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March 4, 1998

Global Idea Imagine just another morning in San Jose, California -- in October of 1989, say. The geologist Jim Berkland sits down -- perhaps with a cup of coffee, maybe with a muffin or two -- and, as usual, opens his newspaper to the lost-pet ads. Expecting the usual meager handful of postings for missing cats and absent puppies, he can't believe his eyes. Twenty-seven lost cats. He gulps down his coffee and heads to the lab, analyzes other relevant data, and makes a prediction: San Francisco is about to be shaken by a major earthquake. Four days later the San Andreas Fault bucks and shifts and close to seventy people are killed in a quake that measures 7.1 on the Richter scale.

Berkland has successfully predicted more than 270 tremors and quakes by following lost-pet ads, and his idea is now one of the hundreds that have been submitted to The Global Ideas Bank, a Web site that refers to itself as "an international suggestion box for socially innovative, non-technological ideas and projects." Although submissions lean toward the whimsical -- a proposition that cars be designed so that drivers can communicate a wider range of emotions and avoid fatal temper flare-ups, for example -- most are modest but thought-provoking suggestions for better living: poetry on the dentist's ceiling, an audio channel informing airplane passengers of the history and geography of the land over which they are flying, and so on. The site's host, the non-profit Institute for Social Innovation, based in London, will award £1,000 to the person behind what they consider to be the most socially innovative idea.

Judge's scores Applicants submit ideas, their own or others, that are then placed in categories ranging from "Relationships" to "Taxation." Free to peruse the entire "suggestion box," readers are encouraged to vote for their favorite ideas. The lost-pet-ad idea, for instance, has thus far received an overall approval rating of 83 percent.

By taking advantage of the Web's global reach, the creators of the Global Ideas Bank have forged a space for amateur social thinkers and specialists alike to cast about ideas and spark creative solutions to common problems. Who would have thought to be thankful for lost pets?

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