No one crossing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus Thursday could help noticing the bizarre tableau.
A 16-by-16-foot transparent glass cube, with a small workspace inside, had sprouted up on a patch of lawn. An ambulance was parked outside, with a few students crawling in and out.
It was the school’s latest innovation showcase: Five MIT students have pledged to eat, sleep, and work in the cube all weekend, in full view of their classmates and anyone else wandering past, while competing in a global problem-solving contest. Their task: to design a better ambulance.
The project is part of a Swiss initiative called InCube, which aims to help students work out solutions to big social problems. Organizers at MIT, InCube’s first location outside Switzerland, said they hoped the contest would celebrate the university’s longtime love affair with the “hackathon,” a public session where groups work together to hatch new ideas that can develop into products or businesses.
MIT has long seen hackathons as an ideal way for students to try out the technical and entrepreneurial skills they’re learning in school. InCube, they said, is a chance to let the world see the excitement and adventure of intensive group problem-solving.
The transparent cube shows “what the entrepreneurial journey looks like,” said Gene Keselman, executive director of the MIT Innovation Initiative. “People can stand around it and watch it like they’re spectators or something.”
Each InCube challenge is meant to be a real-world problem that passersby can relate to, said Signe Lin Kuei Vehusheia, an MIT researcher who helped organize the event.
“Basically, this is to ensure that we’re not working on a challenge that no one cares about and also that the final product is not irrelevant,” she said.
The students in the cube will order in meals from one of the campus cafés. They’ll have a modicum of privacy: They can draw the curtains at night and sleep on pull-out couches. They can leave to use the bathroom, change their clothes, and conduct research.
They can also step outside the cube to quiz passersby about project ideas and to demonstrate what they’re working on.
On Thursday, a Pro EMS ambulance was parked beside the cube. The students, three men and two women, scoured the vehicle to better understand how it worked, and where they might find room for improvement.
The students will compete with four teams in Switzerland — two in Zürich, one in Bern, and one in the mountain resort of Crans-Montana — on the quality of their designs and the marketability of their ideas.
The prize for the winners hasn’t been announced, but participating students already got to travel to Crans-Montana for lessons in how to measure user needs, how to make business plans, and how to think about selling products. On Monday, the teams will present their ideas to a jury in Zurich that will pick the winner.
The problem they would be asked to solve was revealed Thursday.
One participant, Paolo Adajar, a 19-year-old sophomore studying mathematical economics at MIT, said he was making a poster before the event to hang on the wall that instructed onlookers: “Please don’t tap the glass. It startles the students.”
Because he didn’t know which challenge he’d be taking on, all he could do was finish up his homework, relax, and rest up for the marathon brainstorming sessions. He was also thinking of other ways to ham it up, bringing along hats shaped like a squid and a giraffe.
“I don’t think anyone can say they’ve done anything like this — ever — where you throw five people into a cube and you ask [someone] to make something as amazing [as] a startup in just four short days,” he said. “It’s kind of a wild experience.”Andy Rosen can be reached at email@example.com.