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Innovation doesn’t mean what you think it does

For me, put simply, innovation is about solving problems.


Throughout my time as executive director of MIT Solve, an initiative that seeks to drive transformational change in the world, I have learned and relearned a key lesson: Innovation is not what or who you think it is.

Traditional definitions of innovation often focus on novelty and value creation, usually as regard to the private sector. The late Peter F. Drucker defined innovation as “the specific function of entrepreneurship, whether in an existing business, a public service institution, or a new venture started by a lone individual in the family kitchen. It is the means by which the entrepreneur either creates new wealth-producing resources or endows existing resources with enhanced potential for creating wealth.”


Depending on whether your definition of wealth includes community wealth, this definition of innovation is a great start. For me, innovation is about solving problems. And if innovation is about solving problems, what problems you are solving and who is setting about solving them is key.

There are many seemingly intractable challenges the world faces, such as the growing inequality related to income, race, health, education, and more. As a global community, we all also should be concerned with climate change, war and displacement, and the continued aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. While these problems are global in scale, their impact is also felt at the local community level. For example, while we may still think of climate change as a distant risk, organizations such as Buy-In Community Planning, a 2021 Solver team, are using geospatial data tools to safely relocate climate refugees even here in the United States.

To solve these intractable global and community-level challenges, we need to get serious about innovation. Most urgently, we should zero in on problems that affect the most underserved among us, like the billions of people still living under $2 a day, people who had to flee their homes, individuals experiencing homelessness or living with a disability, and more. Those who, by and large, in this world, do not have the privilege to fulfill their full potential.


When you think about innovation as solving the problems of the most underserved among us, proximity becomes paramount. Dr. Angela Jackson of Kapor Ventures, John Kania of Collective Change Labs, and Tulane Montgomery of New Profit define a proximate leader as “someone who has a meaningful relationship with groups whose identity, experience, or community are systemically stereotyped, feared, dismissed, or marginalized. Being a proximate leader is about much more than being exposed to or studying a group of people and its struggles to overcome adversity. It’s about actually being a part of that group or being meaningfully guided by that group’s input, ideas, agendas, and assets.”

With proximity comes real understanding of not only the actual problem and its root causes, but also many other pieces that are key for a solution to take hold — for example, the barriers visible and invisible that have stood in the way of a solution, the stakeholders whose buy-in is needed, and more. That does not mean that fresh perspectives and new technologies are not welcome, or that you have to have been directly affected by a problem to solve it; proximity means that at the very least you take real time to meaningfully engage. Proximity is also about recognizing that communities and the leaders within them are themselves agents of innovation rather than passive “beneficiaries.”


As talent and ingenuity are equally distributed, you can find innovators everywhere. When we launch a challenge through our open innovation platform at MIT Solve, the innovators we uncover are already working tirelessly to solve problems in their communities across the world. Gloria Lane of the Navajo Nation is a 2019 Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow who is reintroducing traditional farming techniques to revive Navajo farming and help farmers recover after the Gold King Mine spill, which contaminated watersheds in 2015.

In some cases, the technology and innovations the Solver teams rely on are cutting-edge applications of blockchain and artificial intelligence, while for others they are centuries or even millennia-old. Some innovators even combine modern and ancestral technologies with traditional knowledge systems. For example, 2020 Indigenous Community Fellow Michael Running Wolf is developing automatic speech recognition AI for polysynthetic Wakashan languages, empowering these communities to revitalize the modern use of this endangered-language family.

The issue today is that, too often, we’re not recognizing and thus not investing in proximate innovators working in underserved communities, meaning their innovations may never quite reach the depth and scale needed for systemic change.

Those searching for innovation — investors, corporations, foundations, corporations, or governments — rely on top-down or closed approaches to find innovators. This relies on innovators being part of existing networks in particular geographies, going to the right schools, or being introduced through the right person to an investor or a foundation program officer. We need to fling open both literal and figurative doors to meet proximate innovators where they are, adopting bottom-up and co-creation approaches that allow access to those working in and with the most underserved communities.


If we are going to get serious about solving world challenges, we all need to adopt more open and participatory systems to find, fund, and support innovators, wherever they may be.

Alex Amouyel is the executive director of MIT Solve, and the author of “The Answer Is You: A Guidebook to Creating a Life Full of Impact.” Solve is hosting its annual flagship event May 5-7.