Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative architecture, design, and energy companies.
If real estate is all about location, real estate during the pandemic has been about locations people aren’t going. From the office to retail stores to pretty much any indoor place of business, so much of the former everyday urban environment has been a place many people avoided if they could. This lack of traffic has made the past two years a challenge for those developing real estate in cities around the world. The point of all this development is to bring in people, whether it be workers filing in for their day jobs or fun seekers heading out at night for some leisurely activity in the shared airspace of other breathing human beings. But the pandemic didn’t put everything to a stop, especially for large-scale building projects that can sometimes take years to materialize. The companies honored on this year’s list of the Most Innovative Companies in Urban Development have all found ways to keep their projects going during the pandemic. Some discovered unique uses for derelict space, while others reimagined some of the common spaces of daily life for a pandemic-inflected future. Some have even managed to provide a surprising antidote to the isolation and general social avoidance that the pandemic required. There’s SunPower, the solar company that’s turning the empty parking lots outside major transit hubs into photovoltaic farms. There’s Bumo, the coworking space that’s recognized a growing class of frustrated parents and made childcare part of its offerings. And then there’s Avison Young, the real estate advisory firm that responded to the tough months of the city-emptying pandemic by launching a robust database to track and analyze office occupancy across North America. Through their innovative responses to the pandemic and their perseverance in getting big projects going, these honorees have shown how pandemic-bruised cities can refresh and stay ripe for reinvention.
1. Avison Young
For seeing the return to work across cities and industries
The global commercial real estate company developed a real-time data visualization tool to track the return to offices across cities and industries. Avison Young launched the Vitality Index in September 2021. It compiles data daily to create a near-real-time picture of office foot traffic in more than 20 cities across the U.S. and Canada, in more than 30 industries. The tool, which is free for anyone to access, aims to bring clarity to a constantly evolving situation and also offer data to Avison Young’s clients, for whom it serves as a real estate adviser, broker, and investment manager. For the segment of workers who do work in offices, the Vitality Index provides a vivid explanation of how things are going. The index relies on anonymized cellphone tracking, which is aggregated by Orbital Insight, a geospatial intelligence and location analytics company. With data geofenced to specific areas within cities, the company can track foot traffic into specific buildings, and has data going back to June 2019. Avison Young expects the Vitality Index to be useful to building owners, the companies that occupy those buildings, city officials, transit agencies, and the commercial businesses trying to figure out when their customers will be back at the coffee shop, lunch spot, or happy hour. Given the firm’s position in commercial real estate, it can then help its clients adapt how they use their square footage.
For finding new ways of using empty urban land to generate solar power
SunPower, the $3.7 billion market cap solar energy company, has undertaken an initiative to build solar arrays on sites owned by transportation agencies around the country. It has made deals with JFK airport, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and the Delaware River Port Authority. The projects take advantage of the wide-open parking lots at train stations and transportation agency-owned land to create much-needed electricity. School districts in California have been leading the way in adding solar panel-covered canopies over parking lots to offset energy requirements and save money. This creates a new revenue source for public agencies and energy savings. The JFK project will be operational by early 2022 and will place solar canopies over parking spaces in Lot 9 that will be capable of generating 13 megawatts of solar power, about half of which will go to powering the AirTrain. The rest of the power generated there will be distributed to the neighborhoods near the airport at reduced rates. As more transit agencies and public entities convert their vehicles and fleets to running on electricity, having energy collected and stored on-site makes even more sense. SunPower’s revenue in the fourth quarter of 2021 reached $385 million, up from $342 million a year earlier.
For rewilding yards with pollinator and other habitat-supporting plants
Yardzen is a digital marketplace connecting homeowners with landscape designers to create their dream outdoor space, factoring in everything from local climate and soil to sun and shade patterns to architectural style to budget. Once a plan is set, Yardzen then matches clients with a vetted local contractor to produce the outdoor space. In 2021, Yardzen launched the American Rewilding Project, which includes native and climate-adapted, habitat-supporting plants in every yard it designs. Yardzen claims that as a result, more than 100,000 pollinator plants have been included in Yardzen designs, plus more than 50,000 trees, and 25,000 edible plants, which if they were all implemented as designed would save more than 1 million gallons of water on landscaping annually. The company reports that it has created $300 million in construction and landscaping work for local contractors. Yardzen charges homeowners about $1,000 for one yard; $1,500 for front and back.
