Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Friday 24 March 2023 Dublin: 12°C
Shutterstock/Felipe Teixeira What if all these people gave a small amount of money...?
Crowdfunding, men's sheds and cars that save lives: 5 ideas that changed the 21st-century world
Anyone, anywhere can have an idea. Discover some of the most notable – and hear how you can share yours.

WHEN WE THINK of the ideas that have changed the world, there’s a roll call that comes to mind going back hundreds or even thousands of years.

From the wheel to the printing press; germ theory to democratic forms of government – these are developments that altered the course of human history.

But curiosity and innovation haven’t stopped. Far from it in fact; the pace of change has become faster than ever. (Sometimes dizzyingly and disorientingly so, as anyone who has recently taught their grandparents to use Zoom will tell you.)

This year sees the launch in Ireland of Creating Our Future, which allows anyone to submit an idea – no matter how big or small – which they believe should be explored by researchers to create a better future. With that in mind, we’re looking at some of the ideas that have changed the way we live in our society, in our century. 

From prog rock to potato salad: Crowdfunding

The word ‘crowdfunding’ was coined in 2006 by entrepreneur Michael Sullivan. The approach wasn’t totally new – governments had long issued public bonds to finance major projects, and in the pop culture sphere, the prog band Marillion famously funded an entire 1997 tour with fan contributions.

But Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, showed the potential of the idea in an increasingly connected world, allowing users to back creative projects which they felt invested in. (Some were great, some were crazy; who could forget the $55,000 potato salad?) It was the forerunner of a wave of similar platforms which pushed the concept of crowdfunding – basically, that with enough small contributions you could achieve something huge – into the spotlight, funding everything from movie studios to record labels to litigation, and in the process changing the game for thousands of dreamers, inventors and good causes.

Shutterstock An automated parking assist in action Shutterstock

Saving lives: Your car does the thinking for you

The dream of the self-driving car – a science fiction staple since long before Knight Rider gave us David Hasselhoff and KITT’s human/auto bromance - may not quite be with us yet. But transport technology has been moving steadily towards autonomy in ways that are radically changing our idea of what cars can (or should) do.

For most of us, this change has been gradual. But buy a new car today and you’ll find that it takes over many of the functions that were previously left up to the driver. Many models come with a raft of autonomous safety features, including everything from ‘lane assist’ features that prevent inattentive drivers from veering on the motorway, to buttons that parallel park the car automatically while you take your hands off the wheel.

Perhaps the most significant development here is Automatic Emergency Braking, a system that detects the distance to the car (or other object) in front and hits the brakes if you are close to collision. This feature literally saves lives: an EU study estimated that it could cut rear-end collisions by almost half. 

Rolling News President Michael D Higgins at the International Men's Sheds Festival at DCU in 2014 Rolling News

Putting the ‘men’ in ‘mental health’: The growth of men’s sheds

The men’s sheds movement started informally in Australia, with a handful of projects tackling social isolation among older men (one of the first was for retired miners in Broken Hill, New South Wales). The aim was to create a space where men could connect with each other and contribute their skills to projects which benefit the whole community. As word spread and more similar initiatives sprang up, a guiding philosophy began to emerge: ‘Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder’.  

Amid international growth over the last 15 years, Ireland has emerged as a key location for the movement. Since the first Irish men’s shed opened its doors in Tipperary in 2009, some 400 more have done likewise, with 12,000 men visiting a shed around the country every week pre-pandemic. 

From their modest beginnings – the idea from the off was that a ‘shed’ would be an informal space where things start small – men’s sheds have been widely recognised in tackling social isolation; helping men to address their mental health; and encouraging the passing of skills from one generation to another. Becoming patron of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association in 2013, President Michael D Higgins called the movement “enlightening and inspiring”. 

Shutterstock / marleyPug The first-generation iPhone Shutterstock / marleyPug / marleyPug

‘There’s a computer in your pocket’: The smartphone

What overview of recent innovation could get away without mentioning the smartphone? Probably no other invention has had as big an impact on our everyday lives, changing everything from breaking news to phone calls – and giving the word ‘facetime’ a whole new meaning in the process. 

The key idea here was that the mobile phone in your pocket – previously used for calls, texts, and perhaps the odd grainy photo – would become a handheld computer, networked with millions of others. 

It took a while for this concept’s true potential to become apparent. When Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007, early reviews, while positive, contained notes of caution. (“Tapping the skinny little virtual keys on the screen is frustrating, especially at first,” wrote the New York Times.)

But as small armies of app developers began building for these pocket computers, their scope grew and grew. Smartphones gradually replaced not only traditional mobiles but also cameras, music players, maps… the list is endless. When was the last time you went two hours without looking at your phone?

The encyclopedia by everybody: Crowdsourced information 

When Wikipedia was launched in 2001, the concept was revolutionary. Instead of information living in a single authoritative edition of an encyclopedia, that encyclopedia would become a living thing. Anyone could contribute, any topic could be covered, and it could add information about events as they happen. 

That crowdsourced model has changed the way we think about and consume information. For many people, Wikipedia is the first port of call when they want to find out… well, pretty much anything, from movie plots to historic events to population data. And it’s made that information accessible to everyone, for free.

In total, we read about 255 million Wikipedia articles every day, and that’s just the ones in English. Last year, an experiment by a group of economists suggested that cities in Spain could add €100,000 a year in tourism revenue by spending a few minutes adding detail to their Wikipedia entry, because tourists were using it to choose destinations.

Do you have an idea that you think researchers should explore?  Creating Our Future is an opportunity for everyone in Ireland to submit their ideas – no matter how big or small.  From science, the environment, health and education to poverty, the arts, diversity and inclusion – all ideas are welcome that can inspire researchers to help make a better future for all.