and recharged using an ordinary power socket. Live too far out of town to commute by bike? Yike to the bus stop, train station or ferry, fold it up and carry it aboard, then unfold it and yike to the office.

Time lists the YikeBike (see above) as one of the 50 top inventions of 2009. Long term, Ryan tells the Listener, it will be cheaper than an ordinary bike. "Our big hairy goal - which is so crazy as to be laughable - is to create something that could be the most commonly owned transport device in the world. Bikes are it at the moment, but you can't take them on the train. People live in tiny apartments - if you visit someone in the UK or Europe you trip over bikes - and there are issues with parking. So if you can make it cheaper, smaller, easier to charge, it becomes very viable, and it's a way of amplifying the usefulness of public transport and getting around congested cities."

Hawke's Bay fisherman Rick Burch is doing for the humble fishing net what Ryan has done for the bicycle - taken a prosaic and seemingly unimprovable design and made it much better. In wanting to lift his boat's fuel efficiency, Burch started making nets that eliminated the wire and steel chain used around the edge of nets and to connect them to the boat. He replaced it with ultra-light, super-strong rope. And he was trying to reduce the drag on his vessel when he changed the mesh of his fishing net from the traditional diamond shape to a square shape.

From these innovations, Burch has got much more than he bargained for. His fuel use dropped 25%, and the modified mesh design has massively reduced his bycatch of small and juvenile fish. And because the whole apparatus is lighter, it doesn't tear up the ocean floor like traditional nets. Burch, who has fished all over the world since 1967, says: "We have to try to improve the way we treat the ocean. I don't think you can hold your head up and make too many statements unless you make some effort to tidy your act up."

Burch's innovation fits closely with Canadian author Margaret Atwood's "idea" for a better world as published in New Scientist (see box, page 28). From the practical to the philosophical, New Zealanders are full of ideas to improve the world.

We asked a wide variety of imaginative Kiwis to propose one suggestion each on a change for the better and tell us why. Many focused on the environment. Two put forward alternative views on how to solve the Palestinian/Israel issue. Others called for a change on a personal level. All were thought-provoking.

As former US president John F Kennedy said: "A man may die, nations may rise and fall but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance ..."

1. Expand your mind

Professor Richard Faull, director, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland

One of the most exciting scientific discoveries of recent times is the finding that the adult human brain contains stem cells that can generate new brain cells throughout our life. This is revolutionary, with far-reaching implications for expanding our mind. Animal studies have unequivocally shown that stimulating environments and exercise increase the number of new brain cells. It follows then that we can generate new brain cells and expand our mind through mental and intellectual stimulation - reading, thinking, creating, doing cryptic crosswords, Sudoku, chess - and exercise. The idea that our brain inevitably shrinks with ageing is a myth that exists only in our minds. Keep your mind active and engage in a stimulating and challenging life, and stay fit - these are the vital ingredients for expanding your mind.

2. Power your house with house paint

John Watt, MacDiarmid young scientist of the year 2009

New Zealand's energy consumption is expected to grow at least threefold by 2050. The struggle to meet this energy demand is exacerbated by the problem of carbon emissions. However, the development of nanotechnology-based solar cells by researchers at Victoria University and Industrial Research Ltd is providing a way to overcome this problem. By making tiny solar cells 50,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair, they hope to harvest infrared radiation from the sun - which makes up 45% of all radiation hitting the Earth. The tiny size of these "nanoparticles" means they can be incorporated into paint products to absorb light. This means your house paint will actually power your house! And then by using the same effect in reverse, as the nanoparticles emit light, your interior paint will become your lighting. This technology will allow New Zealand to keep up with its energy demands while maintaining our staunch anti-nuclear stance.  

3. Use New Zealand's aid budget to help pay for shipping of fresh water

Sir Douglas Graham, former National Cabinet minister

Whatever the cause of global warming, there isn't any doubt about the pending world crisis over drinking water. Today, about 14% of the world's population do not have adequate supplies of water. Scientists tell us that will increase to 33% within 15 years and that "water will be the petroleum of the next century". The UN warns the competition for water will cause international tension and possible conflict. Egypt has already declared it will use military force against anyone taking water from the Nile without its agreement. Kiwis have an oversupply of water and should help, both for humanitarian reasons and to promote global stability. But how? We are too far away to do much, but we could help our cousins over the ditch and our Pacific Island friends when the crunch comes. How about as part of our aid programme we subsidise the transport cost? 

