Q&A  | 

New approaches for international development by Alex Amouyel of Solve, a MIT initiative

"We will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals if we only continue with existing solutions and do not find innovations and innovators."

Tags: 'Alex Amouyel' 'data protection' 'innovation' 'international aid' 'MIT' 'ODS' 'open data' 'public innovation' 'Solve' 'sustainable development goals'

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Alex Amouyel is the Executive Director of Solve, an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whose mission is to solve world challenges acting as a marketplace for social impact innovation. On a regular basis Solve launches challenges to find, fund and support social innovators wherever they may be and sources ideas through an open innovation platform, which is now over 130,000 people strong--and growing.

In the last 3 years, Solve has brokered over $25 million in funding to Solver teams and social entrepreneurs around the globe. In addition to this, the organization brings together MIT’s innovation ecosystem and a community of Members to fund and support these innovators to help them drive lasting, transformational impact.

Is international aid in need of new approaches?

Yes, indeed. in 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set ambitious targets to significantly reduce poverty, improve health, education, the environment and more by 2030. It’s clear that we are not progressing fast enough – notably, the United Nations estimates that there is a $2.5 trillion annual funding gap to achieve the SDGs by that date. Furthermore, existing resources are not always well distributed. For example, only 3 percent of the global health budget is spent on chronic diseases even though two thirds of deaths are chronic disease related. 

Less often discussed, however, is the innovation gap. Even if governments, corporations, philanthropists and investors committed significantly more financial resources to the SDGs, we will not achieve its targets if we only continue with existing solutions and do not find innovations and innovators. We need to invest in innovative solutions to educate refugees, bring energy to rural Liberia, and cost-effectively remove carbon from the atmosphere at scale, and ensure these solutions are designed with, deployed to, made affordable to, and used by the the most underserved communities. 

The good news is that there are promising solutions out there: social entrepreneurs working day in day out in their communities to create innovations that could significantly solve world challenges. The issue is that they don’t get the right access to financing, networks, and support to accelerate their growth and scale their impact, and this is where Solve offers assistance serving as a marketplace bridging the gap between these innovators and the resources they need.

How is technology changing social innovation world wide?

Technology has always played an outsized role in human progress and history, so by definition technology is changing social innovation all the time. 

At Solve we have a broad definition of technology; it’s not just robots and AI but also ancestral technology and nature-based solutions. For a technology to work, it needs to be affordable and easy to deliver. As Peter Drucker said, innovation is “change that creates a new dimension of performance.” It can be a brand new technology or approach, a new application of an already existing technology, a change in a process or a business model that makes a solution much more effective. 

Can you give us some examples of Solve's success stories in the fight against poverty?

Solve has selected and supported 130 Solver teams over the past 4 years–and thanks to our partners, we have brokered $25 million in funding commitments and more than 200 partnerships for Solver teams and entrepreneurs. 

Many of these teams work in the fight against poverty and to create opportunity and equity for all by providing education to refugees, access to health services, and more. For example, Temie Giwa-Tuboson (Founder of Solver LifeBank) and Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet (Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, a Solve Member) created the MOMs Initiative (a partnership between Merck for Mothers, USAID, DFC, and Credit Suisse) which got $5 million in grants for LifeBank to scale its operations throughout Nigeria and across Africa, making it one of Solve’s biggest partnerships yet.

Which advice would you give to those who aim to improve society through technology?

My advice would be to focus on the problem you want to solve, instead of the technology or the solution itself. And then really understand what unique skills and experience make you uniquely placed to solve this problem. I’d also recommend listening and discussing with those you are solving for and designing with them not for them; bring them (and others) in as partners. Finally, don’t focus solely on the technology, but on the entirety of the solution and process.

 

Open innovation is one of the core values of Solve. Under your opinion, how important are open data and open source in improving people's lives?

Open sourced data is critical–that is why our platform is open to anyone, anywhere to apply, comment or vote on solutions, and see all of the submitted solutions. This way, people can get a better sense of what innovations are out there–and where opportunity resides. 

There is a great need for more open data for innovators to access, although there is also a need to resolve privacy issues and trust as well. Right now, we know that a lot of peoples’ data belongs to corporations who sell it; it’s neither open nor does it belong to individuals, and most of us don’t necessarily understand which personal data we gave away, and what these corporations do with it, and underserved communities are even more at risk.