By Ariel Foxman
How best to meet the most urgent challenges of a global community beset by inequity, injustice, and indifference? Imagine if that lofty mission were your actual day job. Alexandra Amouyel, executive director of MIT Solve, an initiative that connects tech entrepreneurs around the world with partners, funding, and resources, doesn’t have to imagine. Each year, the initiative invites anyone, from anywhere, to propose practical, scalable solutions to a select series of Solve’s hot-topic challenges.
Previously at the Clinton Global Initiative and Save the Children, Amouyel was recruited five years ago as Solve’s first executive director, tasked with ensuring the initiative can identify and support the right global solutions by fostering open innovation. This year, Amouyel and her team solicited input from the Solve community and decided to center the 2021 challenges around five relevant themes: antiracist technology, digital inclusion, equitable classrooms, health security and pandemics, and resilient ecosystems. HP is a sponsor of the digital inclusion and antiracist technology challenges, hosting the HP Prize for Accelerating Digital Equity, which will distribute $100,000 across four “Solver” teams within these two categories.
“I don’t believe that one can change things alone,” says Amouyel. “There is no lone innovator, or no lone activist.” Here, she explains what goes into a good challenge and even greater solve.
What attracted you to this unique position?
Solve is the vision of MIT president L. Rafael Reif. MIT’s mission is to advance knowledge and educate students to best serve the nation and the world. Solve is an acknowledgment that, as an institute, we need to have different ways of doing that — especially when there are almost eight billion people on the planet. There are innovators out there who are doing great work and who actually have more proximity to the real problems that communities face. I wanted to support these people.
With an infinite number of problems you might want to put out to the world to solve, how does Solve come up with a given year’s challenges?
It’s an art and a science. We spend six to nine months in challenge design, and there is a bottom-up, crowd-solving piece where we get input from our community through workshops, and then we also speak to our MIT faculty and other experts in particular themes. No matter what, the challenges always address the same four pillars: learning, health, economic prosperity, and sustainability.
Are there any other parameters you and your team use to ensure that a challenge will attract the right kinds of solutions
We ask ourselves if this challenge affects billions of the most underserved people on the planet. Where is there enough early-stage innovation bubbling up? We are looking for prototypes and pilots, not just ideas. And thirdly, will there be enough community members and partners to support it with funding, mentorship, and resources?
What’s your philosophy when it comes to working in a coalition with businesses?
I like Julie Battilana’s framework. [Ed: Battilana is a professor at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.] She writes that for any social change movement, you need the agitator, the innovator, and the orchestrator. It’s the orchestrator that works with or within the system to effect change and bring innovation to scale, and I see myself and Solve in that type of role.
Are the Solvers encouraged to work across teams and issues, and even communities?
There is a real exchange — between all the teams within each cohort and class, and across the different themes. But there is also a much broader impact that goes beyond particular solutions. Our Indigenous Communities Fellowship is in its fourth cycle. We are seeing collaborations between the Indigenous Fellows and some of our Solver teams. We’re sort of rediscovering things that Indigenous people have known for centuries. That matters a lot in helping to change the narrative around what is technology and who is an innovator.
You say Solve’s number one core value is optimism. How is that applied practically?
Despite all the problems that the world faces — and there are many — we can use human ingenuity, technology, and empathy to solve them. Solve advisor Megan Smith, who was one of President Obama’s US chief technology officers, says, “If we can include everyone, we can solve everything.” I like that a lot.
Alex Amouyel will join Alex Cho, HP President of Personal Systems, and Sarah Brown, Executive Chair of the Global Business Coalition for Education and Chair of Theirworld on July 21 to discuss digital equity and education.
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