Monthly Archive for June, 2010

Its Time…

To get involved. In addition to helping the MIT Global Challenge meet our financial goals for 2011 and beyond, MIT alumni play an important role in helping advance invention as public service by:

  • Networking. Connect us with local actors that have a bead on barriers to human well-being; we’d like to invite them to identify and define design challenges to put to students. Time commitment: 2-5hrs/mo.
  • Mentoring. Help teams prepare outstanding project proposals that define the innovation, feasibility, and impact of their ideas. Whether or not they win, they may require ongoing support to implement their ideas. Time commitment: 5-10hrs/mo.
  • Reviewing. Successful proposal development for the Global Challenge is seen as an iterative process. Volunteer reviewers read project proposals and provide written and verbal feedback to teams. Time commitment: 10-15hrs/mo.
  • Judging. Final proposals are reviewed by multidisciplinary teams with some area expertise in fields ranging from agricultural processing to mobile devices, disaster and relief to energy and the environment. Time commitment: 20-30hrs, April 15-April 26.

To get a sneak peak at the kinds of projects you’ll be supporting when you get involved in the MIT Global Challenge, visit our beta – scheduled to launch later this year.

Competitions, Social Innovation, and Human Well-being

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The U.S. Lagging, not Leading, Social Entrepreneurship” caught my eye; the author writes, “Spend less time and money training entrepreneurs and funding contests domestically; invest more in social entrepreneurs globally.”

A few observations:

  • Lead with partnership. The author suggests that what’s needed are innovations “for the two-thirds world, coming from the two-thirds.” And while this is true, its probably not sufficient. What we’re finding is that partnerships – in which communities contribute their expertise, and MIT students contribute theirs – generate startling results. Scrape a little deeper into the history of companies like M-Pesa, Ushahidi, and even Grameen Phone and the role of robust international partnerships become clear.
  • Markets are not equal. Markets are very different in the U.S. and base of the pyramid. The consumer needs and the costs of entry are very different, as are the ongoing costs of doing business. We need better descriptions of the end-user benefits before we rule out domestic investment. The fact that the U.S. has created a Social Innovation Fund should signal some hope that we’re moving out of the era of big NGOs and into trimmer enterprise-led solutions to social dilemmas.
  • The U.S. is a terrific incubator. Domestic investments are, counterintuitively, investments in international social entrepreneurship. At MIT, 25% of team members in competitions like IDEAS and the Global Challenge are international. At the same time, partnerships should be considered an essential investment criteria for anyone considering funding for a social enterprise outside the U.S. in which American actors play a part.
  • Finally, there isn’t much in the article to suggest how the U.S. can move from being a laggard – if the proposition is true – to being a leader. Its not clear how investing in social entrepreneurs globally will advance the U.S. leadership position.

Its probably true that the United States, and much of the donor base that operates out of the U.S., has over-invested in well-intentioned – and ultimately fruitless – self-styled innovators who don’t have the problem-solving knack needed to tackle persistent problems abroad. But that’s not sufficient in my book to suggest we lag. Nor that entrepreneurs abroad are any more likely to achieve success – precisely because these are tough challenges that often require a rare confluence of skills, experiences and resources necessary to solve them.

At the end of the day, we need to create more opportunities for entrepreneurial thinkers to encounter each other – whether that’s through competition spaces, incubators, networking events like Design Indaba, Maker Faire AfricaSocial Capital Markets, Pop!Tech, and the Skoll World Forum to name just a few. The important concept is that these are how learning networks are fed, and from these networks innovation is sparked. We also need to seek out, recognize, and support nascent talent where it lies, and foster spaces where young problem-solvers like William Kamkwamba can encounter and build the personal networks that often build toward successful social enterprises.

Come get a sneak peak at some of the terrific ideas MIT students are coming up with as we prepare to launch the MIT Global Challenge, a competition platform to connect and reward innovators inside and outside the MIT community that are tackling barriers to well-being.

Maker Faire Africa 2010: Call for Makers

Maker Faire Africa is a celebration of ingenuity and entrepreneurship across the African continent. It is inspired by the successful spread of DIY festivals known as Maker Faires across the United States (check out the latest on the New York City World Maker Faire in September).

The Maker Faire Africa (MFA) co-founding team of organizers (Emeka Okafor/TED Africa, Erik Hersman/Ushahidi, Emer Beamer/Butteryfly Works, Henry Barnor/GhanaThink, and Mark Grimes/Ned/NedSpace/NedWater) seek African innovators, inventors, and makers to participate in the second Maker Faire Africa event to be held in Nairobi, Kenya August 27-28th on the University of Nairobi campus.

To encourage African innovators, inventors and makers from all African countries to try to make it to this unique and one-of-a-kind event, they have some limited funds for those makers outside Nairobi requiring travel and accommodation assistance.

In addition, MFA10 organizers are trying as much as they can to locate and invite women innovators and makers. They’ve found that during last year’s event in Accra, Ghana locating women makers was a challenge, especially those outside arts/crafts categories.

Maker Faire Africa is a free event for all invited makers, innovators and inventors. All the makers that “applied” last year participated in the event. To view some images of the event in Accra, please visit the MFA site.

