Balancing tomorrow’s opportunity and today’s capacity

Photo-Illustration by Justin Metz
Photo-Illustration by Justin Metz

The pragmatists among us will say that peering into the future is impossible. They’ll say with a smirk that there are no crystal balls, no indelible lines on human palms that foretell our destinies. The rest of us, and I count myself among them, harbor at least some suspicion that such precognition is possible. We believe that, indeed, there are some who can predict what will happen tomorrow. 

We call them prophets. Visionaries. Oracles. And often we find them in the realm of business, one of the rare places where mortal beings can actually create the future they’re envisioning.

Among the most remarkable of these builder-prophets is James Dyson, profiled by Fortune senior writer Jeremy Kahn in this issue. Dyson’s improbable bagless vacuum cleaners, impossible bladeless fans, and hyperspeed hand dryers—all of which were figments of a Jetsons-like age before Dyson dreamed them up—have made him a literal household name in much of the world and turned the 72-year-old Briton into a billionaire. But Dyson was hardly satisfied. His eyes, it seems, were so firmly focused on the future that he committed some $2.5 billion and four years of his life to an even more ambitious vision—building a high-end electric vehicle that would go farther, ride sleeker, and be dramatically more efficient than any other. 

It ended up a bust. As you’ll see, it wasn’t that Dyson couldn’t build his magic machine, but rather that he couldn’t manufacture it cheaply enough to make the business worthwhile. As Jeremy writes: “At a time when every company speaks about innovation and disruption, Dyson’s decision to kill his electric car is a case study in the delicate balancing act of embracing ingenuity while keeping an eye on profits.”

That balancing act between ambition and efficiency, between tomorrow’s opportunity and today’s capacity, is also at the center of Fortune’s third annual Future 50 list, developed with our partner Martin Reeves at BCG’s Henderson Institute. We screened more than a thousand of the world’s largest publicly traded companies on a number of factors that signal the potential for long-term growth. The aim: to find 50 companies that can not only weather the future’s uncertainty, but also thrive in it.

No. 5 on our 2019 list is Spotify—the digital-music-streaming service that now has 232 million monthly users and 108 million paying subscribers globally. Readers are sure to have varying (and perhaps, emotional) opinions about our story headline—“Spotify Saved the Music Industry. Now What?”—but one thing is clear: The company’s Swedish creator, Daniel Ek, is someone who clearly saw the future—and seized it, as digital editor Andrew Nusca reports.

Yet for all the advantage that can be had in knowing what’s to come, the most valuable intuition is arguably the ability to spot the dangers lying in wait—at least in time to navigate around them. One such terror, as Jeffrey Ball reports, is climate change—and you may be surprised by who’s sounding the alarm (and how loud): the insurance industry. For the oracles in this ancient, buttoned-down trade, “global warming has advanced from a future ecological challenge to a present financial shock,” Jeff writes.

The most recent two-year period (2017–2018) was the most expensive on record for the insurance industry in terms of natural catastrophes. Ask the CEO of Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurer, what’s responsible for this shocking tab, and he doesn’t pause: climate change. And as one of that company’s scientists told Jeff, this might be “the problem that humanity is not clever enough to really tackle.”

Then again, there is one hope: James Dyson needs a new project.

A version of this article appears in the November 2019 issue of Fortune.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The 2019 Fortune Future 50: See which companies made the list
How the Fortune Future 50 identifies companies with long-term growth potential
—Spotify saved the music industry. Now what?
—Inside James Dyson’s costly decision to kill his electric car
Salesforce founder Marc Benioff: What business school never taught me
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