Big Ideas Change the World

About Big Ideas

Big Ideas Change the World: Smart optimism

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Medicines. Men on the moon. Cities that support billions of people. Global communications. Humans are ingenious.

We're doing some amazing things right now. Across the world we're rapidly increasing the use of solar panels, beginning to mass-produce electric cars, and cutting deaths from malaria. Far-sighted companies are putting sustainability at their core. Digital technology is improving democracies and delivering efficiency and innovation. Leading cities are collaborating on real solutions.

Yet we're also ravaging the nature world - our life-support systems. Climate change is causing extreme weather. Species are disappearing at 100-1,000 times the normal rate. Acidification of oceans and degradation of soils threaten food production. Billions of people go hungry, and lack basic services and decent work.

Meanwhile the developed world confronts obesity and over-consumption in fearful, gated communities. 

On our current course we'll do profound damage to human welfare, economies and ecosystems - within the next 20 years.

We urgently need to turn things around. We must enable people everywhere to achieve well-being - those freedoms and capabilities that enable us all to live healthy, fulfilled lives on a planet that can sustain us. 

And unless we look after the planet it will be impossible to do that.

This project

Big Ideas Change the World will identify what needs to change to focus some of humanity's amazing abilities on solving the challenges we face and building a brighter future for everyone.

This is a three-year research project. It will inspire a new campaigning journey for Friends of the Earth.

Change won't be easy: There's a gap between scientific understanding of the challenges and public and political responses. But there's also an explosion of interest - especially among businesses, politicians and academia - in finding a new path. 

The right kind of change won't happen without a shared vision - one backed with a compelling route map, and pressure from civil society, businesses and thinkers. 

History tells us change is possible. Without change women wouldn't have the vote, slavery would still be commonplace, and Britain's National Health Service wouldn't exist. There would have been no industrial, green or digital revolutions.

The coming decades will throw up huge challenges and uncertainty.  We'll cross thresholds in environmental, social and economic systems. Unforeseen events, so-called black swans, will happen. But we also know the world population will grow, and food and resources will come under pressure.

But opportunities are bound to emerge If we seize them we could produce a much more stable, equal and healthy society by 2050. We could provide well-being for everyone and for our planet.

Our approach

Through a series of linked research pieces this project will bring new thinking to the challenges ahead. We'll learn from the past with a view to the future.

We'll use the research pieces to identify key interventions, to shape Friends of the Earth's campaigns, and influence the decisions and campaigns of others.

We'll carry out the research with academics, businesses, non-governmental organisations, opinion-formers and the public. We expect this collaborative approach to generate new insights and creativity. 

At the end of the project we'll have set out what needs to change, why, and how.

Read more in the Big Ideas prospectus Mapping a Route from a Planet in Peril to a World of Well-being.

What do we mean by well-being?

Our ultimate goal is well-being for all by 2050. 

Definitions of well-being vary between cultures and over time. For this project we emphasise:  

  • Freedom to be heard and have an influence 
  • Enough income to live with dignity 
  • Relationships 
  • A purpose in life 
  • A stable, healthy and bountiful environment to live in 
  • Respect for who you are as a person and not what you own or consume 
  • Freedom from discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.


What will have changed by 2050?

We want to see: 

  • Billions of people removed from material poverty by 2030. By 2050 they'll have joined others in enjoying well-being, the fruits of innovation and a healthy planet. 
  • Current trends in environmental destruction reversed and the global population will have peaked. Everyone will be benefiting from clear air, clean water and a livable climate. Habitats, soil and oceans will be recovering but the benefits will already be felt through increased biological productivity and diversity. 
  • Most people will have good health, meaningful lives, adequate material comforts, good education opportunities, and time for leisure
  • Everyone will enjoy the freedoms, rights, and opportunities of living in dignity without fear of physical, religious or political oppression. All people will be able to take part meaningfully in democratic societies.
  • The potential benefits of inter-connected trade, production, communications and leisure will have been realised. There will be increased understanding between people, less conflict and more cooperation in solving global challenges. 
  • The social problems that can result from extreme income inequalities will have been substantially reduced. Extreme inequalities will have been slowly reduced and returned to the levels seen in modern-day Japan or Norway.



