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A World Disrupted: The Leading Global Thinkers of 2014

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Welcome to our sixth annual special issue featuring FP's 100 Leading Global Thinkers.

Advocates Decision Makers Innovators

Welcome to our sixth annual special issue featuring FP's 100 Leading Global Thinkers.

When its history is written, 2014 will be remembered as a year when remarkable individuals smashed the world as we know it—for better and for worse. While some left horrific wreckage in their wake, others showed that a better future demands tearing down foundations and building something entirely new.

Disruption, clearly, is not always a bad thing.

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From the Middle East to Europe to Africa, 2014 was a year of unprecedented geopolitical fracturing. The Islamic State began relentlessly and violently redrawing borders in Syria and Iraq, while Russia aggressively staked new claims in eastern Ukraine and Boko Haram murdered and plundered its way through northern Nigeria. These Global Thinkers—terrorist leaders, ideologues, wily financiers—are the brains behind these splintering operations. In the course of just a few months, they have upended the world as we know it, leaving the future of whole regions and the lives of tens of millions looking dangerously uncertain.

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Masterminding a national election in the world’s largest democracy. Steering the West’s response to Russia’s forays into Ukraine. Presenting a plan for reconciliation and accountability in an African country torn along religious lines. Plotting major reforms in one of Europe’s most sluggish economies. These are just a few of the diverse, and unenviable, job descriptions of the men and women in this category. Working to give governance a good name, these decision-makers have taken risks, challenged norms, and demanded change.

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Mass protests rocked every corner of the globe in 2014. In Kiev and Bangkok, Hong Kong and Caracas, passionate individuals led movements that defied powerful government institutions in the hope of defining new trajectories for entire countries and populations. Similarly, passionate individuals tested the status quo—and some sacred cows—by pushing for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, exposing the cracks (and hot air) among Silicon Valley’s elite, and scaring big banks with a tough, expansive vision of 21st-century financial regulations. Although their goals and tactics may not have been universally lauded, these Global Thinkers were indefatigable.

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Locating promise amid contradiction is the key to environmental progress for these Global Thinkers, who are showing that it is possible for a large, bustling city to be free of cars, for a small tribe to shield its homeland from powerful energy interests, and for trees—just trees—to protect a country from catastrophe. There is much left to learn, and even more to respect, about the natural world. These individuals serve as constant reminders of what it takes not just to live on Earth, but to thrive.

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In today’s world, innovations emerge at a rate that is nothing short of fast and furious. And while some inventions may be cool, sleek, and handy, others have the capacity to transform entire fields and individual lives. The scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in this category are developing rapid, comprehensive blood tests that could change the face of preventive health. They are providing digital educational tools to children in Africa. They are showing how humankind can explore the universe on a budget. They aren’t just making new things; they are defining the contours of humanity’s future.

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These Global Thinkers herald causes often wrongly considered inconsequential or verboten. They support forgotten victims of sexual violence, protect civilians targeted in internecine violence, count casualties in the fog of war, and demand legal protections for the world’s most vulnerable migrants. Often, these men and women—scholars, activists, and religious leaders among them—do this work at their own peril and pay the price, landing in court or prison in some of the world’s most repressive countries. For all of them, however, the risk is worth the possible rewards.

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A good story almost always involves an intriguing plot and skillfully drawn characters, but the way a tale is delivered can make it truly exceptional. These Global Thinkers are masters of storytelling forms, whether they are live-tweeting the events of war, empowering marginalized populations to report news through something as simple as a phone call, explaining the nature of the universe in the 1,000 most common words in the English language, or weaving humor into televised coverage of the world’s most pressing issues. They are modern-day raconteurs, telling people what they need to know—and often using groundbreaking platforms to do it.

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The Ebola epidemic, which had caused nearly 5,000 deaths by early November, has cruelly underscored the fragility of human life—and the tenuousness of global, national, and local health systems. Whether dealing with Ebola or other crises, these doctors, nurses, researchers, and inventors are working to protect both lives and systems from breaking. From advocating for effective, affordable hepatitis C treatment, to spearheading the campaign that eradicated polio from India, to developing a new method of detecting malaria, to challenging the way clinicians and cultures describe schizophrenia, they are helping provide the world with tools that can inject much-needed strength and hope into global health.

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“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth,” Pablo Picasso once said. It is an idea epitomized by these Global Thinkers—painters, sculptors, architects, and filmmakers. From searing images of children doing everyday things against the backdrop of the Syrian war, to a massive sphinx made of sugar that forces an intellectual confrontation with racism in America, to a satirical installation that questions the ethics and efficacy of Western aid to Africa, the works created by these artists demand that viewers reconsider what they know to be true.

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By nature, it seems, the visionaries of the business world are always looking for “the next big thing.” That can mean a new product that will make billions of dollars or a new way of delivering goods and services that will change the face of a sector. From Russia to China, Saudi Arabia to India, these Global Thinkers are doing anything but business as usual. They are revolutionizing e-commerce, welcoming women into long-unequal workplaces, bringing down the cost of medicine, making genetic sequencing available to the masses, and striking deals that undercut traditional East-West energy politics. Some of their aims are noble, and others not, but all are undoubtedly original.

2014 global thinker Statistics

2014 Global Thinker Statistics

Each year Foreign Policy identifies the top 100 Leading Global Thinkers—and though there are 100 slots, it’s worth noting that, in some cases, there’s more than one person to an entry. That is to say, sometimes big thinking requires a team, rather than just one individual; in other cases, we have paired people who might be strangers, but who share a common mission that we’ve identified as a notable trend. Thus, a total of 131 people populate this year’s list.

Below is an overview of these Global Thinkers—and a look at who, exactly, shaped the world in 2014.

infographics for gender
infographics for age
infographics for location
infographics for profession