MIT's new initiative, Solve, seeks solutions to some of the biggest global challenges

By Amy Lieberman 04 January 2017

Entrepreneurs around the world are encouraged to submit proposals to answer some of the toughest challenges related to refugee education, health and the environment by Jan. 20. Photo by: Solve

For the past year, Katie Zaniboni has volunteered in Sofia, Bulgaria, tutoring refugee children aged 4 to 14 from a wide variety of backgrounds and with different native languages. It’s a challenging task, but there’s one added element that makes the job even harder: Zaniboni, an engineer, has no formal teaching training.

“I go on Google, I get on existing platforms out there for stay-at-home moms or teachers themselves, but all of this is lacking context for how to teach at a refugee camp,” Zaniboni said in a recent phone interview. “I began thinking about volunteers who are trying to teach in difficult conditions with children who haven’t been in schools for long periods of time and the need I identified, basically, is a lot of the volunteers we find are unqualified.”

So Zaniboni devised a potential solution to aid unprepared teachers in refugee camps or centers: an open source, online platform to connect volunteers with professional teachers worldwide to share curriculums. The platform would also offer space for teachers who want to volunteer virtually, but cannot physically go and work with refugees.

Zaniboni’s idea is among the “solutions” to tackle some of the most pressing global challenges that has caught the attention of a new initiative, Solve, aiming to connect individual entrepreneurs without financial means with a network of connected philanthropists and academics to execute their ideas. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology-backed group counts itself among the growing number of organizations and events, including the Concordia Summit, which have expanded as the Clinton Global Initiative wound down this past fall.

"A lot of people are trying to figure out what the future looks like [post CGI] and for myself, I think there are a lot of organizations clamoring to take that space and trying to step in and sort of fill the two-pronged role that CGI played," said Denielle Sachs, the founder and managing director of the Tembo Group, which works with philanthropies, companies and nonprofits on impact strategy.

When it comes to serving as a new convening space for sharing ideas, MIT’s Solve, with several former CGI staffers, “is an interesting one to watch and think about,” Sachs said.

Solve is now seeking entrepreneurs, such as Zaniboni, who have clear ideas for how to specifically address the reduction of carbon contributions, as well as preventing, detecting and managing chronic diseases in areas where resources are limited.

The initiative is also still seeking additional solutions for approaching refugee education by its Jan. 20 deadline for submissions.  The idea is to develop, execute and publicize ideas on education, health and environment that people — and potential funders — might otherwise struggle to see.

“I truly believe there are a lot of challenges in the world, wickedly hard, complex challenges and there is not just one actor who can solve these problems. It requires different entities to come together and collaborate and partner together to solve challenges bit by bit,” said Alex Amouyel, the executive director of Solve. “We are not utilizing the current ingenuity of people everywhere. There are good ideas everywhere and people doing amazing work, but they are not getting the support or recognition that they need.”

In September, Solve held a meeting at which the first round of finalists, including Zaniboni, presented a batch of solutions. The partnership initially received about 60 proposed solutions, with 10 to 15 ideas that were feasible enough to make an impact, said Admir Masic, a civil and environmental engineering professor at MIT, who helped found Solve. Following this relatively slow start, the organization then expanded its search to welcome a second round of submissions this winter.

Finalists will convene at the United Nations in New York on March 7, 2017, and pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges, before going on to showcase their solutions at the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts in May.

Eventually, about 15 to 25 people will be selected as a “Solver” — a nonmonetary award that comes instead with coaching and mentoring by the Solve staff and introductions to foundations, impact investors, and academics selected “based on their expertise and on their ability to provide resources … to help get the projects/solutions off the ground and into piloting and implementation,” according to Amouyel.

“Really what Solve is trying to be is a marketplace, connecting people with good ideas, with the people who have resources to help them make their solutions a reality,” Amouyel said. “The model is similar to CGI in that the central premise is to convene a community of cross-sector leaders to develop ideas and work in partnership to implement them.”

Amouyel, the former director of programs at the Clinton Global Initiative, joined Solve shortly before its annual meeting in September. More than six CGI staffers and interns join Amouyel on the Solve team, along with a few hires from the World Economic Forum.

Participants at the first Solve event in October 2015 included Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc., philanthropist and businessman Ratan Tata and businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs, plus MIT faculty and others, according to the organization.

The development of Solve came as a “perfect solution for some of the ideas that were boiling for many years in my head,” explains Masic, who, as a teenager, became a refugee during the Bosnian War. Before arriving at MIT in Fall 2015, Masic considered how to leverage technology and design tools more efficiently to help refugee crises and work to solve this — and some of the other — biggest challenges that play out across the world today.

“Though just ideas you realize there is a good will for people who can make impact, which gives me hope,” he explained. “We can build a community around this challenge.”

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About the author

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Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.


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