“This entire enterprise has been a response to the question, ‘What if?’ ” Filmmaker and producer J.J. Abrams never set out to build an empire, but his company, Bad Robot, is one of the most diversified and ambitious media outfits to emerge from Hollywood in a generation. In this issue’s cover story, writers Nicole LaPorte and KC Ifeanyi offer a rare peek into Bad Robot’s quirky headquarters and the wide array of ideas hatching inside. There’s definitely a “J.J.’s playhouse” feel to the place, which features an actual toy workshop, a printing press, a music studio, and carefully curated knickknacks.
What can business leaders learn from a movie director, fresh off shooting Star Wars: Episode IX, who clearly prefers creating fictional worlds to crunching numbers? For starters, that curiosity and the embrace of limitless possibility—not to mention cheerful professionalism—can help a company thrive during a period of massive consolidation and change. While most entertainment and tech companies are competing to figure out how to win audiences and build new multiplatform franchises, Abrams’s willingness to respond to “what if?” with “why not?” has made him one of the most sought-after partners in media.
“What if?” is also the spark behind many of the projects featured in our annual World Changing Ideas package, which recognizes winners in 17 categories and honors more than 500 other projects from startups, corporations, governments, and others seeking to effect change in meaningful and scalable ways. What if a takeout giant could help China reduce deforestation by replacing disposable wooden chopsticks with edible ones? What if a company could make renewable energy available on demand by storing solar and wind energy in a mechanical, shifting tower for use on cloudy, breezeless days?
“The scope of ingenuity of these honorees shows that there’s an enormous amount of creativity ready to be unleashed for building a better world,” says senior editor Morgan Clendaniel, who oversees the awards. “The people behind them are daring to think of new possibilities for realities we’ve been told too often aren’t fixable.” That’s not to say solutions are easy. Direct-to-consumer clothing brand Everlane let senior writer Elizabeth Segran peer into its effort to eliminate all virgin, or newly created, plastic from its products, packaging, and supply chain. At times it seems like founder and CEO Michael Preysman is pushing a boulder up a steep hill. “It’s so hard,” he confesses.
Most of us spend our days meeting deadlines, making quarterly numbers, and solving immediate problems, too in the weeds to contemplate the unthinkable. But as Abrams, Preysman, and the World Changing Ideas winners show, the rewards for asking “what if?” can be immeasurable.