Earlier this year, we put out a call to the design and business communities: What are the best design-driven innovations of the past year? More than 1,100 companies and organizations responded, offering 1,700 nominees in nine categories. An all-star group of 27 judges–from MoMA curator Paola Antonelli to Nicholas Felton of Facebook–worked with us to identify 56 finalists. Presented on the following pages, these standouts represent the creative explosion under way in our economy. (All of the finalists were introduced or came to market in the year ending June 1, 2012.) The winners will be unveiled on October 16 in New York. As you’ll see as you read ahead, they are all worth cheering.
Here, the finalists for the “Concepts” category.
People used to live happily without plastic. Seeking alternatives, Forma Fantasma played archaeologist, honing time-honored materials–wood dust, rubber, shellac, animal blood–into modern vessels. Says Corner: “There’s a poetry in that.”
Made possible by cutting-edge math research, the Leap is 200 times more sensitive than any other gestural controller in the world. Able to track a mere finger twitch, it could herald a new, post-mouse era for operating computers and gadgets.
Ideo with the Lim Lab at the University of California, San Francisco
Ideo proposes smart microbes that eliminate industrial waste, from cups made of bacteria that lend fizz and flavor to water, to microbes that become soap and deodorant on contact. “The 21st century will belong to biology,” Corner says. “This turns academic research into products.”
Times Square Redesign
Snøhetta for the City of New York
Because it’s really meant for cars, Times Square is more a pedestrian zoo than a walkable public space. This novel redesign focuses on modular spaces that can be easily reconfigured and repaired.
Leveraged Freedom Chair
Continuum Innovation and the MIT Mobility Lab
“Having ingenuity that’s this low-tech is kick-ass,” says Heiselman. This wheelchair has a lever that smooths the ride over ruts–a breakthrough especially relevant in countries where paving is rare. Continuum proposes subsidizing distribution in poorer nations with profits from a higher-end wheelchair made for sale in wealthy countries.
Children’s Furniture Factory
A gentle comment on how our goods are produced. Maassen pays his kids one euro to paint each piece of furniture. By law, they can work only three hours a week. Hence, the business can never scale, unlike the multinationals that rely on cheap foreign labor.
James is a registered landscape architect and urban designer, and founder and director of James Corner Field Operations, where he oversees the production of all design projects in the office. He is also chair of and professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Major projects include the High Line, New York City; Freshkills Park, Staten Island; the Race Street Pier, Philadelphia; MGM City Center, Las Vegas; and the Shenzhen Qianhai Urban Design Plan.
Karl is the CEO of Wolff Olins and leads the global business by shaping its strategy for growth and encouraging excellence in its creative work. With over 20 years of branding and design experience, Karl has helped create game-changing work for Wolff Olins’ clients including (RED), Skype, GE, PwC, Unicef, Current TV, New York City and Mercedes-Benz. Trained as a designer and now a chief executive, Karl firmly believes in the value of creativity to drive positive business and social impact.
Alison is Senior Vice President, Digital Platforms, for Home Box Office, responsible for overseeing the strategy, development and operation of HBO’s multiplatform digital products: HBO/MAX GO, HBO.com, Cinemax.com, HBO Social Media platforms, as well as HBO/MAX On Demand and Affiliate Product initiatives.
A version of this article appears in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company.