SPOTLIGHT : ALEX AMOUYEL
Cracking the Code
F HOW BEST TO MEET the most urgent challenges of a global community beset by inequity , injustice , and indifference ? Imagine if that lofty mission were your actual day job . Alexandra Amouyel , executive director of MIT Solve
, an initiative that connects tech entrepreneurs around the world with partners , funding , and resources , doesn ’ t have to imagine . Each year , the initiative invites anyone , from anywhere , to propose practical , scalable solutions to a select series of Solve ’ s hot-topic challenges .
F Previously at the Clinton Global Initiative and Save the Children , Amouyel was recruited five years ago as Solve ’ s first executive director , tasked with ensuring the initiative can identify and support the right global solutions by fostering open innovation . This year , Amouyel and her team solicited input from the Solve community and decided to center the 2021 challenges around five relevant themes : antiracist technology , digital inclusion , equitable classrooms , health security and pandemics , and resilient ecosystems . HP is a sponsor of the digital inclusion and antiracist technology challenges , hosting the HP Prize for Accelerating Digital Equity , which will distribute $ 100,000 across four “ Solver ” teams within these two categories .
F “ I don ’ t believe that one can change things alone ,” says Amouyel . “ There is no lone innovator , or no lone activist .” Here , she explains what goes into a good challenge and even greater solve .
What attracted you to this unique position ? Solve is the vision of MIT president L . Rafael Reif . MIT ’ s mission is to advance knowledge and educate students to best serve the nation and the world . Solve is an acknowledgment that , as an institute , we need to have different ways of doing that — especially when there are almost eight billion people on the planet . There are innovators out there who are doing great work and who actually have more proximity to the real problems that communities face . I wanted to support these people .
With an infinite number of problems you might want to put out to the world to solve , how does Solve come up with a given year ’ s challenges ? It ’ s an art and a science . We spend six to nine months in challenge design , and there is a bottom-up , crowd-solving piece where we get input from our community through workshops , and then we also speak to our MIT faculty and other experts in particular themes . No matter what , the challenges always address the same four pillars : learning , health , economic prosperity , and sustainability .
PHOTOGRAPH BY DANIEL DORSA
Are there any other parameters you and your team use to ensure that a challenge will attract the right kinds of solutions ? We ask ourselves if this challenge affects billions of the most underserved people on the planet . Where is there enough early-stage innovation bubbling up ? We are looking for prototypes and pilots , not just ideas . And thirdly , will there be enough community members and partners to support it with funding , mentorship , and resources ?
What ’ s your philosophy when it comes to working in a coalition with businesses ? I like Julie Battilana ’ s framework
. [ Ed : Battilana is a professor at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School .] She writes that for any social change movement , you need the agitator , the innovator , and the orchestrator . It ’ s the orchestrator that works with or within the system to effect change and bring innovation to scale , and I see myself and Solve in that type of role .
Are the Solvers encouraged to work across teams and issues , and even communities ? There is a real exchange — between all the teams within each cohort and class , and across the different themes . But there is also a much broader impact that goes beyond particular solutions . Our Indigenous Communities Fellowship is in its fourth cycle . We are seeing collaborations between the Indigenous Fellows and some of our Solver teams . We ’ re sort of rediscovering things that Indigenous people have known for centuries . That matters a lot in helping to change the narrative around what is technology and who is an innovator .
You say Solve ’ s number one core value is optimism . How is that applied practically ? Despite all the problems that the world faces — and there are many — we can use human ingenuity , technology , and empathy to solve them . Solve advisor Megan Smith , who was one of President Obama ’ s US chief technology officers , says , “ If we can include everyone , we can solve everything .” I like that a lot .
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