We used to hear that some problems were too big for anything but government to solve—poverty, say, or the uneven distribution of health care. But most of those woes have gotten bigger, while government's scope and ambitions have gotten smaller. What we've come to understand is that some problems are simply too big to be solved except by all of us.
And that's where the genius of the market comes in. Planetary troubles like climate change, food insecurity, resource scarcity, and disease represent the challenges of our generation, and of many to come. But for a lot of smart, ambitious people, they also represent the profit-making opportunity of a lifetime. As futurist Andrew Zolli writes in his magisterial introduction to this year's Fast 50, we may be on the cusp of nothing less than capitalism's third revolution. As in the first two, sparked respectively by industry and information, profit-driven companies and entrepreneurs are coming up with new technologies and strategies that will change our notions of production, consumption, and wealth. And this time around, they may together do nothing less than save the planet.
It is those people and ideas that we celebrate in this issue—and what a riot of innovation, imagination, and experimentation they represent. They include old-line companies that are coming to recognize that waste is expensive and sustainability good for the bottom line: Shaw Industries, the nation's largest carpet manufacturer, has discovered that it's cheaper to recycle carpet using cradle-to-cradle design than to make it from new raw materials. They include insightful thinkers who are bending existing technologies and strategies to new ends: In the Philippines, Globe Telecom lets low-income customers use their cell phones to send and receive cash, pay bills, or shop—banking for the unbanked.
Most breathtakingly, I think, the Fast 50 also include innovators with mind-blowing new technologies. There's Henk Verweijmeren, who had an epiphany watching sheep warm themselves in the heat radiated by a stretch of road. His system pumps water through pipes embedded in asphalt; placed in just 15% of Holland's roads, it would produce more energy than all that country's utilities. There's Cambridge Consultants, which has devised a 4-cent, one-piece inhaler for administering vaccines easily and cheaply.
And there's the great story of Vestergaard Frandsen, a 40-year-old Danish company that used to make uniforms. Now it uses cutting-edge textile technology to make lifesaving products, including mosquito netting impregnated with long-lasting insecticides, and a water-filtering drinking straw. The beauty part: The lifesaving company is 10 times as big as the old uniform business.
I don't mean to get all smiley-faced about this. Our challenges remain daunting, and the solutions themselves are sometimes problematic in this interlocking world. Biofuel, for example, seems like a nifty idea. But there are already signs that the industry's demand for corn is forcing up prices for tortillas, a staple of the poor in Mexico.
Still, this year's Fast 50 gives hope even to a cynic like me. If our fate hinges on mankind's noble impulses, we are all doomed. With greed, on the other hand, good things are possible.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.