What do you get when you cross Walmart with Mother Teresa? Who would be the Square Deal candidate in 2012? And how in the world do you compare—and rank—such dynamic, eclectic businesses as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google?
The answers to these and other captivating questions lie within our 2012 Most Innovative Companies coverage, undoubtedly the most engaging, surprising, creative rendition of the list we've ever produced. It includes full-length features of outfits such as Starbucks (where CEO Howard Schultz explains how he really revived the business and the brand); puzzles and other games that illuminate, for example, Twitter's power as a media company; and photo essays on mind benders like the Occupy movement—this list's designated startup of the year.
A month ago, I wrote a feature on the dramatic pace of change in our economy, and about how only those who can adapt to this new reality—those whom I call Generation Flux—will be poised to thrive. Our Most Innovative Companies list is like a guide to what works in a time of flux—both among our top 50 and in the nine industry-based "Top 10" lists in the issue. Here are eight key themes:
Growth should be a tactic, not a strategy. The renaissance at Starbucks started with the insight that fewer, better stores could spark improvement. As Schultz puts it, "Profit as a singular goal is a fairly shallow aspiration, and it's not enduring."
Big companies need to be as nimble as startups. Despite their growth, the Fab Four—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google—continue to drive the agenda across the global economy.
Tech is disruptive in unexpected places. LegalZoom is challenging the definition of law practice; Kiva Systems' robots are remaking warehouses; Polyvore is democratizing fashion.
Design is a competitive advantage. Airbnb has become superhot because it started with design, not technology; Jawbone's "wow" products go far beyond consumer electronics.
Social media makes products and services better. From HBO's digital offerings to the National Marrow Donor Program, social media is now critical for many operations.
Data is power. Looking at companies such as LinkedIn and Networked Insights, it's clear that the right numbers can drive a business.
Money is flowing. The traditional role of banks and Wall Street is being challenged—by Square and PayPal, for commercial transactions; by Kickstarter and Y Combinator on the investor side.
Copycats are history. Emerging market entrepreneurs aren't just following the success of others; they're creating new, distinctive models, from Bug Agentes Biologicos in Brazil, to Greenbox in China, to Redbus in India.
The state of innovation in our economy has never been more robust, despite all of the economic challenges and political uncertainty in our world. That is a testament to the creativity being unleashed around the globe and the resilience of those willing to undertake risk. Even among our Most Innovative alumni, there are terrific examples of new initiatives, as you can read in the updates here.
One final but important note: On March 1, with this issue, we are introducing our iPad reader edition of the magazine, on the App Store. (Access is included as part of subscription.) We want to make Fast Company content available on whatever platforms you use, from paper and your desktop computer to tablets and your smartphones. And if you haven't yet sampled our new online franchises—Co.Exist, which covers world-changing ideas, and Co.Create, which covers the intersection of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Madison Avenue—I encourage you to take a peek. They are among the ways we're trying to stay innovative too.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.