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The World Changing Ideas Of 2016

New workplaces, new food sources, new medicine—even an entirely new economic system. Here are 10 new ways we can start transforming the world for the better this year.

Illustrations: Eric Palma for Fast Company

It will be easy to feel better about humanity when you read these 10 ideas. They're all examples of how advances in science, technology, or simply a different kind of thinking can address the litany of challenges facing our societies today.

The ideas we have chosen to highlight aren't about flying cars and food replicators, though we wish anyone who is working on those the best of luck. Many are about providing basic empathy and living conditions for everyone from office workers to slum dwellers in the developing world. We need these kinds of world changing ideas because the world still needs a lot of changing.

It's notable that most of the solutions are also solving problems of our own making. We need to revolutionize how to engineer plants because we've destroyed the environment so they won't grow. We need to discover new antibiotics from the ocean because we've polluted our farms and bodies with too much medicine. We have to find new ways to take care of our office workers because we've made work a dreadful, never-ending grind. We need to create a new kind of business, because businesses have spent centuries being extractive, abusive entities.

People have been told we're living in the future, but few people are actually seeing the future around them. Instead, most people on this planet are living in worlds that remain aggressively similar to the way they've always been, give or take the ability to check something on Wikipedia. We're told that the technological innovations and brain power we currently employ have reshaped the world and improved people's lives. Is it better to be living now than 50 years ago? Yes, but that's surely cold comfort when you can't pay a medical bill or the bank takes your house or you can't buy food for your kids—or you simply weren't lucky enough to be born in a rich country.

At some point, people are going to need to feel that this era of technological revolution is lifting them up, not just distracting them from the real problems they face day to day. One world changing idea you can read below is about creating a new economy powered by the automation and free knowledge that the information revolution has created. Let's make sure we get there—and then we can focus on the more fun problems.

Your Data Footprint Is Affecting Your Life In Ways You Can't Even Imagine

Job decisions, college admissions, health care decisions: All are now being fundamentally altered by your big data, and you might not even know.

Predictions about you (and millions of other strangers) are deeply shaping your life in ways of which you are probably blissfully unaware. Your career, your love life, major decisions about your health and well-being, and even if you end up in jail are now being governed in no small part by the digital bread crumbs you've left behind—many of which you don't even know you've dropped in the first place. Read more...

Welcome To The Post-Work Economy

For the future economy to work, we need to get rid of our unhealthy fixation on what work and jobs mean to our self-worth.

For all the talk of the meaning and purpose of our jobs, most people see them merely as a means to an end. Only 29% of employees in North America say they're engaged (worldwide, the number is 13%). And the reality is that a lot of work will soon be done by computer. Forty-seven percent of jobs are at risk over the next 20 years, one study showed.

Of course, there are many conventional ways we could deal with this, including improving education and training (so more people can work up the wage-scale and beyond the ability of robots) and raising minimum wages. But, over the long term, it's questionable whether even these approaches will be sufficient. The fundamental problem could be that work is losing its value. The thing that provided—that allowed families to prosper and individuals to build a sense-of-self—is under attack. Read more...

Fixing Mental Health In The Workplace Requires A Lot More Than A Yoga Room

Companies are recognizing that our work culture is incredibly damaging to employees' mental health. Now they need to fix it for real—not just plaster over it with gimmicks.

"There is a reluctance on the part of many workplaces to have open discussions about mental health on par with other physical health issues," says Wendy Brennan, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York City. "We don’t generally recommend that anyone discloses in the workplace. There’s still a huge stigma attached." In one study of 600 people with disabilities reported in The New York Times, about half involving mental health, 25% reported receiving negative responses to their problems, including bullying and being passed up for promotions. The U.S. Department of Health itself warns that discrimination can be a cost of disclosing. Brennan says she’s seen people still fired after they reveal their issues. Read more...

CRISPR Is Going To Revolutionize Our Food System—And Start A New War Over GMOs

The gene-editing tool could create drought-resistant grain or allergy-free peanuts. Will a society on edge about genetically modified food embrace this newest innovation?

