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ILP Institute Insider

April 10, 2017

MIT Solve: solving the world's most pressing challenges

By 2050 there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet. How will we feed everyone, generate enough sustainable energy, meet medical needs, create access to productive employment? Launched in 2015, Solve aims to accelerate positive change in four key areas or pillars: Learning, Health, Sustainability, and Economic Prosperity.

Daniel de Wolff

By 2050 there will be more than 9 billion people on the planet. How will we feed everyone, generate enough sustainable energy, meet medical needs, create access to productive employment? Envisioned by MIT President L. Rafael Reif, Solve begins by acknowledging that in an interconnected world, global challenges require global solutions facilitated by open innovation and partnership. Launched in 2015, Solve aims to accelerate positive change in four key areas or pillars: Learning, Health, Sustainability, and Economic Prosperity. Within each pillar, an actionable challenge is defined and posed as a question, and solutions are solicited from around the world. Finalists are invited to pitch their solutions to a panel of expert judges at a live event, and the best solutions are chosen to be supported by the Solve community. This year, judges selected 31 innovators to become Solvers. They will be supported by Solve’s member organizations throughout their solution lifecycles as they start up and scale up.

Hala Hanna
Economic Prosperity,
Pooja Wagh
Director, Health,

Solve is a marketplace for human-centered technology. They issue these challenges for anybody from around the world to apply. They identify the best solutions through open innovation. And they build and convene a community of leaders and change-makers who have the resources, the expertise, the mentorship, and the know-how to get each solution piloted, scaled, and implemented. Hala Hanna, Director of Solve’s Economic Prosperity pillar, suggests thinking of Solve as a marketplace: “We’re unearthing the most promising ideas for solving the world’s most pressing challenges, and supporting those ideas by connecting them with leaders from businesses, foundations, and the public sector who want to have a social impact.” Pooja Wagh, Director of the Health pillar, adds, “The Solve community is diverse, but is connected by a common thread: members want to drive solutions to the world’s biggest challenges, both by supporting our Solvers and each other to make progress.”

Essential to the initiative are a set of core values: optimism, a belief that these problems are solvable; partnership, meaning no single institution, industry or sector can solve these challenges alone; open innovation, engendered in the understanding that talent is everywhere and it is therefore necessary to tap into it no matter where it lies; a human-centered approach that posits solutions by and for the individuals they will benefit; and an understanding that solutions will have a technological component driving innovation while considering political, economic, and cultural barriers especially as they pertain to the most underserved communities.

Regarding the Health pillar, Pooja Wagh explains that Solve is currently focused on the prevention, detection, and management of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. An exciting, wide range of solutions, from mobile phone applications that track wellness or nutrition to cheaper diagnostic tools have been selected. Hala Hanna, discussing the Economic Prosperity pillar, focuses on the role of technology within industry and its impending automation. “There is an intense debate as to what the role of technology is in economic prosperity,” she says. “This is about being part of that conversation but also about finding solutions to those issues.” These issues include how technology can improve financial inclusion for those outside established financial systems, how humans and machines can work together to improve productivity without loss of jobs, and how to bring more people into the digital economy. “We want to use this pillar and the solutions that come out of it to bring the world closer together,” says Hanna, “to make it more inclusive and equal.”

Hanna makes the point that Solve is very much about bringing the MIT ethos of experimentation and problem solving to the world. “It’s about democratizing access to the institution on the actionable and specific challenges we are working on,” she says. Possible solutions were explored at the city-wide Boston event HUBWeek (September 2016). And Solve at the United Nations (March 2017) was their most recent live pitch event where selected innovators pitched their solutions to Solve’s challenges on Refugee Education, Carbon Contributions, and Chronic Diseases to a panel of expert judges and a live audience. Solvers will report on their progress and workshop their solutions with members at the flagship meeting, Solve at MIT, in May 2017. The MIT meeting will also provide an opportunity for Solve to announce its next set of challenges for the coming year. With regard to how challenges are decided, Pooja Wagh says, “We are conducting a series of ‘Challenge Design Workshops’ to hear ideas from people in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, as well as MIT faculty, researchers, and students — anyone who might have an opinion about where we should focus next to make a big impact on the world’s problems.” These individuals will be convened in workshop settings at MIT and around the world to brainstorm ideas and identify the next challenges to help accelerate positive global impact.

Wagh continues, “We’ve found the MIT community to be incredibly valuable in terms of providing advice on where we should be focusing next and where our priorities should lie.” There are several expert MIT faculty members donating their time and energy as Solve advisors. In addition, Wagh and Hanna both praise the extensive network of resources that MIT has to offer. “There are so many resources for entrepreneurs that we have been welcomed to tap into, and networks of students and change-makers that have been integral to this journey,” says Wagh. She cites MIT ILP’s commitment to cross-sector collaboration as the perfect example. “Many organizations here, like the ILP, also believe in the power of partnership and cross-sector collaboration, and are generously providing us with everything from their valuable advice to space to run events in order to help us realize our vision.” Hanna mentions the outpouring of support for Solve: “We are speaking with companies across industries as varied as consumer goods, financial services, and the automotive industry. There is a real hunger to be at the forefront of innovation that has social and environmental impact. And Solve can help those companies find the next innovation and achieve their social and environmental goals.” Organizations interested in joining the Solve community and attending the Solve at MIT meeting can enquire about becoming members here: https://solve.mit.edu/membership.