I sometimes look up at an airplane flying overhead and envision what its occupants would look like if the fuselage were see-through: Hundreds of people, sitting in straight rows of cushioned seats, watching movies, typing on computers, eating and drinking, all while suspended 30,000 feet in the air and traveling at 500 miles per hour. And not a hair blown out of place by the wind. It is surreal, really, and for most of human history it would have been absurd and fantastical.
Yet this is what business can produce: the unexpected, the mind-boggling, the world-changing. Imagine a patch of desert in Nevada covered with solar reflectors that could supply all U.S. electricity needs. Imagine every book ever written, online and always accessible. Imagine turning the planet's oceans into a tap for clean, drinkable water and safely clearing the world's battlefields of mines and bombs using robots. And imagine that all of this not only makes our lives better, but also generates extraordinary wealth.
Fast Company is dedicated to celebrating innovative businesses, and this issue celebrates the best of the best. Several months ago, we set out to identify and rank the world's most innovative companies. We deployed dozens of reporters around the globe to gather data, pore over financial statements, and interview experts. We amassed a list of finalists several hundred companies long. Then we convened our selection committee—our own writers and editors—to debate criteria and argue over which characteristics we most wanted to reward. We agreed that driving change at a larger institution is far harder than at a small shop. But we also agreed that sometimes it is a smaller outfit that leads the way or best represents an entire industry's innovative efforts. We wanted to emphasize companies that had demonstrated significant innovation over the past year, but we did not want to shortchange those with a history of fresh thinking. We went back to the drawing board several times, gathered new facts, tested several ranking techniques. That Google ended up at the top was perhaps a fait accompli. The leviathan startup continues its otherworldly rise, spreading its curious tentacles everywhere from renewable energy to philanthropy. The final list is not scientific, but we hope you will find it both satisfying and inspiring.
We're mindful that the U.S. economy is showing signs of weakness, that celebration is not the predominant mood in the business community today. But we're also convinced that the only way out of whatever troubles we face is through new ideas and fresh initiatives. We invite you to debate this—and our ranking—at fastcompany.com. We're certainly open to doing things differently in the future. Indeed, we wouldn't have it any other way.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.