Student Source the Grand Challenges

I am a big fan of TED and TEDx. I love it because it celebrates imagination, innovation and invention. Yet, I have to admit that I knew little about TED before the TEDx days. The ability of citizens and college students to contextualize innovation and imagination in their own circles has increased the breadth and appeal of TED. It has made it accessible for local heroes, celebrities and nerdy innovators to share their ideas in a local context with global implications. I believe that it has also empowered the next generation of entrepreneurs, thinkers and innovators to think outside the proverbial box. Just do a quick Google search and TEDx chapters and talks will pop up from Nairobi to Nashville, from Lahore to London. The x at the end has added an extra dimension to the impact.

Now let us be clear, there is no monetary incentive for anyone at a school in Johannesburg to start a TEDx chapter or for energetic citizens in Hanoi to have a meeting to discuss development through bicycles. The only incentive is to see a better world today and tomorrow.

If TED can create the first ripple and TEDx can amplify it several fold, I believe that we should apply this model to some of the most stubborn challenges of our time. Our biggest development challenges need innovation, creativity and above all boundless energy of our students. I believe that time has come for us to "student-source" the grandest challenges of our time for a better planet. Nonprofit and aid organizations have done a remarkable job in opening doors of funding to anyone who has a cool idea. Various groups and foundation now emphasize that institutional structure is not needed for funding -- yet realistically speaking most people who make the final cut in these existing competitions are not students and despite the best efforts of aid organizations, many barriers still exist. I completely understand the need for rigor and ensuring that people have the institutional capacity to create change, but we also need to tap into the sense of imagination, wonder and raw optimism of students. Creating a mechanism of Grand-Challenge-X will allow students who have some of the most creative ideas an opportunity to take real world issues head on and create grand solutions for our grand challenges. The Grand-Challenge-X chapters, that students create and sustain, should allow students from all majors and interests to pitch their ideas and make arguments about why their idea is worthy of further pursuit. Opening the doors to all interest groups is critical since problems of global development are inherently interdisciplinary and solutions range from drug design to diplomacy and from microdevices to micronutrients.

One may argue that this is no different from existing university based entrepreneurship challenges and business plan competitions. But in reality these Grand-Challenge-X programs will be quite different from existing programs. First, the goal is not just entrepreneurship and business plan but also discovery, imagination, scale and impact. Second, the goal is not the bottom line but saving the bottom billion from hunger, poverty and disease. Finally, the idea is to learn from successful business plan competitions and translate the success into areas of development which historically have been neglected due to lack of interest from VCs to invest in global health and development.

I am always inspired by the power of imagination and combined with boundless energy and optimism, I firmly believe that students can do wonders. The ecosystem of an educational institution has the capacity to create change, provided we give a platform where ideas can nourish and flourish. By student sourcing global development, we will match the toughest problems with our most prized resource of all: creativity. At the global level, I see the Grand-Challenge-X mechanism providing the platform that will engage students in problems that are dearest to them, creating solutions that their communities can sustain and providing inspiration to those who will write the next chapters of innovation and impact.