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Solve sparks powerful impact on global challenges

The open innovation program convenes Solve at MIT, three days of workshops, lectures, and discussions to advance global solutions.
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Solver teams with MIT President L. Rafael Reif (far left) on stage during Solve at MIT.
Solver teams with MIT President L. Rafael Reif (far left) on stage during Solve at MIT.
Photo: Adam Schultz/MIT Solve

More than 400 leaders convened on campus last month for Solve at MIT, Solve’s annual flagship meeting. Attendees traveled from 38 countries to meet and advise Solver teams and hear remarks from luminaries such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, VEON Chairwoman Ursula Burns, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Alphabet technical advisor and board member Eric Schmidt.

Six Solver teams pitched their solutions on stage, including Jay Newton-Small, chief executive officer of MemoryWell; Elizabeth Frank, co-founder of MealFlour; Kristin Kagetsu, co-founder of Saathi; Paul Falzone, executive director of Peripheral Vision International; and Patrick Meier, executive director of WeRobotics.

In addition to featuring the 2017 Solver class, the conference highlighted the next round of Global Challenges. Solve seeks innovative solutions to four new 2018 Challenges: Work of the Future, Frontlines of Health, Coastal Communities, and Teachers and Educators.

Solve announced $650,000 in prize funding will be available to the 2018 Solver class. This pool includes funding from General Motors, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, and a new $10,000 grant for each Solver provided by Solve.

Solve at MIT, which ran from May 16-18, included five thought-provoking plenary sessions, several workshops to advance Solver solutions, and networking opportunities to build partnerships within the Solve community.

In the opening plenary session, “The Heart of the Machine: Bringing Humanity Back into Technology,” panelists and speakers discussed the current state of technology, the rapid speed at which it advances, and how we can use it for good. Panelists Yo-Yo Ma and Eric Schmidt grappled with questions of how we combine technology and culture for social progress, and how we mend the way technology has divided us.

“During times of huge change, historically we’ve had the opportunity to redefine who we want to be, whether it’s during the Renaissance or during the Enlightenment,” Ma said. “I’d like to pose the question, who do we want to be [today]?”

Schmidt answered, “More tolerant, more diverse, more intelligent.” He argued these changes can be achieved through education, that we must teach people the importance of tolerance.

The second panel consisted of Ursula Burns, Mozilla Chairwoman Mitchell Baker, MIT Media Lab Ethics Initiative Director Tenzin Priyadarshi, and Tom Taylor, Amazon’s senior vice president of Alexa. They discussed technology from a different perspective — ethics and responsibility. They debated the industry’s responsibility to build products for good and stressed the importance of diversity in building new technologies. Baker argued the need to include the humanities in tech education “so the technologists themselves have a sense of humanity what it actually means to be human for the technology they build.”

In the “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” session, panelists and speakers discussed the interrelation of human and environmental health and debated ways to improve both. A youth environmental activist panel of Malual Bol Kiir, executive director of African Youth Action Network; Brianna Fruean, climate activist and founding member of 350 Samoa; and Amira Odeh, organizer of Caribbean Youth Environment Network, told personal stories of the impacts of climate change.

They spoke of the beloved walkway in Samoa that will soon be underwater; drought and rising temperatures in South Sudan that limit natural resources, and the destruction of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Fruean issued a call to the world’s youth, saying: “You’re never too young to do something; you’re never too young to change the world.”

During the “Connecting through Tech” session, Roya Mahboob, chief executive officer of Digital Citizens Fund; Reshma Saujani, founder and chief executive officer of Girls Who Code; and Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of DBL Partners, discussed ways to engage and empower women in technology.

That included everything from the need to expose girls to technology at a young age, to creating safe single-sex spaces for girls to learn, to the role that men play in supporting women. “We need to be thoughtful about what we can do as individuals in supporting the ecosystem and committing ourselves to diversifying [the entrepreneurs] we see,” said Saujani.

In the “True Stories of Starting Up” session, insightful speakers such as Tongan Olympian Pita Taufatofua; Affectiva CEO Rana el Kaliouby; and Dean Kamen, president of DEKA Research and Development and founder of FIRST, talked about the realities of reaching both personal and professional goals.

During his conversation with Media Lab Assistant Professor Danielle Wood, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness in decision-making and driving change. “Diversity is a source of strength, not of weakness,” he added. “Having someone alongside you with different perspectives helps you solve a problem.”

During the “Design for Mars, Solve for Earth” session, former astronaut Cady Coleman, Hewlett Packard Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel, and Danielle Wood discussed how technology and tools designed for space can support life in extreme environments on earth.

The conversation went beyond technology. The panelists covered some other lessons learned in space: notably, how teamwork and a crystal clear mission drive impact. Working on a spaceship with a six-person crew is much like working on any team, Coleman explained. “The mission is more important than whether you like each other or whether you want to do that [task],” Coleman said. With that mindset, “We end up doing extraordinary things.”

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