My uncle Ken called me a few days ago with a question. Ken is an economist and investment strategist, and his insights never fail to teach me something. This time, he was focused on the disconnect between downbeat media coverage of the economy and what he sees as a relatively upbeat mood in the U.S. population. While the business press is carping about weak economic growth, consumers are spending at a reasonable clip. So does the public know something the pundits don't? Or are regular people deluding themselves about their future?
Ken's prompt got my wheels turning. And I found myself pointed toward Fast Company's new Innovation by Design Awards. Launched earlier this year, our competition attracted 1,700 entries from more than 1,100 different organizations—from Nike to NASA, Boeing to BioLite. The quality of the submissions was inspiring, as you can see from our coverage of the 56 finalists.
So what does this have to do with Uncle Ken's dilemma? The awards embody a dynamic creative wave that is washing over all of us. (Only innovations announced or brought to market in the 12 months before June 1, 2012, were eligible.) I do not mean to downplay the challenges of unemployment, financial fragility in the euro zone, stagnant home prices, and so on. But the bit of euphoria Ken senses is indeed grounded in reality, in a flourishing of entrepreneurialism.
Look at Pinterest, the social media phenomenon, which doubled in size in just three months earlier this year—it now has more than 20 million members. As writer Max Chafkin explains in "Starring Ben Silbermann as the Pinup Kid,", Pinterest delivers a compelling free service (like precursors such as Facebook), yet also represents "maybe the greatest selling engine ever devised." Even giant Microsoft, often derided for its stagnant protect-the-base approach, has found more nimble footing with its dramatic redesign of Windows—perhaps the biggest risk in decades for the King of the Desktop, as writer Austin Carr reports in "Microsoft Wipes the Slate,". "They're no longer chasing Apple," designer Gadi Amit tells Carr. "They're actually making Apple look old. That's a really unexpected turn."
Design, linked to innovation and entrepreneurialism, is a critical factor in this surge. That the output from these efforts stirs hope, well, there's nothing delusional about that. Both good and bad can always be found in our economy and our culture, the glass half empty or half full. The balance between those poles can swing quickly. Signals can be misread and misinterpreted. What my uncle Ken observed was a situation more nuanced than traditional business media could comfortably embrace. These times are confusing and ambiguous. Yes, there is much to worry about. But there is much to be hopeful about, too. That is what this issue and the Innovation by Design Awards celebrate. If you want to celebrate with us, in person, visit InnovationByDesignAwards.com to register for a special gathering in New York on October 16. My uncle Ken may not be there, but I will. With pins on.Robert Safian firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.