For five years, Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas Awards have recognized companies and organizations addressing the world’s most intractable problems through technology, science, design, finance, education, and philanthropy. Our WCI coverage is an annual celebration of human ingenuity and passion, one of our most optimistic features every year. So it seems fitting that we announce a new class of honorees just as we begin to recover, slowly but steadily, from the ravages of COVID-19, a health crisis that has thus far killed more than 3 million people worldwide, forced the closure of countless businesses, exposed the inabilities of many governments to protect their citizens, and revealed fundamental inequities across societies.
In the absence of a bold and united government response, we saw companies and organizations mobilize to manufacture masks and ventilators, and to distribute personal protective equipment to essential workers and food to hungry families. Today, as we announce a new class of World Changing Ideas winners, we are undoubtedly at an inflection point: The U.S. is now vaccinating roughly 3 million people every day, and more than half a billion people have been vaccinated across the globe (though distribution has been far from equitable). Deaths and hospitalizations are declining around the world: The vaccines, developed in record time on multiple continents thanks to breakthrough technologies, are proving more effective than anyone dared hope.
The contrast we’ve watched play out during the pandemic—a deadly catastrophe brought on by human failure versus the amazing power of human ingenuity to correct course—offers hope for other grave challenges the global community faces. Billions of people around the world still live in poverty and hunger; according to a report from the RAND Corp., $50 trillion worth of American wealth has shifted from the bottom 90% to the top 1% since 1975. The Earth is warming at an increasing rate, leading to new weather patterns that are creating superstorms, which wreak havoc season after season. The recent blizzard that knocked out power for millions of Texans, causing dozens of people to freeze to death in their own homes, is just the latest example.
Innovators continue to work feverishly on solutions to these problems and so many others. Breakthroughs are happening all the time: The prices of both solar energy and batteries have dropped 89% in the past decade. A national protest movement this past year shifted the conversation on race in this country. We just landed a rover on Mars.
The companies and organizations we honor with our World Changing Ideas Awards exemplify the human ability to solve problems. In addition to our usual criteria, we asked entrants to tell us specifically about the work they had done in response to the pandemic—whether in healthcare or in helping to feed and clothe people in need. The scope of the answers we received was inspiring: biotech companies scrambling to make testing available, companies retrofitting their factories to produce masks and ventilators, people iterating to create even better masks, and communities coming together to support both essential workers and those who had lost their livelihoods from shutdowns.
Meanwhile, companies and organizations also somehow pushed ahead with their far-reaching innovations: technology that converts carbon emissions into jet fuel and even vodka; an app that lets healthcare workers weigh babies just by taking photos of them; a system that recycles used clothes into new garments.
We are amazed by these achievements. Yet with every freakish storm and COVID-19 death, we are reminded of the immense challenges that remain—so many of them caused by human failure. We must continue to demand ingenuity and progress if we want to have any hope of contending with crises like the one that defined this past year. We must double down on these efforts as if our lives depended on it, because they do.