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What You Missed at Virtual Solve Challenge Finals 2020

This week, we hosted MIT Solve’s fourth Solve Challenge Finals, our annual social impact pitch event, and the first virtual one in Solve history. We gathered our global community to connect, collaborate, and meet the next generation of innovators—and at the end of the day, we were thrilled to announce our 2020 Solver Class

A Moment of Disruption that Demands Innovation

We have all faced new and greater challenges this year. This pandemic has spared no country, family, or individual, but it has not impacted us all equally. It is those most disadvantaged and most underserved who have been hit the hardest. At Solve, we felt an immediate responsibility to use our work and privilege to take action in this historic moment, to mobilize our community to address the problems aggravated by the pandemic. The Global Challenges we had launched in February 2020 suddenly became all the more pressing. And, for the first time in our history, we launched a rapid response Challenge on Health Security & Pandemics on March 5. 

Then, something amazing happened. We received over 2,600 solutions from 135 countries—an 86 percent increase in applications year-over-year. It is no coincidence that, in this year of great upheaval and disruption, problem-solvers around the world leaped to the call. It tells an inspiring and hopeful story about our ability as human beings to see an opportunity, and fix challenges.

Solve Challenge Finals was a celebration of that spirit. Of all those submissions, we showcased the solutions that our judges selected as the most promising, inventive, and impactful from all around the world. While it’s hard to beat the energy that comes from meeting in person, one silver lining of coming together virtually was that all of our finalists were able to attend without the extra stress of visas, plane tickets, and jet lag. 

We heard from 90 finalists from across the world with solutions like Biometrics for Vaccine Delivery, which uses contactless biometrics to ensure vaccines reach every intended beneficiary at the frontline in Africa and Asia; ShockTalk, a telebehavioral app for Indigenous users, made more crucial by the rise of mental health struggles in the pandemic; and The Last Mile, which provides in-prison tech education and post-incarceration mentorship to combat the problem of recidivism in the US. Ultimately, our expert judges selected 35 new Solver teams and 8 new Indigenous Communities Fellows

Innovation that Speaks to this Moment We’re in Together

It was an inspiring and interactive day for the Solve community. I’m sharing some favorite quotes and takeaways from our finalists, judges, and speakers:

Sal Khan, who has singularly shaped remote learning, joined us virtually from the very closet where he founded Khan Academy. Speaking with NPR’s Anya Kamanetz, he shared insights from his own entrepreneurial journey and advised aspiring innovators that one secret to success is “to always have a side project.” After all, Khan Academy first started out as Sal’s post-work passion project.

One of our Indigenous Communities finalists stressed the importance of community in powering innovation: "It takes a community, it takes a community, it takes a community! It is necessary for our people and for our earth to be able to connect together. It starts in this kind of competition—to be able to look each other in the eye and say let's go. And how far can we go? Endless possibilities!" This was the energizing message of Tiana Henderson, founder of Hale Unfolded.

Two of our speakers spoke to the cultural moment we are in today. Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, Co-Founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, emphasized that in order to truly solve a problem, we must first correctly diagnose it. He shared this crucial message when discussing the Breonna Taylor tragedy, and how racism in policing is just one symptom of broader racism in society. Goff called on finalists to dig deeply into the issues they are trying to solve. He remarked: “As technologists and problem-solvers, if we fail to diagnose the problem correctly, we will build a suite of tech toys instead of tools. If we get the diagnosis wrong, the set of solutions we build will be entirely unable to speak to the scale of the problem. In the context of policing, if we don’t recognize that it is part of a broader issue and not the issue itself, we are going to be creating tools that are too small to make a difference.”

Artist and gender liberation activist Madame Gandhi delivered two powerful musical performances and a message of defiance: “I don’t want our identity to be defined by how oppressed we are.” She called for more voices like hers in the music industry. With only 2 percent of music producers identifying as women, the narrative in too much of the music we consume is still perpetuating myths that hold us back. “I—like many of you—am here to design and provide the alternative.”  

We also discussed the pivot to remote work and schooling resulting from this pandemic, and how we might find opportunities for greater inclusion as we reshape the status quo we’ve taken for granted for so long. Speaking during our closing plenary, Harry Moseley, Global CIO of Zoom, made me realize that this forced pause we are all going through carries its share of opportunity—the chance to redefine the workspace, to find the personal and professional silver linings—and amplify them to include as many people as possible. 

It was a powerful day and there is so much more to come. We look forward to working closely with these newly selected Solver teams to scale their work and impact across all of the 2020 Challenges. 

If you can serve as a mentor, prize funder, or Solve partner, please get in touch

Want to learn more? Watch the full Solve Challenge Finals closing plenary and get to know our speakers and partners here.

Photo: Joe Jenkins / MIT Solve

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