For empowering independent real estate agents with a brokerage business in a box
Side offers small real estate agents a back end digital system to compete against the likes of Berkshire Hathaway and Compass. It’s a white-label brokerage that puts its individuals up front while taking the legal responsibility for being the broker of record. Side also helps its agent customers design their own brand and develop a business plan and marketing strategy to achieve their goals and increase their production volume year over year. In addition, it offers a recruiting service to find young real estate agents to join its founding partners. Side’s tech platform combines CRM, email marketing automation, and other services so its partners don’t have to cobble together a tech stack from myriad vendors. All of it is in service of allowing agents to focus on selling homes. Side has doubled the number of agent brands it works with (September 2020 to September 2021) and those 367 Side-powered brokerages represent over $15 billion in annual property sales while operating in just three states—California, Florida, and Texas—with plans to expand to 15 more in 2022.
5. Nexii Building Solutions
For mixing up a concrete alternative without lime, cement, or toxic chemicals to severely reduce construction site waste
Nexii has developed more environmentally friendly building materials that can expedite the creation of a project. Its proprietary concrete alternative, Nexiite, doesn’t contain lime, cement, or toxic materials. Its use reduces the time it takes to complete a building’s envelope (the foundation, wall assembly, roofing, etc.), and it virtually eliminates on-site construction waste. Nexii put up a Popeyes restaurant in British Columbia in May 2021 in just two days. The company partners with local developers—targeting communities in need of green jobs to replace coal and steel work—to be certified manufacturers of its material. It has established eight of these thus far, in such places as Pittsburgh and Louisville, Kentucky. Nexii is the fastest Canadian company to achieve unicorn status (less than 31 months).
For accelerating the creation and delivery of accessory dwelling units
Abodu makes and builds new accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Amid a statewide housing crisis, California eased regulations starting in 2020 to make it simpler for homeowners to add backyard homes to their properties. Cities throughout the state are required to approve permits in 60 days or less. Abodu, which introduced its Quickship ADU in March 2021, can complete the process from permitting to delivery in as little as 30 days. The company also expanded to the Pacific Northwest and had 80 homes in the ground as of September 2021 and expected to complete and deliver 150 of these homes designed for “backyard living” in 2021.
7. TK Elevator
For advancing the art of touchless elevator tech
The elevator spin-off of ThyssenKrupp has continued to advance touchless elevator technology, introducing an app that allows building tenants to operate elevators via smartphone or wearable device, improving building efficiency. Dubbed Agile, it launched in February 2021 and helps users avoid elevator-traffic congestion as well as physical interaction with elevator surfaces, buttons, and handrails.
For combining coworking and childcare in an elegant, education-centric setting
Bumo, which debuted in March 2021, is a combination coworking space and childcare center, located in the Westfield Century City Mall, on the west side of Los Angeles. Offering a high-end aesthetic and catering to the parents of children ages 6 months to 7 years, the company is trying to do two very different things at once. It’s aiming to fill a new niche in the pandemic-influenced work-from-anywhere era, a place that puts equal emphasis on both coworking and childcare spaces. Access to Bumo is based on a subscription model, paid monthly, about $1,000 a month for full-time use of the coworking space, and childcare starts at about the same, depending on the age of the child. (Shorter options are available, from half-days on the coworking side to three-hour children’s camps on the childcare side.) The 4,000-square-foot facility has room for 40 adults and 26 children, and is split into three discrete spaces: coworking, childcare, and a central reception area with private rooms where parents and kids can come together during the day or where mothers can breastfeed. The two sides are joined but separated, so neither side can hear the noise of the other. The coworking side is geared toward millennial parents seeking a temporary or full-time break from their overlapping work and parenting lives. On the children’s side, Bumo offers the painting and jungle gym elements of a typical day care coupled with things like early speech development and coding lessons for kids as young as 3.
For storing unused treasures in underused urban spaces
Instead of building new warehouse-like buildings on the fringes of communities for self-storage facilities, Stuf is identifying underused spaces in cities—vacant offices, empty garages, storefront basements—and slotting self-storage inside them. Working directly with landlords, the company fills in empty spaces with largely automated storage infrastructure and shares the revenue. (It is generally focused on being out of sight rather than converting urban storefronts.) For some landlords, on-site self-storage is a marketable amenity, and a way to finally use that windowless basement or oddly sized closet. Launched in December 2020 by the former head of real estate at Industrious, which created coworking spaces from underutilized hotel rooms and restaurant dining rooms that didn’t open until 5 p.m., Stuf operates in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco/Oakland, and Washington, D.C. It takes over spaces as small as 1,500 square feet or as large as 10,000 square feet and reports that within five months its locations were at 90% capacity.
10. Mighty Buildings
For 3D printing residences in housing-hungry California
Mighty Buildings uses 3D printing and robotics to build housing. Its 3D printed parts are made of 60% recycled and eco-friendly material. The company is certified under California’s Factory Built Housing program to build units using 3D printing, and it is the first company to achieve certification under the UL 3401 standard for evaluating building structures and assemblies. Thus far, the company has mostly been doing ADUs (like Abodu), but it’s moving into manufacturing townhouses and small apartment buildings. It has built nine projects and has contracted revenue of $25 million.