Innovation doesn’t mean what you think it means

Depending on whether your definition of wealth includes community wealth, this definition of innovation is a great start. For me, innovation is about solving problems. And if innovation is about solving problems, what problems are you solving and who is out to solve them is key.

There are many seemingly intractable challenges facing the world, such as growing inequality related to income, race, health, education, and more. As a global community, we should all also be concerned about climate change, war and displacement, and the continuing aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. While these problems are global in scale, their impact is also felt at the local community level. For example, while we may still think of climate change as a distant risk, organizations like Buy-In Community Planning, a 2021 Solver team, are using geospatial data tools to safely relocate climate refugees even here in the United States. USA.

To solve these intractable global and community challenges, we must take innovation seriously. What is most urgent is that we focus on the problems that affect the most neglected among us, such as the billions of people who still live on less than $2 a day, people who have had to flee their homes, the homeless or living with a disability, and more. Those who, in general, in this world, do not have the privilege of developing their full potential.

When you think of innovation as solving the problems of the most neglected among us, proximity becomes paramount. Dr. Angela Jackson of Kapor Ventures, John Kania of Collective Change Labs, and Tulane Montgomery of New Profit define a close leader as “someone who has a meaningful relationship with groups whose identity, experience, or community is systematically stereotyped, feared, dismissed, or marginalized. Being a close leader is much more than being exposed to or studying a group of people and their struggles to overcome adversity. It’s about actually being part of that group or being meaningfully guided by that group’s input, ideas, agendas, and assets.”

With proximity comes a real understanding of not only the actual problem and its root causes, but also the many other pieces that are key for a solution to take root, for example, the visible and invisible barriers that have stood in the way of a solution, the stakeholders whose involvement is needed, and more. That doesn’t mean that fresh perspectives and new technology aren’t welcome, or that you have to have been directly affected by a problem to solve it; proximity means that, at the very least, you take real time to participate in a meaningful way. Proximity is also about recognizing that communities and the leaders within them are themselves agents of innovation rather than passive ‘beneficiaries’.

Because talent and ingenuity are equally distributed, you can find innovators everywhere. When we launch a challenge through our open innovation platform at MIT Solve, the innovators we discover are already working tirelessly to solve problems in their communities around the world. Gloria Lane of the Navajo Nation is a 2019 Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow who is reintroducing traditional farming techniques to revive Navajo farming and help farmers recover after the Gold King mine spill, which contaminated watersheds in 2015.

In some cases, the technology and innovations Solver teams rely on are cutting-edge applications of blockchain and artificial intelligence, while for others they are centuries or even millennia old. Some innovators even combine ancient and modern technologies with traditional knowledge systems. For example, Michael Running Wolf, a member of the 2020 Indigenous community, is developing automatic speech recognition AI for polysynthetic Wakashan languages, enabling these communities to reinvigorate the modern use of this endangered language family.

The problem today is that too often we are not recognizing and therefore not investing in upcoming innovators working in underserved communities, which means their innovations may never reach the depth and scale needed for change. systemic

Those seeking innovation (investors, corporations, foundations, corporations, or governments) rely on top-down or closed approaches to find innovators. This relies on innovators being part of existing networks in particular geographies, going to the right schools, or being introduced through the right person to an investor or foundation program officer. We need to open doors both literally and figuratively to meet nearby innovators where they are, taking co-creation and bottom-up approaches that allow access to those working in and with the most underserved communities.

If we are to be serious about solving global challenges, we must all adopt more open and participatory systems for finding, funding and supporting innovators, wherever they may be.

Alex Amouyel is the executive director of MIT Solve and the author of “The answer is you: a guide to creating an impactful life.” Solve is hosting your annual flagship event May 5-7.

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