The world entered 2022 with growing weariness after two years of a global pandemic that has claimed 5.61 million lives, and continuing humanitarian and climate crises, with energy-related emissions set to rise by 87 million metric tonnes (about 96 million tons), and 274 million people in need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
None of these issues has simple fixes. However, we retain our sense of optimism and purpose knowing that there are innovators working tirelessly around the world to solve these challenges one idea at a time.
Solve at MIT 2022, the flagship event of MIT Solve, recently convened over 300 social impact leaders including 62 Solver teams as well as thousands of virtual supporters. The May 5-7 event featured plenaries where leaders from various sectors discussed the state of global issues and how technology can contribute to making us more resilient. Throughout the three days, Solver teams, members, and supporters joined over a dozen working sessions to discuss the progress and obstacles they were experiencing, and brainstorm how to scale their impact.
Below are a few of the many notable takeaways from Solve at MIT 2022.
There’s human capital at stake for every technological advancement
Technology has seemingly limitless capacity to solve some of the world's biggest challenges, but developing and deploying it comes with its own concerns. Some of the most dangerous consequences of technological development are human and land degradation.
Within the opening plenary, Ethical and Inclusive Innovation: Solving With, By and For the Most Underserved, Azra Akšamija, director of the Art, Culture and Technology program at MIT and the Future Heritage Lab, shared, “When we work with fragile communities we always have the best intentions, but best intentions don't always make the best solutions.” Power dynamics and especially colonial dynamics can impact the effectiveness of well-intended initiatives or innovation.
While discussing Vodafone's partnership with Waking Women Healing Institute, June Sugiyama, director of Vodafone Americas Foundation, asked Indigenous Fellow Kristen Welch, its executive director, how other companies can help support innovators and entrepreneurs. Welch boldly called on us all to first and foremost decolonize, which includes looking internally and at budget streams and policies. She said, “Decolonize yourself and make sure you have BIPOC and two-spirit people at every level of decision-making within your company and institution and corporation.”
Yuval Noah Harari, historian, bestselling author, and co-founder of Sapienship, reminded us that we also have the freedom to choose ethical innovation and to consider the consequences of our actions. He shared, “People who design technology have enormous power to shape and reshape the world. They have choices. You can design many different types of technologies, not just one, it’s never deterministic … you can, as an engineer, as an entrepreneur, create a technological tool for a government to survey and monitor citizens, or you can create the opposite tool for citizens to monitor the government.”
Impact investment does not equate to charity
During the Investing in Community-Led Solutions plenary, Hala Hanna, managing director of Solve stated, “Charity asks: what’s wrong, how can I help? Justice asks: why is it happening, how can I change it?”
In addition to mentorship and expert consulting, funding and creating monetary partnerships can play a critical role in the success of innovators looking to improve the world. Impact investing has grown tremendously in the last decade, but there is still a misrepresentation of what it should look like.
In the plenary, Angela Jackson, chief ecosystem investment officer at Kapor Enterprises, asserted, “We invest with an impact lens but we also want returns. We don't want the narrative to be that when you invest in Black, Latinx, or Indigenous communities that you’re expecting concessionary returns. In those communities, there is the same genius, right? They’re solving problems for their communities. Our ethos is, yes we’re going to get impact, but also we can expect returns … I’d like to see investors think beyond [investing] because it’s the moral thing to do or the charitable thing to do, but really doing it in service of equity and in service of efficiency.”
Jeffrey Cry, managing partner at Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, echoed Jackson’s sentiments, saying, “We don’t want charitable investing at all. The businesses we invest in we see as best-in-class business, not best-in-Indigenous investments — best in class.”
Even with impact investments made — performative or not — corporations must be held accountable past initial commitments. To exemplify a bona fide commitment to social justice, Vilas Dhar, president and trustee and the Patrick J. Mcgovern Foundation, awarded Kimberly Seals Allers, founder of the IRTH App, the 2022 AI for Humanity Prize at the conclusion of the program. Seals Allers and Irth are helping to address racism and bias in maternity and infant care.
Start alone but don’t stay alone
There may be a time in your life when you feel compelled to solve a problem, and there may be no one else available to take action with you. In those times, Sakena Yacoobi, founder and president of the Afghan Institute of Learning, implores us all to be bold. “Don't wait for something to come, you need to act on it yourself.”
Anne Wojcicki, founder and CEO of 23andMe, shared during the plenary Promoting Our Care Providers that she was also no stranger to initiating change, even if it meant taking an unconventional approach. Wojcicki left her life on Wall Street to empower health through human genome-centered solutions and break the one-size-fits-all approach that the health care industry has been practicing. “I’m going to set up a different kind of health care system that is based on what’s in your best interest. Everything that [23andMe] does now has been controversial because it is not part of the system at all. And that was intentional from the very beginning,” stated Wojcicki.
Although breakthroughs and initiatives to solve world challenges do sometimes call for the action of an individual, Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of Civics Unplugged and Solv[ED] judge, reminded us that community support leads to better outcomes. During the Closing Plenary: Young Leaders on the Horizon, Dilos shared, “Funding is great for young people, but what is really also important is community and agency.” Adding also, “No one is self-made — everyone is made in community.”
What’s next for Solve?
Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media and Solve advisor, summarized well, “Solve is a catalytic convener to bring people together.”
The three-day event was only a fraction of the dialogue and idea exchange that needs to happen in order to tackle global issues, but it’s necessary to start somewhere.
Leveling the playing field in the care economy, figuring out how to uplift proximate leaders, and addressing lofty goals like net-zero are no easy feat. However, finding the solution to many world problems might be as simple as catalyzing connections like putting together an innovator and a funder who live in different time zones. Or it might mean looking internally and holding ourselves accountable to spearhead a new solution.
Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman at Moderna and Solve advisor, left attendees with a note of encouragement, “When you find yourself in survival mode, don’t assume that you’re failing, because you could be close to a breakthrough.”