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IDEAS Global Challenge coordinator discusses intersection of innovation and public service

Facilitated by Kate Mytty, competition will award up to $10,000 per team next month.
Kate Mytty, right, facilitates the IDEAS Global Challenge. She poses here with 2011 competition participant and MIT graduate student Greg Tao, left, and D-Lab Project Director Saida Benhayoune, center.
Kate Mytty, right, facilitates the IDEAS Global Challenge. She poses here with 2011 competition participant and MIT graduate student Greg Tao, left, and D-Lab Project Director Saida Benhayoune, center.
Photo courtesy of Kate Mytty

As part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, dozens of student-led teams are innovating solutions to critical quality-of-life barriers around the world. With the 2012 competition lifecycle nearing the awards ceremony, the MIT community is invited to support teams through the Community Choice Vote until April 29. The three teams with the most community votes will win $1,500 awards at the IDEAS Global Challenge awards ceremony on May 3, and teams ranked highest by the judges could win implementation awards of up to $10,000 per team.

Kate Mytty is completing her second academic year as the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge coordinator for the Public Service Center. She recently spoke with the Division of Student Life about the MIT community’s support for the competition, the global potential for innovation in public service, and the impact of the competition on MIT students and the world.

Q. Why does MIT have the IDEAS Global Challenge?

A. Eleven years ago, Amy Smith, who founded D-Lab, and Sally Susnowitz, who runs the Public Service Center, asked how we can make the MIT spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship apparent in competitions like the MIT $100K and direct that same energy toward humanitarian efforts and ideas that benefit underserved populations. Could a competition spur MIT students to be more involved with unique challenges like delivering energy off the grid or developing an all-terrain wheelchair in the same way students think about developing the next Dropbox or Facebook?

In its first year, IDEAS had somewhere between 20 and 30 teams enter, and now we have 80-plus teams that enter every year. That community of teams, with the energy that students are coming in with, continues to grow and represent a greater set of ideas and applications from around the Institute every year. 

At the heart of MIT’s mission is the idea of leveraging the Institute to tackle large global challenges, and I think you see that spirit in this competition. MIT is a leading research institute on so many levels, from designing earthquake-proof bridges to developing a printable solar cell. What MIT students bring, more often than not, is the energy, excitement and knowledge to bring about technical and creative solutions. That’s one of the pieces that the IDEAS Global Challenge focuses on: challenging students to look at the world around them and apply their knowledge while leveraging the support of the MIT community to work with communities around the world on new solutions and tools.

Q. What’s the relationship between innovation and public service?

A. We’re at a moment in time where there is an amazing amount of people who are passionate about how to change the world, and at the same time we have access to tools, connections and communities that’s never been possible before. I think the potential for thinking creatively about how to improve the quality of life of people around the world is so much greater than ever before.

To me, innovation and public service are compatible — and even more so, public service should more often be seen through the lens of what could be done better and how. For example, if you’re delivering food in a soup bank, you have 50 people that come in every day dependent upon the work of 20 volunteers; that’s not always a scalable model. This point in time in history is so ripe for thinking about solutions in a new way seen through the impact of organizations like Sanergy, the 100K winner from last year, which is turning human waste into energy in Kenya. Many important innovations are possible when the people with the desire and knowledge to think about how to solve problems are connected with the communities that can benefit most from that energy. 

IDEAS Global Challenge is part of the innovative and entrepreneurial community here at MIT. That community includes classes like Seth Teller’s Assistive Technology, to centers like D-Lab that are thinking about classroom-based projects, to student initiatives like Hacking Medicine. It’s the entire community that helps to foster, support and develop new ideas.

Q. What have been some of the lasting impacts of the projects, and how has the IDEAS Global Challenge enabled those impacts?

A. We consider the lasting impact of projects in two ways. One aspect is the impact delivered to communities around the world. Take teams like Assured Labor, that developed a new tool for connecting employees and employers in Nicaragua and Mexico. They have enabled tens of thousands of individuals to connect with new jobs. There are also teams like Indian Mobile Initiative, one of our award winners last year, which developed and led a series of courses mixing entrepreneurship with Android programming. Through the course of the summer, they worked with 2,400 Indian university students to create solutions to challenges that they saw in their own communities.

Between the deadlines, the awards and the community of support, competitions foster stronger ideas through the process. The deadlines put on projects help people think through the variables and the impact of their project in a very specific and structured environment. The community helps to support those ideas with mentorship and connections to new networks.

A competition also helps to raise awareness around projects — both those that enter and those that go on to win. For winning teams, it’s a stamp of approval, ‘The MIT IDEAS Global Challenge is investing in my idea,’ and that mark of approval is so important in enabling teams to leverage their experience far beyond the competition itself.

The second aspect we’re proud of is the impact the competition makes on individuals entering the competition. For many students, IDEAS is a chance to explore new applications of their degrees and understand what it takes to intimately know and work with a community to develop and implement a new idea. For some, that leads to changing the course of their careers or, at the very least, the experience impacts their outlook on the world as they continue in their professional careers.

One interesting example is Amos Winter. While completing his master’s degree here, he took a summer to work with a wheelchair organization in Tanzania as part of a Public Service Center fellowship. There, armed with his mechanical engineering background, he started tinkering with wheelchairs. That experience laid the roots for inventing the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC) — an all-terrain wheelchair. The LFC is currently working on large-scale manufacturing in India and taking that same wheelchair design and modifying it for the American market. Amos continues to be interested in what it takes to design for constrained environments and this fall will join the MIT faculty in the mechanical engineering department.

For more information, visit the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge website.

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