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What Last Week's Traffic Jams in NYC Meant for Social Impact

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's social innovation program Solve wants to provide key funding, networks, and support for the world's brightest minds and ideas.

Alex Amouyel

This is an opinion piece by Alex Amouyel, Executive Director at MIT Solve.

Every year, during the third week of September, New York's mid-town descends into far worse chaotic traffic jams than usual. It's the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Week, and Head of State motorcades from across the world are blocking the city's streets. This year for the first time, MIT Solve asked our finalists and our community to get stuck in traffic with them.

New Yorkers – and the rest of the world - may genuinely wonder – what is the point of this? A few people asked me why would Solve ever want to jump into this frenzy to host its Solve Challenge Finals on September 17, 2017, rather than pick any other calmer week.

The point overall is this. We live in an inter-dependent, inter-connected world, which has made tremendous progress in the last decades to reduce extreme poverty and improve health and learning outcomes for billions of people. But there are still large complex challenges, which no country on its own, and no sector on its own can solve. This is why world governments came together in September 2015 during this third week in September to agree on 17 Sustainable Development Goals and associated targets which range from addressing hunger to energy and climate change.

While I don't believe the Goals are perfect for a number of reasons, they constitute by a long way the most comprehensive and most adopted framework for addressing world challenges. But, agreeing to them – while a feat of diplomacy in and of itself – was the easy part. Now, the world needs to find the money (an estimated $2.5 trillion per year in additional funding would be needed by some estimates) and the capability to implement programs to reach these goals.

No one is going to do this alone. We need to work together across sectors, industries, geographies. We need to engage in collective problem-solving, and support innovation and new ideas that we can scale. There is one week every year where the world comes together to do this: UNGA Week.

That's why social impact conferences join the UN delegates in New York each year to help meet these goals including Concordia, the World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit, the UN's Solutions Summit, and many more. There's even the virtual Global People's Summit which thankfully does not add to the traffic. And now, Solve is joining them – and their traffic – as well.

Solve launched 4 challenges last May on (1) Youth, Skills, and the Workforce of the Future, (2) Women and Technology, (3) Sustainable Urban Communities, and (4) Brain Health. All incredibly important and complex challenges. Anyone could participate on our open innovation platform to submit their best solution to solve these challenges. And we were impressed by the response. Almost 1000 solutions from 103 countries, ranging from Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Niger, to Australia and the United States. The Solve Challenge Finals brought incredible speakers and the 68 best finalists selected by our judges along with 500 cross-sector leaders, and that day, we announced who had been selected as one of our 38 newest Solvers.

Our judges chose a 13 year old developing an app to support people with Alzheimer's, an 84 year old working on and off- and online learning platform for communities in East Africa, and a team with a fully biodegradable seven-cent sanitary pad made out of waste banana fiber for women in India and around the world.

The Atlassian Foundation and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also announced prototyping grants for the Solvers they select from the Youth, Skills and the Workforce of the Future prize. Yo-Yo Ma announced three selections for the Arts and Culture Mentorship Prize he is curating.

We could have hosted the Finals any other week of the year, but we choose to come to New York City and wade into the chaotic traffic jams to introduce our Solvers to the world, to have them participate in this incredible week which brings together world leaders, who can help accelerate and scale their work. We need fresh innovative ideas if we're going to solve the challenges of the 21st century, and we have the Solvers who have those ideas.

To find out more about Solve and the Solve Challenge Finals, please visit solve.mit.edu.