How MIT Solve Is Crowdsourcing Solutions to the World's Biggest Problems

Disruption looks a little different when you’re talking about some of the world’s most complex problems, such as the refugee crisis and fighting chronic diseases.

That’s why in 2015 MIT launched Solve, an organization that “crowdsources” solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Solve works with experts and stakeholders to determine specific challenges in need of scalable solutions (think inclusive innovation, refugee education and brain health). Entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world and at any stage of development can submit their tech-based solution to these challenges. A panel of judges selects finalists from these applicants, who then pitch at a live event hosted by MIT. The winners of this pitch competition—called “Solvers”—then have access to MIT’s range of resources and experts to scale their ideas.

“It’s the recognition that you need a different type of innovation or technology or adaptation and affordability of technology for some of the big challenges of today,” said Alexandra Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve. “To do that, you need a much more bottom up, grassroots innovation process.”

The organization has sponsored two rounds of challenges, bringing around 60 Solvers into their network. These include Germany-based Kiron, an online education platform for refugees who are transitioning to university in Germany, France and Jordan, and India-based Saathi, biodegradable menstrual pads made of banana leaf fiber (which recently won the 100,000 euro grand prize at deep tech conference Hello Tomorrow). The next round of challenges will open this spring.

Amouyel sat down with Bost Inno in Paris at the the global summit for Techfugees, an organization galvanizing technology’s response to the refugee crisis, to talk more about crowdsourcing social impact solutions.

BostInno: What can this crowdsourced model offer to solving that government and NGOs alone can’t?

The real premise behind it is that there’s talent and ingenuity and good ideas everywhere. You don’t need an MIT ID to be doing great innovation and we want to uncover those great idea. Then, if you’re selected as one of our Solvers we help connect you with operations, foundations, impact investors, MIT academics, [and] people who have resources…to really accelerate your work.

In looking at the criteria for who becomes a Solver, it reminds me a lot of what a startup investor would look for in a pitch. What’s the idea behind bringing this startup mentality to these very complex issues?

If you think about MIT, it’s an engine for innovation. The traditional MIT approach to innovation is being on campus, being a student or professor at MIT and it’s one of high capex and high tech. It requires a lab, it’s 10 years, it’s millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars. That innovation is still very much necessary in the world…but today, those things are not going to solve the plight of refugees. To do that, you need a much more bottom up, grassroots innovation process. It’s the recognition that there’s talent and ingenuity everywhere. But it’s finding those people, and connecting them to what they need—recreating a virtual innovation ecosystem like the one around Kendall Square.

You’ve also talked about the importance of “failure” as the trade off for risky and potentially world-changing innovations. But failure can have bigger consequences in the development world. How do you balance that?

You do want to apply, as much as you can, the Hippocratic Oath of do no harm. But we need new innovation in this space. We need to recognize and take bets on people who are doing great work. When we select people, we’re still looking at their track records and looking at the feasibility of these things. We do due diligence. As much as possible, we know these people are out to do the right thing and have a track record of doing the right thing. But we do need to take bigger bets and bigger risks and drive innovation if we’re really going to be transformational and realize the big ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals, rather than be incremental.

Ultimately, government and policy can stand in the way of startup and tech solutions. How do you work with your Solvers to overcome obstacles that aren’t just customer acquisition, but something like regulation, bureaucracy, or other challenges that are standing in the way of solving problems like the refugee crisis?

First, I think that a lot of the bigger startups in the non-social impact space are butting up against government regulation. I think that if you’re a startup and you get to success and scale you’re probably disrupting regulation and policy, and it takes good governments to recognize they need to adapt to this ecosystem. The idea behind Solve is that it’s not an investor network or an angel network…the community of Solve is corporations, foundations, large NGOs that [create] a supportive ecosystem for Solvers, and help Solvers navigate the issues you describe.

When you’re talking about refugee education, there are a lot of coding bootcamps opening for refugees. But a lot of refugees in specific countries don’t have the right to work. So yay, they know how to code, but they still can’t actually use their skills. So that’s the question that we definitely ask and we expect a good answer about how they’re planning to solve that issue.

Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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