MIT Solves the World

The SOLVE event at MIT last week shifted participants to a welcome oasis. Picture 600 entrepreneurs, funders, executives, and academics gathered in a place where the very thorniest problems facing science, society, and the world are defined and solved. Where grown-ups act their age: pay close attention; don’t argue or dither based on politics or revenge. Where price (for the moment) is no object. A place where the most brilliant, most impactful solutions thrive and are celebrated.

Alex Amouyel, Director of SOLVE

In its second year, and relatively unknown, SOLVE sets challenge parameters and matches them with the resources they need. Proposals arrive from anywhere in the world and are carefully selected, via a rigorous, juried vetting process that winnows the field, encourages the promising solutions, and partnering with relevant MIT resources, rewards the best by showcasing them in May for an interested audience. The 2017 convening presented the winning “Solvers” in a rich program, with plenaries, panels, and working groups all day filled with thought-leaders, executives, academics, financiers, and visionaries from every continent.

SOLVE is directed by Alex Amouyel, a French-English, Cambridge/London School of Economics-educated, no-nonsense intellectual who at the conference sported a chic Chanel-ish jacket atop a blackboard dress with mathematic formulas printed all over it. (The point? Beautifully executed design atop real-world research, perhaps.) Amouyel’s focus is not the day-to-day performance of the stock market, the Beltway, or the weather; it is the “seemingly most intractable challenges” of our time. The bigger the better: education for refugees, carbon reductions to stop global warming, battling chronic diseases such as diabetes and brain health, inclusive innovations for the most vulnerable and marginalized. Once the problems are uncovered and the solutions proposed, SOLVE serves as a marketplace for incubation, mentorship, development, and investment. (NB: I serve as a judge in Solve’s Carbon Challenge.)

In this kind of environment, where barriers to invention and achievement are removed, the possibilities are truly exciting.

Why not clean, car-free cities, where people are transported above street level in individual solar-powered pods? Or digital pens to record patient symptoms and transmit them to a dynamic central medical unit? A talismanic iron fish that quickly transforms ordinary drinking water into a nutritional iron-supplement shot? A user-friendly, digital credit-scoring platform that links people’s utility and phone bills for financing loans? A more accurate tropical forecasting model that sub-Saharan farms use to manage risk and enjoy significantly improved crop yields. (Peruse this year’s winning entries here.)

As the three-day program unfolded, drenched in rich variety and star power, various MIT faculty shone. The adjective “smart” doesn’t begin to describe the jaw-dropping abilities of optically tagged LEGO blocks used by MIT Media Lab city science initiative planners to project impacts and outcomes in three cities, including Berlin, where 80,000 refugees have been assimilated, with more expected. Or a self-automated tricycle that’s bike-lane compliant. Or a 250 square-foot apartment that can host 10 dinner guests and has a full kitchen, and bathroom, storage system, and a king-size bed — just not all at the same time. (An AirBnB version of this pad is downtown Boston’s top request.)

YoYo Ma (yes, that YoYo Ma) performed a casual Bach series before proudly announcing his personal stewardship of a SOLVE mentor team; “What role can the arts play in making us more resilient?” Queen Rania of Jordan addressed us as co-chair of the new challenge on youth, skills and the future workforce. Investor Thierry Deau of Meridiam: “How can we invest more in clean mobility in large cities especially when it’s a bit too late already? It’s not the lack of money, it’s the lack of capacity and the lack of engagement with communities to find the right solutions.”

It became increasingly clear that SOLVE’s director is herself a marvelous solution to the fraught jumble of modern-day regulatory dysfunction and craven entrenched interests threatening to destroy human civilization.

Amouyel attracts others who insist on fixing things that need to be fixed, and improving things that can be, instead of continuing with business as usual. CEO Ursula Burns of Xerox, for one, reported that her team is hiring “scientists, ethnographers, educated and disciplined problem solvers.” She notes, for us all: “The part you cannot test for is people who are optimistic, fearless; who know how to work with others, who understand difference, who can write and communicate effectively.” As Olajumoke Adenowo, the prolific, decorated architect of Nigeria, observed: “When you hear of a problem — you see it on CNN or Al Jazeera — sitting there you think, somebody must do something about this.” Eyes flashing: “Well, you ARE somebody! So you can do something!”

In her closing salutation at the end of Day Three, in her beguiling, unidentifiable accent — part Knightsbridge, part Davos, part Glinda the Good Witch — Amouyel answered her own question, What can you do now? with a mantra: More. All of you: you can do more. You can follow-up. You can connect more. You can be more generous. You can get active with an issue. You can bring more solvers, more investors, more influencers into the SOLVE community.

SOLVE isn’t wasting any time. And the challenges for next year are already waiting to be solved.

Originally published at on May 16, 2017.