Ideas: Unleashing Creativity through Competitions

On May 2 as part of MIT's 150 year anniversary celebrations I will be speaking to students who have entered the MIT IDEAS Competition and Global Challenge -- which support innovation and entrepreneurship as a public service. This year more than 80 teams have entered ideas that address barriers to well-being in communities in 24 countries. 46 of them have qualified to enter final proposals.

What is unique about this is that the competition is sparking collaboration among students at MIT and the worldwide MIT alumni network, as well as communities around the world. Opening up the participation to the larger community is interesting and an innovative way for a university to engage a much larger audience. Over the last decade we've seen more and more universities and companies launching competitions to develop 'ideas' to solve some of the most intractable social problems that we face.

So do we really think that a team of undergraduate or graduate students can develop a solution to the environmental crisis in the Niger River delta? Can mobile phones transform how teachers engage with a classroom of students? Is there a way to capture and store enough rainfall to help Indian communities avert acute water shortages? The answer is that solutions are being developed but what is not yet clear is how far these ideas can be taken for scalable impact.

Over the last ten years IDEAS -- which stands for Innovation, Development, Enterprise, Action, and Service -- has made more than $260,000 in implementation awards to 64 teams working in 29 countries. Of these, nearly half are still moving forward -- at least three have incorporated as for-profit ventures, five as non-profits, and no less than eight resulted in technology transfer programs. The remaining 14 or so are too nascent to say.

Some of these -- like the Kanchan Water Filter project -- are achieving impressive results: by 2010 the project had distributed 24,000 units to Nepalese households, representing 200,000 people who now have access to safe drinking water. To achieve these kinds of outcomes, teams have used their implementation awards to leverage more than $4.2 million in follow-on funding from sources such as the World Bank, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clinton Global Initiative University. You too can join the effort and support the next crop of innovators by casting your votes for teams through April 25th at

At about the time IDEAS was getting off the ground in 2002, I started the Social Enterprise Laboratory where we invited social entrepreneurs from around the world to submit their ideas. We selected 10-15 per year and matched them with student teams from leading universities such as MIT, Harvard, Kellogg, Thunderbird, Berkeley and University of Washington to help them with their business plan. These business plans were then evaluated by our Board as well as a number of business leaders for investment. Since then student competitions on college campuses have exploded and we are seeing some interesting results that are leading to innovative businesses.

Microsoft launched the Imagine Cup nine years ago to encourage students from around the world to use technology to address societal problems and for the last several years the focus has been on the Millennium Development Goals. Over 350,000 students from around the world participated in this year's competition with the worldwide finals taking place in New York City in mid-July. I had the great pleasure of meeting the US finalists on April 10th and learning about their projects and sharing with them some of my thoughts on how they can ensure their ideas have real-world impact.

What is of great interest to me is how these innovations are happening outside of the confines of major corporate research labs and represent collaborations with a myriad of resources. The GINA system, the winning application at the Czech finals of the Imagine Cup this year, is one such example. GINA is an interactive map for mobile devices that permits navigation in difficult terrains, team coordination, and effective exchange of geographic information. Affected areas are indicated in a map that is updated every minute in real time and provides all the teams with the instant access to the latest information. Healthcare teams working directly in the field are able to view the map with the latest data on the mobile devices and increase their efficiency in saving human lives. GINA has helped rescue teams in Haiti track the progress of the cholera epidemic and is being used in Japan for search and rescue efforts right now.

Today's students are at the helm of generating new ideas to solve intractable social problems -- and it's clear that, not even out of school in some cases, they are sparking change. This innovation is taking place through student competitions such as IDEAS and the MIT Global Challenge and it's exciting to watch -- I call this the generation that has the courage to be creative for social change and the drive to work toward results.