When business thinkers go against the grain

Recognizing unconventional thinkers who are bringing us better software, better cars, better movies, more sustainable resources, and even space travel

Every generation has its share of unconventional, against-the-grain thinkers and leaders who refuse to listen to the naysayers and follow their own instincts. Often, they fail, but some break through, and when they do, it results in smarter solutions for all.

Recognizing some of the unconventional thinkers of our time, Atlantic Monthly released a list of what it considers to be the world's 27 "bravest" thinkers. Here are some of their choices among business, technology and government thinkers:

Thorkil Sonne, CEO and Founder of Specialisterne: "Launched a software-testing company and staffed it with employees who have autism spectrum disorder... Sonne realized that they tend to be methodical, possess excellent memories, and show great attention to detail and tolerance for repetition—in other words, they might make excellent software testers..."

Shai Agassi, Founder of Better Place: "He’s building a nationwide network of electric car charging stations... The problem has always been how to charge electric cars... [They] can typically travel only 50 miles or so without a recharge. Agassi, a former executive at the software giant SAP... hopes to create a national electric-car infrastructure that consists of charging stations where motorists could plug in to refuel, along with switching stations where they could swap out old batteries for new ones during longer trips. Agassi has backing from Renault-Nissan, and has inked deals with governments in Israel, Denmark, Japan, Canada, and the United States to start testing roadside stations."

Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Pixar Animation Studio: "They haven't let commercial success stifle their innovation or storytelling..." Jobs' unconventional thinking is well known. At Pixar, he and Lasseter have "combined technological foresight with an infamously perfectionist ethos to produce well-loved movies from Toy Story to Wall-E....  Its movies still feature characters that grapple with real problems and undergo subtle and plausible moral development; they still eschew the violence, prurience, and stupidity that has infiltrated children’s movies over the past decade. In short, Pixar has the courage to respect the intelligence of the people watching its films."

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Publisher of the New York Times: "In the face of collapsing stock prices, he’s avoiding staff cuts and expanding online presence.... even as Sulzberger has aggressively led The Times onto the Web, he is betting that his paper’s dedication to high-quality journalism is its most valuable asset, however costly it now seems."

Walter E. Hussman Jr., Publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "He refused to give content away for free and his newspaper is thriving."

Paul Polak, Founder of International Development Enterprises and D-Rev: "His companies treat the poor as consumers and entrepreneurs." This, he believes, "is the best way to help them achieve self-sufficiency. Operating under the guideline 'Cheap is beautiful,' his companies sell affordable and useful tools—like manual-treadle pumps for irrigation, or solar-powered water purifiers—that poor people can use to make a living selling products to their peers."

Danny Day, Founder and President of Eprida: "His company offers a promising method for absorbing and burying excess carbon dioxide... When biochar [charcoal pellet waste] is buried in the right agricultural areas, it enriches the soil, increases crop yields, and keeps the carbon trapped beneath the ground. Eprida hopes to use the biochar to soak up carbon dioxide at polluting factories and then bury it in areas with poor soil quality—potentially addressing two grave problems with one elegant solution."

The Atlantic Monthly list is obviously way too short and incomplete. There are countless business leaders, government leaders, and entrepreneurs that should be on a list like this.

My own nominees would include Richard Branson, who is leading the way with commercial space travel with Virgin Galactic, as well as Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, designer of the spacecraft Virgin Galactic will fly.

Other people I would vote to be on the list include Nicholas Negroponte, creator of the One Laptop Per Child initiative who pushed the industry for $100 computers; Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon, and its prescient offshoot Amazon Web Services, which launched the cloud computing movement; Dean Kamen, known for the Segway device, but also inventor of numerous robotic devices; and Linus Torvalds, who parlayed the concept of community-developed open source software into a global force.

Readers, what unconventional or "brave" thinkers would you add to this list? Who do you know is going against the grain, and in the process, giving us a smarter planet?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com