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If sci-fi spurs technology, can 'social fiction' spark change?

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(Read caption) Bangladeshi economist and founder of the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, arrives at the Clinton Global Initiative Reception in New York in September 2011. In trying to improve technology – or societies – 'if we imagine it, it will happen,' he says.

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Ever notice how the gadgets of science fiction – the personal communications devices, the 3-D copy machines, the killer drones – become reality in time? Putting an idea out in the public imagination is the first step to making it real, says Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the microcredit movement.

“Every day, we see what used to be impossible become possible, and routine,” he says.

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So why is social change harder to achieve than technological change? In part because there are fewer visions available of what a better future would look like, he argues.

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“Science follow science fiction, but we don’t have social fiction, so society doesn’t move as much,” he noted while receiving an award for his life’s achievements at the Skoll World Forum gathering in Oxford, England, this week [April 10]. If more movies, television series, and other media could be created to help people envision better future societies, “I bet we’ll create the societies,” he said.

He urged people trying to improve society to follow their instincts, to notice small chanced-upon things that spur ideas, and not to be afraid to move forward with half-baked ideas.

His microcredit revolution – providing tiny loans at market interest rates to the world’s poorest, helping them escape what he termed a “slavery” relationship with loan sharks – came about by accident when he discovered, while talking to a bamboo weaver in a village in his native Bangladesh, that he could pay off the debts that were crushing her and limiting her income to 2 cents a day with the change in his pocket.

That day he paid the debts of 43 village women – a total of $27 – and his idea was born.

Many great social enterprises come from such moments, not from careful business plans, he said.

“You persuade yourself along the way that what you do is right,” he said.

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He pointed to the example of another honoree, Salman Amid Khan, who spent two years in a closet in California creating video lectures for students on math topics, science, and history, then putting them all online, free, under the name Khan Academy.

Today his lectures, translated into dozens of languages, are used by everyone from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ children to orphans in Mongolia, giving everyone in the world with Internet access the possibility of having the same high-quality education.

Now “we need only one global university – the best,” Yunus said.

In trying to improve technology – or societies – “if we imagine it, it will happen,” he promised.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.