4. An e-book library for every child

Anne Tucker, publishing programme tutor, Whitireia Community Polytechnic, Wellington

Every child in the world, no matter how remote from a bookshop or library, could be given 1000, even 10,000, of the world's best books on a large-screen cellphone. As they grew up, they would not only be encouraged to read and write, but also ultimately have access to the finest minds of many cultures. In many places with no book-buying or library culture, there is a rapidly growing cellphone culture. India is likely to have 500 million cellphone users by 2010, many of these the rural poor. There is currently a project for some children of those rural poor to learn English via cellphone games. In the US, cellphones are competing with the Amazon Kindle and gaining serious currency as e-book readers. E-books are relatively small files, so why not give children an e-book library as well?

5. Use our renewable energy to become a global data centre

Laurence Millar, information technology consultant

The 21st century will be the information century - weightless products and services will be the engine of global economic growth, fuelled by the internet. This single market of two billion people on the web will demand increasing information-processing capability - massive data centres using renewable power with a long-run competitive price. Almost 10% of New Zealand's electricity generation capacity is used at Tiwai Point for a 20th-century business - importing alumina and exporting manufactured aluminium. New Zealand is internationally respected for integrity, we have a "green" brand, a stable legal and regulatory regime, and were recently confirmed as the least corrupt country in the world. These factors create a unique opportunity for a globally attractive data centre facility drawing on renewable Manapouri energy. Do we have the vision and courage to seize the opportunity and establish New Zealand as a trusted provider of services to the new global economy?

6. Universal acceptance of liberal democracy with a relatively unfettered market economy

Bill Day, managing director, Seaworks, marine contractors; entrepreneur of the year in 2000

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as the worst of all methods of government apart from all the others that have been tried. One of Western society's great contributions to the world is the concept of a liberal democracy operating a market economy. I believe the universal adoption of this is the one thing that would make the world a better place. This factor has driven Western economic and cultural dominance and it is only in recent years, where parts of the model are being incorporated by other societies, that this dominance has been threatened. People who live in liberal democracies with market economies are wealthier, live longer, are better educated, pollute less, are less likely to go to war and, in my view, generally lead happier and more fulfilled lives. Imagine a world where we all lived this way.

7,A free and independent Palestine

Professor Marilyn Waring, Institute for Public Policy, Auckland University of Technology

Recently Waring visited the Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut. This is what one resident, a 61-year-old man, told her: "We live in an environment that is not fit for a human being. This is not a camp; this is like the Jewish ghettos of Europe. No one knows what will happen tomorrow. Now the situation is even more difficult. Leaders were fooled by the Oslo agreements that there could be peace. After 16 more years with more suffering and more threats, why should we have any hope? I was born in 1948 and I have never felt as confused as I do now. The Israelis are in a position of power, so why would they negotiate? Why would they give away anything? Israel controls the air space, water, energy, technology, access to markets. Israel is very comfortable. I cannot see any solution. No one wants to be responsible for what will happen to us: not the Lebanese Government, not the UN, not the PLO. The Islamic groups operate as a shadow government and have more impact on the everyday life of the camps. I am not stateless. My country is still there. It's just occupied. I don't want another passport. I am Palestinian. Anyone who claims to be a Jew can go there and get a house where my house should be. We do not want your sympathy. We want your solidarity, support and respect for implementing human rights, or no one will live in peace. I have been humiliated all my life. Give me choice and dignity."

DECLARE THE WEST BANK A PALESTINIAN STATE

Professor Jim Flynn, Emeritus Professor of political studies, University of Otago

How Israel could give itself a chance of long-term survival: declare the entire West Bank and the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem a Palestinian state; with the requirement that any new housing must be approved by the Palestinian authorities. Israeli settlements would have a local administration protected by Israeli arms. Those who wish to relocate to Israel must sell their property to the Israeli Government, to be resold to Palestinians only. Thus a small but steady flow of Palestinians would move into the settlements. If they became a majority, they would dominate the local administration and take over the police and courts. Israel would reserve the right to act against anyone who attacks Israel or its citizens on the West Bank. It would not get immediate peace but, rather, the best chance for violence to recede in the long term. Unless Israel is willing to show it is not an expansionist power, Barack Obama should give it a very cold shoulder.

8. FREE public transport FOR URBAN TRIPS

Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, director of NZ Centre for Sustainable Cities, University of Otago

New Zealand cities sprawl and spread into the suburbs. Suburbs provide space for trees and gardens and children growing up, but also encourage people to drive into and across the city as quickly as possible. There is a solution that could significantly lower carbon emissions and help stabilise our planet's climate. Good, easily accessed public transport - buses, light rail and trains - funded by central and local governments, could cut the number of car trips.Instead of building more roads, we could transform the ones we have, incorporating safe cycle-ways at the side and separating them from the roads by footpaths, which let people safely step onto buses and light rail. The clincher would be to make public transport free for urban trips, instead of making almost all roads free for cars. Sydney tried it during the Olympic Games and found it made economic, environmental and social sense.

