If last year saw some old wounds heal, this year marked the painful openings of new ones. A surge in crude nativist politics at home and abroad stirred vitriol and violence. Leaders failed to make peace. Mighty institutions took as many steps back as they did forward. Yet all was not lost. The Global Thinkers honored below are proof that, as the pillars of societies faltered, individuals bore the weight of progress on their own shoulders. They demonstrated how private citizens, armed only with motive, eased the suffering of others. They revealed how traditional power structures can be subverted in order to craft solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. But most important, the 100 Leading Global Thinkers of 2016 are emblematic of the human need and desire to confront pessimism and ugliness — rather than surrender to despair or resign to failure.
Plowing through political roadblocks, these leaders rejected hand-wringing over the past year. The German chancellor and Canadian prime minister welcomed refugees with swift decisiveness. Just as sure-footed, America’s top lawyer delivered a pledge to beleaguered transgender citizens that the government is on their side. Taiwan’s president would not kowtow to China, while a U.N. secretary-general, fearing a Trumpian dystopia, set a speed record in international lawmaking. In the United States, a woman was finally nominated as a major-party candidate for president, carrying herself with grace amid the electoral muck.
Like a coat of many colors, these individuals showed that agitation takes myriad forms. A runner broke Olympic protocol to stage a solo protest. A bureaucrat searched for solutions to religious radicalization in France’s prisons. In Saudi Arabia, a woman registered to run for office; in the Philippines, a transgender woman won an election. If starting a political party premised on self-determination in Hong Kong is daring, and facing down a homophobic Catholic cardinal is brave, then kindling a nationwide movement against Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe with a Facebook video is downright revolutionary.
What if specially engineered shoes could fend off mosquitoes or a tractor-sharing app could put money in Nigerian farmers’ pockets? These are just two of the questions innovators were bold enough to ask—and answer—this year. They taught a new generation of robots to perform millions of tasks. They mixed carbon dioxide and sunshine to make cheap, clean fuel. And in just 15 hours, they fashioned a device that can convert printed words to Braille. Collectively, these thinkers asked one fundamental question: What does the world need next?
Finding beauty in the jarring, the weird, and the radical is what defines these thinkers. An architect’s body of work promoted economic equality alongside award-winning aesthetics. A muralist honored trash collectors by scribbling on the walls of their slum. A choreographer spoke to queer African experiences through Russian ballet. A new-media maven used 3-D printing to heal cultural scars inflicted by the Islamic State, while a samba star cast a spotlight on Brazil’s social and economic struggles. Hatred, violence, and poverty may be enduring ills, but artistic pushback is eternal.
Beyond protecting and defending, these individuals empowered. They gave underrepresented minorities a foothold in Silicon Valley and refugees one in the Olympics. They showcased diverse immigrant fare on France’s culinary scene. They identified unlikely channels—in Guinean beauty salons and on Sesame Street—for building healthier, more tolerant societies. In cases when they could not empower, these people fought with words, demanding justice for victims of the Islamic State’s sexual violence and for Americans who simply want a glass of clean drinking water.
These thinkers’ narratives gripped emotions and moved ideological mountains, documenting the daily tribulations of immigrants in the United Kingdom, the queer subcultures of the Arab world, and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta. While one deployed outlandish verse to challenge an unjust German statute, others unsettled audiences with chilling nuclear-age films. Whether with an Orwellian take on authoritarianism in Egypt or poetic reinventions of the English language through the lens of alienation, they all broke conventions. Yet they produced work that felt relevant, accessible, and urgent.
These thinkers put their money where their morality is. Facebook’s first president dedicated $250 million to curing cancer; not to be outdone, the website’s founder and his physician spouse stepped up with $3 billion geared toward wiping out disease—all of it—in the next century. Other generous global citizens put capital in the hands of African-American and Latino entrepreneurs, connecting them to high-growth markets; gave Arab women a vital forum in an Oprah-style talk show; boosted Aboriginal Australians’ visibility in TV comedies and dramas; and spread educational excellence to rural villages in India.
Doing laundry: That is how one thinker responded to the refugee crisis in Greece and the waste it creates. The result was a program that provides new arrivals with clothing and local workers with employment. Other stewards planted themselves between precious resources and seemingly unstoppable industrial forces—from a North Dakota pipeline to a Honduran dam to a Chinese river. Others turned pollution into art. In some cases, these thinkers paid a high price for their actions. Collectively, they were the sort of preservationists the world desperately needs.
In many ways, the health gap is only widening as medicine advances. New drugs, treatments, and facilities are often available only for the few with money and access, not the many in need. The individuals in this category want to close the chasm. A white-helmeted army of volunteers protect civilians in Syria. Western doctors connect instantly with peers and underserved patients in distant nations. A young researcher demonstrating a groundbreaking method of defeating antibiotic resistance may be less sexy than Grindr providing health information to at-risk queer populations from Lebanon to California—both, though, are powerful expressions of love.