During the first few months of 2019, MIT Solve consulted with cross-sector leaders, scientists, and community representatives around the world to determine the next Economic Prosperity Challenge. As similar themes continued to emerge, it became clear that this year’s Challenge should focus on Community-Driven Innovation.
Our Economic Prosperity community asked: how can citizens and communities create and improve social inclusion and shared prosperity?
We received a record-breaking 580 solutions, 43 percent more solutions than we received to last year’s Economic Prosperity Challenge! Around 40 percent of solutions were for-profit entities, 21 percent were nonprofits, and the rest were a hybrid of the two. This hybrid model is becoming increasingly common as businesses focus more on social impact.
Within this pool of innovative ideas, we noticed a few interesting trends:
1. Tech as a Source of Power for the People
Communities are increasingly the ones demanding change. Across the board, the tech powering these solutions was often crowdsourced, convening communities and amplifying their voices. Thanks to technology, people can more easily record, analyze, and share information—forming a unified voice for change.
“Tech augments what people need. It augments that connection, that ability to share information, data, and collaborate towards achieving something,” says Ceasar McDowell, MIT Professor of Civic Design and Founder of the civic design project The Move.
“These solutions are augmenting what people were not able to see before. And when communities can see, it makes the context more transparent, and transparency means trust,” says McDowell. “Transparency builds trust in institutions.”
2. Communities Seek to Hold their Institutions Accountable
Just three years ago, Latin America was rocked by its biggest corruption scandal in decades; the Odebrecht saga would ultimately lead to the fall of CEOs, a national government, and more importantly, citizens’ trust in public institutions. In response to events like this, many solutions sought to hold their institutions accountable.
Professor Lily Tsai, Director of the MIT GOV/LAB, says we’re seeing sophisticated solutions to hold government accountable that draw on big data, machine learning, and predictive modeling. “We’ve realized that a stronger citizen voice doesn’t necessarily lead to more government accountability,” says Tsai. “Government officials might already know what’s happening on the ground, but they don’t want to engage, or they lack the capacity.”
That’s why it’s key that solutions in the civic engagement space are designed with the government in mind. Community-Driven Innovation solutions took a wide range of approaches: clarifying welfare eligibility, increasing community engagement in needlessly bureaucratic and complex processes, gaining insights into corruption cases, and more.
3. AI to Untangle Inefficient Systems
AI, in particular, is becoming a powerful tool for community engagement. Around 30 percent of submitted solutions reported using or aiming to use AI. Whether through image recognition, natural language processing, or machine learning, nearly all these solutions attempt to break down arcane systems that disenfranchise people from access to public services, civic engagement, and day-to-day transactions.
However, AI remains the elusive technology. “Given the surge in demand to use AI for social good, limited AI resources—such as cloud and compute, machine learning and data science experts, quality labeled data, and the ability to experiment in a simple way—are restricting access to AI capabilities,” says Amir Banifatemi, General Manager for Innovation and Growth for the Xprize Foundation and Solve’s AI judge for the Community-Driven Innovation Challenge.
By enabling common areas for shared resources and frameworks, more entrepreneurs will be able to use AI to build applications that “respond to actual problems and may have a chance to scale,” he says.
4. Communities as Guides for the Disabled
Several solutions aim to expand access to the disabled, while keeping their solutions feasible and affordable. It’s an audience often neglected in rapidly urbanizing contexts and rural areas. By 2050, an estimated 6.25 billion people will live in cities, 15 percent of whom will have a disability. That’s nearly 1 billion people. Through the power of crowdsourcing, communities are becoming the eyes, ears, and guides of the blind, the deaf, and/or those unable to walk.
We saw how communities are taking it upon themselves to build new pathways for people with disabilities. Some startups developed wearable tech with a platform for volunteers to provide detailed information about their surroundings. Others used a mix of modified hardware to give the blind the ability to feel comfortable on a computer. Ultimately, disabilities present immense opportunities to make the world accessible to all.
5. Refugees are the Mobile Workforce of the Future
There are now 71 million refugees and displaced peoples around the world. In the solutions we received, we noticed that innovators no longer see this as a temporary challenge. Instead, human migration is seen as an opportunity for economic prosperity—an opportunity that technology can help scale.
Some refugee solutions focused on remote work, hiring talent for translation services, software development, AI data tagging, or various forms of data correction. Others focused on upskilling refugees for new jobs or recertifying their existing credentials. For people on the move, a mobile source of income, a quality education, and certification can lead to inclusive participation in their societies.
6. Tech as the Catalyst, Communities as the Inclusive Force
This year’s Community-Driven Innovation Solver teams will start a timely conversation with the Solve community about what the future of innovation should look like. We believe it will be a future in which communities are at the forefront of social impact.
Get to know our 15 finalists and vote for your favorite solution—the finalist with the most votes will receive a $2,500 Community Award. And don’t forget to tune in to Solve Challenge Finals on September 22 to watch them pitch their solutions!