9. Find out how to be a change maker

Di Grennell, executive director, Amokura family violence prevention network, Northland

We can each decide on the attributes needed in our part of the world and act. We can all use our powers, including choice, to influence change for the planet, for children and for our communities. Abandon passivity in the face of recession, repression and tides of violence. Ask daily what a strong person would do and do it, ask what a person of compassion and integrity would do and do it, ask what those committed to justice would do and do it. Ask what would make the most profound change to make your world a better place and find others to do it with. New Zealanders were generous in response to the Samoan tsunami - but we haven't mobilised to respond to our own unnatural disasters of child death and injuries from preventable causes.

10. Go Vegan

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, international best-selling author of The Face on Your Plate

What kind of life could any of us have without our beloved planet? According to the Worldwatch Institute, 51% of greenhouse gas emissions annually come from the world's livestock and their byproducts. Okay, you don't care about the planet? You're a me-first kinda person? Well, the evidence is accumulating that eating meat damages your health. And here's another reason. New Zealand has a clean green image. Imagine if the whole country went organic. Imagine how the world would flock to buy. Then imagine if they could add a line: "No living being was harmed in the making of this food." New Zealand is a progressive country. That to me is progress.

11. Compensate young women for their service to the country as mothers

Dame Cath Tizard, former Governor-General

If humans were like turtles whose young hatch fully formed, ready to look after themselves, there would be no dilemma for young women who are increasingly suffering guilt at having to balance careers and motherhood and having to make agonising decisions whether to have children young or to embark on what might be a high-achieving career, or trusting to luck or the IVF industry to rescue them later in life. Compare two sorts of country service. The first is those young men who went to war to serve the needs of their country. When they returned, they were compensated. They were established on the land, given job retraining, housing loans, promotion credits when starting a teaching career. They were not penalised for their "choice". The second is that of bearing, raising and nurturing new generations of New Zealanders. Couldn't this sort of "country service" be compensated in some similar way?

12. Smart e-philanthropy to tailor giving to givers

Tommy Honey, director, New Zealand Film and Television School

Philanthropy is a big business. In the future it should be even bigger. The internet has changed the way we give. In the future it should change even more. There are some great websites that make it easier to give, but they are mostly electronic versions of buckets jingling with change. They are centred on the charity, the recipient. Smart philanthropy should be based on the giver. Imagine a website where you could go to establish how much money you would like to give each month - a set amount determined by you. You could then browse the site for charities that you would like to benefit and apportion percentages of your monthly gift. The site does the rest, including generating an annual summary for tax purposes. It could even be funded by the charitable arm of a bank. Make it easier to give and giving will grow.

13. See the world

Matariki Whatarau, young actor

New Zealand's geographic situation is a disadvantage and going overseas is pricey, but it's worth it. Travelling is invaluable for many reasons but, in this context, seeing the world is important because you cannot fix something or make it better if you don't know what it looks like. If going abroad isn't an option, you could always jump in a van with some friends and go on a "roadie", or simply take a walk through your neighbourhood. We have a whole lot of world to see right here in Aotearoa and once you've seen a bit of it, you'll have a better idea of what can be done to make it a better place.

14. Offer family planning widely

Nick Wilson, associate professor, Public Health, Wellington School of Medicine, University of Otago

One of the most cost-effective ways for humanity to reduce the impact of climate change is for human fertility rates to decline throughout the world. If the human population peaks at eight billion rather than nine billion in the year 2050 (a mid-range projection), it could prevent billions of tons of carbon being emitted. Improved reproductive healthcare will benefit all countries - even in the US, about half the pregnancies are still unplanned. But in poorer countries, fertility reductions from improved reproductive health services will bring the added benefits of assisting economic development and helping to build social resilience to the harmful impacts of climate change. Globally, it is estimated that over 200 million women have an unmet need for family planning. But access to such healthcare should also be combined with the other key strategies for lower fertility: better education for girls and sex equality. 

15. Become bilingual

Ngarimu Blair, Ngati Whatua o Orakei Maori Trust Board

All New Zealanders of the future will be bilingual, speaking at least both English and Maori. I don't mean counting to 10 like Gerry Brownlee or saying Hone instead of Honnay. I mean having the ability to converse confidently in Maori. Schools will teach English and Maori literacy. This will build a distinct Aotearoa-New Zealand identity, a nation of people who can think and act across cultures, a people who can move across the Pacific and Asia, building relationships and our economy, too. For Maori without their indigenous voice a void is filled and self-esteem gained. For Pakeha and other Kiwis, a deeper connection is made to this land and sea, and to its first peoples who are often heard but misunderstood. Future young Kiwis on their OE will slip between Maori and English, taking the piss out of their clueless Aussie mates over a beer at the local paparakauta. Rawe!

