MIT Launches Global Innovation Challenge Targeting BoP

MIT Global Challenge

How many great ideas does it take to make a positive impact on a community?

Surprisingly the answer can be just one. That said, a single great idea often requires the efforts of dozens or more people to bring it into reality.  Identifying and leveraging the right resources are key to realizing great ideas anywhere, and no less in emerging markets.

In the Fall of 2010, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will launch the IDEAS Global Challenge, an annual competition to connect and reward teams of innovators inside and outside the MIT community that are tackling barriers to well-being in under-served markets.  The Global Challenge enables students, alumni, faculty, staff, and their collaborators anywhere to connect, define problems, and develop solutions. The ideas with the greatest innovation, feasibility, and impact will be awarded up to USD $25,000 to implement their idea in partnership with communities over one year.

The Global Challenge will not be limited to the MIT community: it will draw on the expertise of business leaders, development practitioners, and communities themselves for this effort to work. While every team must be led by a full-time MIT student to qualify, the opportunity to work with students to define the problem, identify appropriate solutions, and translate those innovations into real projects that deliver tangible results in communities is wide open.

The concept of prize challenges to award technological, entrepreneurial, or other forms of social innovation are not new. However, measured by their number, reach, and dollars given away, online competitions have flourished over the past five years. Recent examples include Ashoka‘s Changemakers awards, the Chase Foundation’s America’s Giving Challenge, and the Pepsi Refresh Project. These have been preceded by pull innovation pioneers like the X Prize and even agricultural innovation inducement prizes of the 19th century.

At MIT, prize competitions are a staple of student life, and include the legendary $100k Business Plan Competition, which recently added a BOP focus with its D-Track (or, “Development Track”). Courses like 2.009 Product Engineering Processes regularly produce humanitarian technologies. The popular IDEAS Competition, which benefits directly from the robust project development ecology at MIT, is the direct predecessor of the Global Challenge at MIT. IDEAS encourages student teams to develop and implement service projects that make a positive change in the world; since its founding 2001, 60 teams have won $264,000 in awards of up to $8,000, going on to attract over $3.2 million in follow-on funding for their projects as they development new companies and organizations.

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What makes the MIT Global Challenge unique are the problem-solving communities it will connect and engage. In addition to reaching out to the more than 120,000 alumni across 130 countries, the Global Challenge is able to leverage the hands-on development practice taught by instructors in the D-Lab family of courses, the acumen of student groups like the Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID), the passion and talent of student awareness groups like the Global Poverty Initiative (GPI), and the cross-discipline approaches of campus-wide outreach efforts like the International Development Initiative (IDI).

There’s a second feature that’s equally important: many if not most of the prize competitions that you’ll encounter online won’t place too much emphasis on results. Most are celebrating participation, the caliber of the project ideas, and the novelty of the proposition that the “crowd” can influence who wins. The Global Challenge, and its smaller cousin the IDEAS Competition, is as much about achieving beneficial impact in communities as it is about distributing awards to deserving teams. To that end, the IDEAS Global Challenge will work hard to cultivate teams of innovators – through iterative proposal development, mentoring, and judging processes – and to support the winning teams implement their ideas – through a planning retreat, administrative support, and regular reporting over one year.

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