The challenge is to transform our cities into healthy, sustainable and happy places to live.

To meet this challenge, we'll need to answer these questions:

  1. Focusing on power and responsibility - how can cities realise their social, environmental and economic potential?
  2. And how can they drive positive global change?
  3. How can political decision-making ensure all voices are heard?
  4. What are the obstacles to achieving these goals?
  5. Which professions and technologies can help cities achieve these goals?



Nature provides us with food and shelter. It gives us a bounty of by-products to make things like cloth, paper and energy. 

It provides us with ecosystem services like water purification and climate regulation. 

And we learn so much from it. But we're ravaging the planet.

  1. What level of sustainable harvesting is possible?
  2. How can we ensure humankind doesn't exceed this level - while providing a sufficient share of goods and services for all?
  3. What are the consequences of failure?



We're actively encouraged to consume. Feeling depressed? You're only a few steps from happiness with a new pair of shoes. But are our possessions a good measure of who we are?

  1. What drives consumption as the foundation for identity? 
  2. What can replace consumer identity while increasing well-being, particularly for aspiration-driven people?
  3. How can we promote a healthier concept of identity?
  4. How can we weaken the consumer identity - and what would it mean for the economy?



Historians are our modern-day elders.

  1. What can we learn from history to meet the global challenges we face today?
  2. How has rapid and transformative change happened in the past?
  3. What can we learn from history to help us accelerate towards sustainability, social justice and well-being for all?
  4. Democracies, internet freedom and human rights - Are they essential or do they hinder the potential for rapid change?
  5. How can we overcome the influence of denialism and irrationality?



Politics is so far failing to protect the global commons, whcih includes the climate, sea and soil.

  1. How do we break the barriers to political action on issues like climate mitigation - particularly in developed countries?
  2. Is privatising natural resources a barrier or an opportunity?
  3. If it's a barrier, how can we reverse the trend towards it?
  4. Do we need to change the way politicians govern the country? Eg, by recognising the rights of future generations.



Short-termism is rife in business and politics. People and the planet suffer as a result.

  1. How can we encourage businesses to strive for longer-term returns - good for people and the environment?
  2. Can we do this without major changes to how we run our economies?
  3. Would the resulting economy be stable and sustainable? If not, what else would be necessary?



Discrimination against women remains widespread. Without equality, well-being for all can't be achieved.

  1. Could women's empowerment transform the chances of societies living within environmental limits?
  2. What interventions are most needed?
  3. Could these help achieve equality for other disadvantaged communities of people?



Across the globe billions of people don't have enough energy, whereas the energy of others is generally high in carbon. 

  1. How can we harness an affordable, low-carbon energy supply for all - in terms of design, management and ownership? 
  2. What are the multiple benefits of decentralised energy and energy efficiency?
  3. Would this also encourage innovation in areas such as waste management?



Innovation in technology and thinking continues apace with great potentials but also risks.

  1. How can new technologies enhance well-being?
  2. And how can we innovate towards this goal?
  3. How can we reduce the risk of dangerous or unexpected side-effects?



The financial system is unstable, ineffectively regulated, and subject to boom and bust cycles. Yet finance is desperately needed for sustainable solutions.

  1. How can we ensure a stable financial system that invests in socially useful activities?
  2. What is the role of the public sector in achieving this?
  3. What barriers are there?
  4. And which of these ideas is likely to have a long-lasting influence on the financial system?

A Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being (Kindle Edition)

The official prospectus for Big Ideas Change the World

A Planet in Peril to a World of Well-Being

The official prospectus for Big Ideas Change the World.

Enhancing urban autonomy

To flourish, cities and their people need greater control over their destinies - and a strong ethical compass. The concept of autonomy captures both these aspects: individual freedom, and self-control that respects the freedoms of others.

Cities literature review

The research behind our thinking on how cities can improve well-being.

Big Ideas Change the World (Prezi)

Mapping a route from a planet in peril to a world of well-being.

Living cities for people and the planet (Prezi)

Friends of the Earth's project Big Ideas Change the World investigates how we can ensure cities create well-being for everyone.

Friends of the Earth's well-being project... How do we achieve well-being by 2050? Join the debate >

More on Big Ideas >
Big Ideas Change the World

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