16. Give away a smoko break of pay

Nikki Denholm, specialist in women's issues in developing countries

Every weekend, we think nothing of finding 15 minutes to have a coffee or read a magazine - without getting paid. But back at work, morning tea breaks count as paid time. Across the country, just one smoko works out at $250 million paid out each year. $250 million for doing nothing. Imagine if each of us donated one smoko's worth of pay a week - just 15 minutes - to an aid agency of our choice. $250 million could buy mosquito nets for every Cambodian, set up 3000 clinics in Ethiopia, or provide water filters for every Malawi family ... the list is endless. One smoko. The world becomes a better place. And our lives become so much richer for it.

17. Embrace Asia by starting at home

Rodney Jones, principal of Wigram Capital Advisors, macro advisory firm focused on Asia. Former partner of Soros Fund management, based in Hong Kong

The tyranny of distance is seen as limiting New Zealand's ability to benefit from the rise of Asia. But "Asia" is not something that happens over there. We can embrace its rise by starting at home. Over the past decade, Asian communities within New Zealand have grown significantly. Look at the crowds of Indian New Zealanders who turned out to support the Indian cricket team on their tour here. What many of us don't realise is the remarkable networks many migrants possess, networks and connections that can open doors to business opportunities and Asia. We are a society made up of separate silos. Our challenge is to break down those and fully integrate recent and not-so-recent migrants from Asia into our society. Teaching Asian studies in schools would be an excellent start. Becoming more curious and interested in new and not-so-new migrants would help, too. If you have attended a school prizegiving this year, the potential of young Asian New Zealanders is clear. But too often, making the choice to live in New Zealand has forced their parents to take jobs that are well below their training and abilities. This is a loss for them, and for us, as we fail to leverage the human capital we already have. As we more fully engage with Asian New Zealanders, we will start to acquire the understanding, skills and personal networks we need as a nation to participate more fully in the Asian century. The way New Zealand/Aotearoa evolved from the 19th century reflected the economic dominance of the British. As China, and then India, become economically dominant in the 21st century, New Zealand will again change. The sooner we start the better.

18. Let children start school at three to help kickstart their learning curiosity

Professor Mark Henaghan, Faculty of Law, University of Otago, expert in family law

New Zealand has a variety of wonderful early childhood opportunities in which children are exposed to stimulating environments that enable their natural curiosity to thrive. Jim Flynn's book What Is Intelligence? shows that the environment is the most important factor in developing intelligence, both intellectual and emotional. New Zealand should lead the way for a movement that would invest in the idea of all children starting school at age three. The name "school" would be changed to "think tank". Teachers in these think tanks would be given the highest status and would provide environments where children can develop to the maximum, from an early age, their natural learning curiosity. The result would be a world where every child has the opportunity to think for themselves and to become independent-minded citizens. We have been preoccupied with the physical environment, but if we look after the mental and emotional environment first, everything else should fall into place.

19. Forget GDP. Think EDP (eco domestic product)

Jude Hooson, managing director, the Providence Report, a business intelligence company that provides strategic insights to senior executives and boards

When over 70% of our exports are derived from land-based activity, New Zealand's economic prosperity is intrinsically linked to the health of our ecosystems. It is increasingly our most precious asset and its guardianship should be annually accounted for. Our current measure of economic performance, gross domestic product, originated at a time when global resources were abundant and our environment was considered an inexhaustible sink. GDP measures economic growth in terms of goods and services produced and says nothing about the way they are produced. One of the measures the World Bank and the United Nations have explored is eco domestic product, a measure that incorporates the depletion of natural resources and degradation of the environment into GDP assessments. Elevating eco domestic product as a critical measure of our national wellbeing would drive a very different strategic focus, set of priorities and longer planning horizon. Why model ourselves on Australia when our natural resources and environment have so little in common and our challenges in a changing global climate are so different? Our future lies in creating highly crafted, artisanal products that can command a premium in world niche markets. The critical raw ingredient, whether in the product - or its brand storytelling - is the quality of our land.

20. Every day for everyone to make the effort to say at least one nice thing to another person

Richard Kahui, All Black

Put a smile on someone's dial. I certainly try and say something nice to at least one person every day. It is a simple idea but one that a lot of people probably don't put into action. It really isn't that hard to do. It could be saying hello to the neighbour over the fence, ringing your dad and asking how his day is, or just saying hello to a stranger you walk past on the street. Happiness makes the world go round!

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