Opinion

Opinion | Alex Amouyel

Crowdsourcing innovation could solve some of our thorniest global problems

Crowdsourcing innovation could solve some of our thorniest global problems.
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This column has been updated.

For today’s global challenges, we need a new way to innovate — and to start by asking the right questions. The world has made tremendous progress in addressing extreme poverty, and expanding access to primary education. Yet, there are still more than one billion people living without access to affordable, reliable energy, and more than 60 million girls do not complete secondary school.

Income inequality in many parts of the world — including the United States — is increasing rather than decreasing. These are complex challenges, and we need to think and innovate differently to find solutions.

We cannot solve today’s complex multi-dimensional challenges by foreign aid, by public services, or by philanthropy alone. No one actor has all the answers or the monopoly of good ideas. Cross-sector cooperation — working with the public, private and non-profit sectors — is more critical now than ever before.

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We cannot solve these challenges by relying on yesterday’s thinking, technology and processes. The pace of change continues to accelerate and new technologies — Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain are upending our ways of working, communicating and interacting. In some cases, jobs and even entire industries are being eliminated, but these new technologies also hold the potential — when they are adapted and applied to today’s most pressing challenges — to bring about great opportunities for all. We need to be far more inclusive — we have over 7 billion people in the world today, but we only use the brains, talent, and ingenuity of the very few to tackle today’s challenges.

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MIT Solve is crowdsolving massive global problems through open innovation. We find great social entrepreneurs to join our Solver class. We connect them with a diverse set of corporate, nonprofit, government, and academic leaders, and then broker partnerships to help them accelerate their solutions globally. Last year, a Solver class of 38 tech entrepreneurs was chosen from nearly 1,000 submissions, representing 100 countries. We partnered with forward thinking organizations, like the Atlassian Foundation and the Australian government, which each pledged $1 million to Solve’s efforts to prepare disadvantaged students for the workplace of the future.

We support innovations far and wide. One Solver, Digital Citizen Fund, helps train young women in critical skills like financial literacy, web design, and business planning in Afghanistan — where over 40 percent of the population faces unemployment — so they can access the global market through tech and education. And here in Boston, local Solver Open Learning Exchange runs personal, team-based learning programs for Somali and Syrian refugee girls and young adults.

To truly realize the potential of open innovation, you need to start by asking the right questions, in an open way. What are the key challenges that communities face globally and locally? How can technological innovation address these challenges? Solve consulted more than 500 experts around the world, and also opened our process up for online voting — receiving over 12,000 votes on the topics of our new challenges which launched March 1:

1. How can teachers and educators provide accessible, personalized, and creative learning experiences for all?

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2. How can communities invest in frontline health workers and services to improve their access to effective and affordable care?

3. How can those left behind by the technology-driven transformations of work create meaningful and prosperous livelihoods for themselves?

4. How can coastal communities mitigate and adapt to climate change while developing and prospering?

Sixty-one million of the world’s children do not have access to primary education, another 142 million are not enrolled in secondary school, and less than 10 percent of the world’s population hold college degrees. This leaves most lacking the skills of creativity and critical thinking that the modern world demands. Likewise, more than half the world’s population lacks access to the most basic of health services, despite recent dramatic reductions of worldwide infant mortality. We must source new models to make both education and health care available and affordable to all — and to do this, we are asking innovators all around the world to submit their solutions to support teachers, educators, and frontline healthcare workers.

In each of our challenges, we’re embracing new technologies rather than resisting them. The global economy and workforce is significantly changing through automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies. Jobs and entire industries are being eliminated, but technology will also create other jobs and entire new industries we have yet to imagine. We must use technology to mitigate this transition for those left behind, and ensure it expands the possibilities for everyone to attain their full potential, which is what we are looking for in our Work of the Future Challenge.

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Finally, our sustainability challenge focuses on the threats climate change pose to coastal communities. Louisiana now loses one football field’s worth of wetlands per hour, eight pacific islands may disappear in the coming years, stronger and more frequent storms and hurricanes threaten many cities. When 30 percent of humanity lives near coasts, 600 million people work in the fishing industry, and 90 percent of global trade passes through coasts, we must find solutions that allow coastal communities to mitigate and adapt to climate change while supporting their livelihoods.

This may be a fragmented time, with many complex challenges for humanity to conquer, but it is also a tremendously promising. At Solve, we are opening up the doors of a world class institution to people who may not have an MIT ID card. We need to source ideas from innovators all around the world to find the next breakthroughs that will create learning experiences for all, productive work in the post-automation era, access to healthcare, and resilient coastlines. Progress never come easily, but we know talent and ingenuity exist everywhere; it’s a matter of tapping into those ideas and leveraging MIT’s expertise and diverse public, private and nonprofit networks to turn them into a reality.

Alex Amouyel is executive director of MIT Solve.