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Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

A world-changing forum at MIT

The MIT Solve-sponsored device Neopenda was designed to improve care for Ugandan babies.Jack Taylor/Getty Images/Getty Images

OUR PLANET FACES some of the most complex and seemingly intractable challenges in human history. Solving them will require not just expertise but cross-sectional innovation and support. And next week, dozens of great thinkers from across multiple sectors will spend three days at MIT demonstrating just how ingenuity combined with world-class resources can tackle big problems.

MIT Solve, now in its fourth year, is a social enterprise incubator that connects issues-focused innovators with entrepreneurial, corporate, non-profit, governmental, and academic leaders. To find participants, Solve issues four challenges each year, open to the public. The first round of applicants are vetted by the Solve staff; finalists are given the opportunity to present their solutions at a “Shark Tank”-style event in front of judges — experts in their fields. Contenders who offer scalable and practical solutions receive a $10,000 grant, access to Solve’s networks, and support from the Solve team.


For startups and non-profit initiatives, a chance to be a part of the Solve community means instant access to resource-rich organizations and complementary companies that can help a promising idea become a reality. (Speakers at this year’s conference include Mark Reuss, president of General Motors; Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab; Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief of Fast Company; and polar explorer Jade Hameister.) It also means money — in addition to the Solve grant, the 2018 Solvers had access to $865,000 in prize money from sponsors. Winners of the 2019 challenges will have access to a total prize pool of $1.5 million — because big ideas need big dollars.

Solve was founded to amplify good ideas, and so far, it’s working. During the conference, the 2018 challenge winners, chosen in September, will present their progress on addressing last year’s challenges: Helping coastal communities prepare for climate change; imagining what the future of equitable health care will look like; preparing job-seekers for the next work revolution; and using technology to help educators improve the learning experience.


We spoke with four of last year’s Solvers to learn more about their work. The Boston Globe is a Solve media partner.

IN UGANDA, APPROXIMATELY 81 babies die each day before reaching one month old. At least 80 percent of these deaths are preventable. When Sona Shah visited hospitals in the country, she found chronically understaffed neonatal intensive care units, with one or two nurses sometimes assigned to more than 100 infants.

She saw that babies in distress didn’t always receive the attention they needed: “I’ve been in a ward where a baby died right in front of me and I didn’t realize.”

Many of the hospitals she visited also had what Shah calls “equipment graveyards” — rooms full of medical devices that weren’t being used. In one hospital, she noticed a practically new infant incubator was abandoned in part because the training manual was written entirely in German.

Visiting Uganda inspired Shah and her business partner Teresa Cauvel to create a biomedical device that could reduce infant mortality in challenging health care environments. The result is Neopenda (“neo” is for baby and “penda” is Swahili for love), designed in collaboration with Ugandan doctors and nurses.

The device is a newborn-size headband which monitors tiny patients’ vital signs — pulse, respiratory rate, blood oxygen saturation, and temperature. Via low-energy Bluetooth, that information is transmitted to a dashboard on a tablet monitored by nurses. Should the baby’s vitals fall outside of normal range, an alert sounds. The device has a battery life of seven days, and is designed to work in areas where electricity is unreliable. Most important: Neopenda’s intuitive design makes it usable straight out of the box. The device is currently in clinical trials and a commercial version is expected to be brought to market this year.


FOR YEARS, JULIA Kumari Drapkin worked as a climate science reporter on Capitol Hill. Through her reporting, she understood the urgency of climate change, but she also knew that few were doing enough about it. “If you can’t go to a congressman or woman and say, ‘This is how much climate change costs your district,’ you don’t really have a way to have a conversation,” she said. Data — red dots on maps, projected flood zones, weather anomalies — was useful, but couldn’t communicate the ways in which climate change was affecting the lives of people.

Experts say that we only have about 12 years to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. But, says Drapkin, social science shows that we tend to adjust to the climate change-driven changes within two to eight years. “That’s the equivalent of the frog in the boiling pot — our sense of normal is changing so rapidly,” she said. “We’re very adaptive, that’s human nature, but we’ve reached a point that this is becoming very, very dangerous.”