View the complete call for makers.

Turn Your Smartphone Into an Optometrist

Remember sitting in front of that hulking, weird Hardware-like device as a kid, the nose of your optometrist inches away as you both peered through the phoropter? A group at MIT might be changing all that – at least for some folks in resource-strapped communities where a $2500 piece of diagnostic equipment and maintenance is beyond their capacity. With the introduction of a new device developed my researchers in MIT’s Camera Culture group in the Media Lab, the phoroptor may be headed the way of the oviraptor.

Dubbed PerfectSight, a 2010 IDEAS winner profiled today by MIT’s News Office (with a splashy home page spotlight!),  the Smartphone attachment is able to detect a range of refractive eye disorders within seconds. This turns the traditional model of optometry on its head: now eye specialists can get out of the costly eye care centers and into field, creating greater access to care, potentially revolutionizing the number of diagnoses carried out on any given day.

Learn more about the device and the Camera Culture group.

Jamie Yang, 2010 Echoing Green Fellow

In 2009 Jamie Yang and the EGG-energy team won a modest IDEAS Competition award to pilot a subscription energy service in Tanzania. Think NetFlix meets conventional pressurized gas bottle exchanges. Kind of. We’re thrilled that Jamie has won a 2010 Echoing Green fellowship and wish him and his fellow winners, including alum Jodie Wu of Global Cycle Solutions a terrific year ahead!

To accelerate social change, the Echoing Green Fellowship program provides seed capital and support to some of the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs.

The fortress and the free agent

Non-profit tech experts Beth Kanter and Alison Fine have a great article in the June 13 edition of the online Chronicle of Philanthropy. In it, they profile a 29-year old Canadian who has spent the last couple of year traveling the world, doing good deeds, documenting his experiences, and sharing them online – inspiring millions to follow along and contribute to his work. Pretty cool stuff. Reminds me a little of the work of Gabriel Stauring, inspiring founder of stopgenocidenow.org.

In the article, they make a provocative claim: “Free agents do it when and how they please, making them distinct from and more powerful than traditional volunteers.”  ”He is inspiring other people to talk about the issue of global poverty and take action “’in a way that is different from the big nonprofit organizations,’” he says.

But he’s having a hard time earning credibility with the big guys – the more conventional aid organizations. Alison and Beth explain:

““The problem isn’t social media, the problem is that you are the fortress. Social media is not my problem: I have over a quarter million followers on Twitter, 10,800 subscribers on YouTube, and 2.1 million views. Yet despite that, I have a hard time having you guys take me seriously. I get dismissed as ‘just a guy on YouTube.’”

Continue reading ‘The fortress and the free agent’

Some of Voices of Public Service at MIT

Voices of Service at MIT

Meet some of the students and learn about the ways they are putting their talent, skills, and passion to work around the world. Click here for the scoop…

eHealth, telemedicine, capacity building, and learning

Love this video of the incredibly articulate Chris Moses ’10, who was awarded a Davis Projects for Peace Fellowship and participated in the Public Service Fellowship and Grants program. Here, he discusses Sana (formerly MocaMobile). Sana earned a development grant from the MIT IDEAS Competition, and went on to win the mHealth Alliance Award and Vodafone Wireless Innovation Prize. The $150,000 in awards will enable the group, of which Chris is an integral part, to improve their telemedicine-based health care delivery system for rural underserved populations.


Chris Moses on MIT TechTV

US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home

William Easterly is a well-respected economist, author, and aid critic at New York University. One of his books that influenced me quite a bit is “The Elusive Quest for Growth: An Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.” In it, he lays out a passionate, cogent case that U.S. foreign aid has not delivered the economic and social benefits donors should expect. You can keep up with his writing at his blog, Aid Watch. Much of it is a consistent stream of criticism around ways aid is portrayed in the media, with timely quarrels with the numbers and policy recommendations.

An interesting side effect of this work has been a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home. In fact, you might even say that the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristoff to popularize awareness of conditions in struggling regions has been met with frustration at Americans’ corresponding desire to do something.

This do something spirit, perhaps amplified in our age of Internet-enabled media and visibility, has even been given a new name, voluntourism.

The frustration with Americans pitching in generally, and voluntourism specifically, is exemplified by the blog Tales from the Hood - at the center of a group of bloggers with titles like Blood and Milk, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, and Wronging Rights – that regularly launches salvos across the bows of DIY do gooders and “amateur” aid workers. Its not clear how they themselves cut their teeth in aid, for whom they practice, and the lasting results that they have produced.

Continue reading ‘US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home’

MIT Global Challenge “Printable” Available

mitgc_printableSpecial thanks to Resource Development and Alumni Association staff, especially Lauren Clark, for such fine work developing a 2-page overview of the MIT Global Challenge. We’ll be using the piece over the next several months to encourage alumni enthusiasm and support for the Global Challenge.

The printable includes an introduction to the Global Challenge, describes its origins with the success of the Public Service Center’s IDEAS Competition, and ways alumni can support the Global Challenge and the students who make it the incredible “invention as public service” competition it is today.

Download the printable here.