Buckminster Fuller, arguably the patron saint of world-changing ideas, has a single, inscrutable phrase carved on his gravestone: “Call me Trimtab.” As the legendary inventor and thinker explained in a 1972 Playboy interview, “There’s a tiny thing on the edge of the [boat’s] rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. It takes almost no effort at all.” Any idea, in other words, however small, can eventually nudge us in a new direction.
This year’s World Changing Ideas honorees are all trim tabs. Presenting ingenious solutions to some of our gravest challenges, they offer ways to change our course, putting us all on a better trajectory.
At a moment when the world is quite literally burning, we need bold ideas. Pick almost any area of our economy or environment and it’s easy to find a statistic suggesting that we’re already at a crisis point. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have just 12 years to stop a devastating rise in the planet’s temperature. We put 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean every year. Forty percent of Americans can’t afford an unexpected $400 expense.
The innovations you’ll read about in the pages that follow are poised to address these crises and more. Edible chopsticks, for example, fight deforestation and reduce waste. Increased access to bankruptcy protection, an incredibly beneficial financial tool that’s too often out of reach for those who can’t afford lawyers, helps low-income Americans overcome financial hardship. An elegant 30-story structure uses basic physics to capture and store renewable energy in a way that is both less expensive and better for the environment. An emergency-call app, created by two teenage siblings in Georgia, offers quick help to the mentally ill. One major company’s open-sourced invention enables people who can’t use their hands to navigate the web; another is making it simple to convert any existing diesel-powered truck into an electric one.
Large corporations have remarkable power, especially at a time when so many governments refuse to embrace progressive change. To avert disaster, enterprise leaders need to go beyond rhetoric—beyond philanthropy—and make real investments to reshape the systems that have created crises in the first place and to advance forward thinking policies and regulations. They stand to be rewarded: Consumers nationwide indicate in survey after survey that they want to give their money to companies that operate with values they admire.
The ingenuity embodied by this year’s honorees proves that we have the capacity to imagine our way out of today’s crises if we move quickly and commit sufficient resources so that the best plans can scale and succeed. But do we have the will to act on these and other potentially world changing ideas? Can we go beyond mere lip service? “Making the world a better place” has become such a keynote cliché that it’s been mercilessly mocked in shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley. If we want corporate impact to mean anything beyond a punch line, we need action. We need results. It’s no longer enough to claim you’re “giving back” and “using business as a force for good.” This year’s WCI honorees are reminders that some companies are going beyond mere messaging: They are actively doing something to help put out the fire.