Her initiative, ISeeChange, was born out of a need to capture that anecdotal data and turn it into something bigger — trends, patterns, evidence.


“If you can show climate change in their daily lives and treat stories as data, they become empowerment tools. It allows us to have agency,” she explained. ISeeChange enables people living with climate change to document what’s happening in their own backyard — sometimes literally — and advance that information to a platform that’s seen by city planners, engineers, and insurers.

Users’ data can then be incorporated into the design of resilient communities. Collecting the localized effects of climate change can help us make decisions not only for the future, but for how we live now.

Executive Director of MIT Solve Alex Amouyel spoke onstage during the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 2 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 25, 2018 in New York City. Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

SINCE CENTURY TECH’s artificial intelligence-assisted learning tool became a finalist for a Solve grant in 2018, the company has more than doubled in size. In one day, it signed on 40 schools to its bespoke AI teaching platform. And the company just inked a contract to roll out Century Tech in a series of Belgian schools. “It’s been a good year for us,” said Priya Lakhani, the company’s founder.

Century Tech is poised to make a significant difference in the lives of children across the world, including Lakhani’s own. The founder, who lives in London, said that when she was pregnant with her first child, she heard a terrifying statistic: 20 percent of children in UK schools were underperforming. The problem, she said, was that teachers were expected to accurately assess and cater to the needs of 30 different students in a given class. “This teacher is expected to differentiate for every given child at a given moment and that is just an impossible task,” she said. Teaching that number of pupils is especially difficult considering the amount of administrative work teachers are asked to do these days.


“There is no sector in the world where we expect people to deliver such important milestones and goals,” she continued. “In business, we call them KPIs — key performance indicators. And in education, we’re like, ‘The KPI is a child’s life, off you go!’”

Century Tech’s learning platform uses AI to assess where a student is succeeding or struggling across all classes, and customizes a learning plan for each; it also automates administrative tasks, such as progress reports. The goal is to tailor education for individual students while giving teachers more time for teaching.

The platform has been used by more than 11,000 students thus far. Data collected has shown that students who used Century Tech improved their understanding of key concepts by 30 percent. The platform also returns an average of six hours each week to teachers; surveys found that teachers were using that time to focus on student interventions.

“The most important person in the classroom is the child, but the most powerful person is the teacher,” said Lakhani. “We need to untie the hands of our teachers.”

WITHOUT EVIDENCE, SOME of the worst human rights offenses would go unseen. Nobel Peace Prize winner Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has spent the last 30 years using science and medicine to document human rights violations, from genocide in Rwanda to the use of chemical weapons in Iraq.

But one of the most difficult crimes to document and prosecute, the organization found, is sexual violence. “Even for those who do come forward . . . their cases often fail because there is a lack of adequate evidence to support their allegations,” explained Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s program on sexual violence in conflict zones.

Since 2011, PHR has worked in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya to standardize and facilitate medical reporting on sexual assault. The organization began in a low-tech way — it created paper intake forms to help doctors and nurses ask the right questions, get the best possible information, and document assaults. While this improved the quality of evidence, challenges remained.

Was there a readily available tool that could facilitate the effort? Naimer noticed that many East Central Africans had cellphones and thought they could leverage that technology. PHR’s solution is MediCapt, an app that combines a standardized digital medical form with the ability to collect photographic evidence; the enhanced documentation can be securely uploaded to the cloud and transmitted to law enforcement officials.

The app was designed in collaboration with clinicians, law enforcement officials, and others in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo and, as of October 2018, is being used with patients in public hospitals in Kenya.

Solve, Naimer said, was instrumental in connecting her organization with thinkers, funders, and other entrepreneurs who could help the company grow in the most useful and impactful way. “Because we’re at a critical stage with our app . . . it’s very important for us to be able to consult with numerous people who have experience in this area,” said Naimer. “The Solve community certainly helps to put us in front of really valuable thinkers who can help guide us.”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American freelance writer living in London.