The Top 10 Social Innovations Since 1900

Our editor’s not at all definitive list of the Top 10 social innovations since 1900

Earlier this week I stumbled across an amazing TED talk by Hans Rosling, in which he makes the case for the washing machine being a social innovation and the most important invention of the industrial revolution. Then through the magic of Twitter, I perused Jeremy Nicholls’ 10 most important social innovations of all time, which was inspired by that same talk.

In his piece, Jeremy notes that:

“Social innovation is all around us and everyone is at it. In thinking about what innovations are likely to have a real impact on the big issues of the present and future, it’s worth considering some of the social innovations that have had the biggest impact in the past.”

I couldn’t agree more. In the hopes of continuing the “looking back” conversation about social innovation, but also in contributing to the ongoing dialogue around how we can invest in impact in ways we hadn’t thought of before…I give you my not at all definitive list of the Top 10 Social Innovations since 1900.

1) The electric washing machine (1904ish) & the Laundromat (1934)

While the abovementioned TED talk gives a pretty exhaustive explanation on the machine itself, I’d say that the laundromat was equally as important for distributing the washing machine’s myriad benefits to those who can’t afford a machine. There are few social innovations more egalitarian than the laundromat.

2) Penicillin (1928)

I may be allergic to this stuff, but it has been the silver bullet for an astounding number of formerly deadly diseases. In his 2014 Gates Foundation Annual Letter, Bill talks about how the world is much better than it was 100 years ago. We’ve got penicillin to thank for a good chunk of that.

3) The Internet (1960s)

How are you reading this right now? Need I say more?

4) Nitrogen fixation (1918)

Developed by German chemist Fritz Haber – also known as “father of chemical warfare” – this process was used to create a new class of fertilizers central to the green revolution. All told, nitrogen fixation has probably saved billions from starvation.

5) The pill (1960)

Female empowerment. Family planning. Lower mortality rates. #Winning

6) The transistor & semi-conductor electronics (1947)

No transistors? Welcome to a world without radios, TVs, computers, solar panels or cell phones.

7) Scientific plant breeding (1920s)

Thank Austrian botanist Gregor Mendol, whose forgotten 1866 paper was discovered in the early 1920s. This catalyzed our understanding of plant breeding and later, human genetics.

8) Television (early 20th century)

Can you imagine any number of social movements without it? Neither can I.

9) Air conditioning

Obviously one thinks of the equatorial locales. But for anybody that has lived in Toronto or any other major Western city in the summer, think about all those “extreme heat warnings” and imagine a whole lot more heat stroke, fainting, etc. Imagine the medical cost of dealing with all that. There you go.

10) Insulin (1922)

Insulin was discovered by Canuck Frederick Banting at the University of Toronto, winning him a Nobel Prize. With the incidence of diabetes increasing rapidly, especially in the developing world – the number of global diabetes cases is expected to almost double from 171 million in 2000 to 366 million in 2030 – look for this one to climb the charts.

Editor’s Note: Agree? Disagree? Feel like I missed something? Tweet us your feedback!


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