On September 22, 61 entrepreneurs traveled from 22 countries around the world to attend Solve Challenge Finals and pitch their solutions to Solve’s 2019 Global Challenges: Circular Economy, Community-Driven Innovation, Early Childhood Development, and Healthy Cities.
These innovators pitched everything from a compact, waste-evaporating toilet to an online marketplace for businesses to buy and sell unused textiles. After a busy day packed with pitches and hours of deliberation, our judges selected eight from each Challenge to form the 2019 Solver Class, including:
- Circular Economy Solver teams;
- Community-Driven Innovation Solver teams;
- Early Childhood Development Solver teams;
- Healthy Cities Solver teams.
Bridging the SDG Innovation Gap
In the opening plenary session, XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari and Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan spoke about sourcing, supporting, and scaling innovation to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Ansari explained that some solutions can be more relevant in certain geographies and contexts. Sanjayan agreed, saying, “While we have ever more information and access to amazing individuals and a diversity of ideas, there is still a strong bias toward a single solution.”
He described a meeting he once facilitated with a group of young people from the US and top leaders dealing with elephant ivory poaching in Africa. “We were meeting with people who had spent their entire lives protecting elephants,” he said. “This young group was telling those folks how they should do things. It was astonishing to watch. Not that their ideas were bad, but at least have the humility to say, there’s context here.” Without that context, he added, these solutions are unlikely to work.
Both Ansari and Sanjayan agreed that to achieve the SDGs by 2030, we’ll need context-focused tech breakthroughs, and both behavioral and policy changes.
Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship
To kick off the closing plenary, artist Zaria Forman wowed the audience with stunning photographs of her pastel drawings. By capturing glaciers and other natural wonders in the wake of climate change, she seeks to “convey the beauty of these places instead of the devastation.” Forman prefers to focus on positive change. And with all the negative news around climate change, she “celebrates what is still here.”
This optimistic presentation provided an excellent introduction to a conversation around corporate social and environmental responsibility. Vijay Vaitheeswaran of The Economist and Jesper Brodin, President and CEO of Ingka Group (IKEA), discussed IKEA’s mission to “create a better daily life for the people.”
IKEA is at the forefront of innovation for sustainability, and much of the conversation focused on the company’s commitment to climate action. Brodin explained that IKEA products now require sustainable design principles, ensuring they can be broken down into raw materials.
Bringing the conversation back to technology, Emi Mahmoud, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and award-winning slam poet, performed a powerful poem about access to technology. She emphasized that access to technology is no longer a privilege—it is a right.
“Technology can restore the dignity of people. It changes our approach to aid and changemaking so that it’s more about upward mobility, giving people something that they can run with—not just depend on.”
The final discussion of the closing plenary featured Fred Swaniker, Founder of the African Leadership Group, and Monique Idlett, Founder and Managing Partner of Reign Ventures, and centered on building a more inclusive innovation ecosystem.
Swaniker, whose programs develop emerging leaders in Africa, reflected on his time studying at Stanford University. He wondered, “Was there anything special about the air or water in Silicon Valley? Why is it that all this innovation comes out of there?”
“The only difference is that they give a 16-year-old kid with an idea a chance,” Swaniker said. “The same brilliant kids with game-changing ideas are in Africa. The only difference is that no one is giving them a chance.” This, he said, is the goal of the African Leadership Academy.
At Reign Ventures, Idlett takes this chance on promising startups. She aims to build a portfolio that “reflects the world,” ensuring that it has gender, racial, and industry diversity. When it comes to scaling these startups, Idlett said the art of collaboration is undervalued.
“We don’t have to do this alone,” she explained. “As a founder, CEO, or investor, it’s really important that you find a community that can support you and that you can build together with.”
Swaniker said the African Leadership Academy offers this support to its emerging leaders. Its learning model is very hands-on and emphasizes “learning by doing.” The Academy then connects talent to opportunity—the networks, partnerships, and investment they need. “That’s the ecosystem,” he said. “Select the top talent, develop it, and then connect it.”
Want to learn more? Watch the full plenary sessions and hear all 61 pitches—view the Solve Challenge Finals livestream.
Photo: Matt Mateiescu / MIT Solve