In five years, there might be a little CRISPR-edited corn in your breakfast cereal or CRISPR-edited wheat in your pasta. CRISPR'd tomatoes and CRISPR'd pork might follow. There's already a little CRISPR in your yogurt.

It's not hyperbolic to say that CRISPR-Cas9—new technology that makes it possible to quickly and easily edit DNA—is changing the future of food. The method could eventually be used to tweak almost anything we eat, selecting traits that can make agriculture more environmentally sustainable and productive, or the resulting food healthier. Read more...

The Future Of Progressive Business Is Companies That Are Good, Not Just Doing Good

Responsible businesses today tout the idea of something called shared value—where profits, customers, and the environment all benefit from a company's success. But is that enough?

If we're to expect still higher things of big business in the future—and history tells us that we should—we might look at other parts of the picture. For instance, we might look at whether companies themselves are good, not just whether they can do good. Shared value is a limited vision of what companies can be in the future. It's related to activities, not function or constitution. Read more...

What Happens When We Become A Cashless Society?

Imagine a future where everything is seamlessly paid for via your phone. It's a beautiful vision—with some dangerous unintended consequences.

The U.S. Government didn’t issue banknotes until 1862. Before that, people paid for goods and services with a mix of government-minted coins, and currencies issued by private banks. And now cash is on its way out, accounting for just 40% of payments in 2012 and dropping. There are many benefits to removing cash from the economy, like eliminating black markets and allowing more easy monetary policy. But there are also concerns when every single transaction can be monitored, examined, or manipulated. Regardless of where you fall, though, one thing is clear: As online shopping becomes yet more prevalent, and pre-paid credit cards take the place of more and more low-value cash transactions, cash is well on its way to becoming obsolete. Read more...

How The Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Going To Change The Lives Of The Bottom Billion

The blockchain is coming—and it's going to create huge benefits for the world's poorest people, from financial access to property rights to controlling their identities.

According to many smart and knowledgeable people, the underlying system of bitcoin, known as the blockchain, is an idea of historical importance, with the potential to solve big social problems. In fact, it could be what makes the Internet what it was supposed to be before it was overrun by Facebook, the NSA, and countless scam-artists. If blockchain believers are right, the technology will enable an era of radical transparency, frictionless commerce, and genuine economic abundance.

"We believe that blockchain technology is a powerful tool for creating global prosperity," says Alex Tapscott, coauthor of the forthcoming book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World. "We're seeing a big problem where the world economy is growing unabated, but fewer and fewer people are benefiting, and we think blockchain could hold solutions to that." Read more...

Refugees Will Revitalize The Economy—If We Let Them

Despite the rhetoric, refugees can be a huge benefit for host countries and cities.

Since 2012, the U.S. has only accepted a little over 2,000 people out of Syria's 4.6 million refugees (another 6.6 million are internally displaced in Syria). In Europe, where more than a million asylum-seekers and migrants arrived in 2015, opposition is often even stronger. In Germany, 40% of people now want Angela Merkel to resign because of her friendly refugee policy.

Opponents argue that a large influx of refugees changes a country. They're partially right. There's a lot of evidence that shows that refugees do change a country—for the better. Read more...

Can We Save Ourselves From The End Of Antibiotics—Or Have The Superbugs Already Won?

Standing on the last lines of defense in our battle against the antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Colistin, one of the few drugs that still fights "the nightmare bacteria," may be next to stop working as superbugs continue to evolve. The antibiotic, discovered in 1947, causes kidney damage and other problems, so when newer, safer drugs were created in the 1960s, doctors stopped prescribing it when other antibiotics fail. The drug's dangerousness and unpopularity means it works better: Because colistin hasn't been widely used, bacteria haven't evolved to resist it. Until now. Read more...

What If We Paid People To Vote?

Low turnout drastically skews who is elected to lead our government. The best way to increase turnout might be cold, hard cash.

Larry Platt, the editor of the Philadelphia Citizen, felt like Ed McMahon on election day last November. He was at a local polling station with an oversized $10,000 check in hand and cameras in tow. Who was the lucky winner? A school crossing guard named Bridget Conroy-Varnis. What did she do to attract such a windfall? She voted. Read more...

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