Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, stopped by our offices recently. He didn't look like anyone special. Without his gold hardware or a pool to churn through, he could have been any run-of-the-mill mall rat: iPod buds in his ears, thumbs texting on his phone, baggy jeans with his boxers peeking out. Surely not the picture of a history-defying figure.
Meeting Phelps got me thinking about how hard it can be to envision events that shatter our worldview. Mark Spitz's seven Olympic golds in 1972 seemed an unbeatable record. The world's most talented athletes pounded away at the task for decades. After awhile, it seemed obvious that they were working in vain. Only true believers — plus a kid who is transformed once he hits the water — saw things differently.
Which brings me to the solar-power revolution. For decades, we have been teased with the promise that the sun's rays could provide clean, cheap, accessible, unlimited energy for all. And for decades, the reality has failed to match the promise. With the recent plunge in fossil-fuel prices, it now seems reasonable to assume that solar will, once again, sink into the west as a less competitive, not-ready-for-prime-time sci-fi illusion. But as Chris Turner writes in "Solar Goes Supernova," an industrial-scale, mass-market solar industry is finally emerging, from Silicon Valley to a "solar valley" in Germany to Canberra, Australia, where energy-capturing roofing might soon make even the most unremarkable-looking buildings into small power plants. As one expert in Turner's piece observes, not that long ago the mainframe computer was touted as the centerpiece of the digital age, only to lose out to widely distributed PCs. So too, potentially, with energy; massive centralized power plants may in time be usurped by localized solar installations.
None of this will make the front pages right now. Anxiety is too high, particularly in global financial markets. Still, fresh ways of problem solving are emerging and not solely on the solar front. CEO John Chambers is implementing a bold corporate restructuring at Cisco Systems that is speeding new products to market ("Revolution in San Jose"). Solid-state technology is exponentially expanding storage capacity and speed at mass-market prices ("Have a Solid Holiday"). Our social enterprise of the year, Enterprise Community Partners, is devising creative — and responsible — financial innovations to help solve our housing woes ("Eureka!: Social Enterprises of the Year"). And the other nine social enterprises we recognize in this issue each represent a breakthrough concept, from not-for-profit pharmaceuticals to a bank for microfinance programs to village power systems fueled with rice husks.
We hope these bright spots will help motivate you and your business through these challenging times. Bold ideas — and people like Phelps — can change our reality, even if it's hard for us to recognize them.
A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.