Tech Town hosted a workshop from MIT’s Solve team yesterday evening. I attended only due to a chance meeting with Paul Riser, Jr. when I was accompanying teachers looking at Tech Town as a potential field trip site. It turned out to be a snowy evening to trundle downtown, but I’m glad I went as I think Solve presents an interesting approach to tackling social issues.
Attendees included representatives from local industries, particularly engineering, as General Motors was sponsoring the event. Also represented were higher education, STEM related education companies, business consultants, and employees of TechTown and related organizations. We began by learning about Solve’s mission, which is clearly explained on their site. I took it as crowd-sourced problem solving. Solve focuses on four issues during an 18 month cycle, with a new cycle starting up in March. Previous challenges include refugee education and chronic diseases. The themes for the new cycle are:
- Sustainability: Coastal Communities
- Learning: Future of Teaching
- Health: Equity & Access
- Economic Prosperity: Inclusive Cities/Future of Work
At the beginning of the cycle, Solve looks for challenging but solvable issues related to each theme. Attendees were to try defining an issues that meets that criteria. We split up into groups based on which theme we wanted to tackle. There were enough attendees that two or three tables were devoted to each theme.
I chose to sit at a table looking at future of teaching. We began by individually brainstorming for ~5 minutes what measurable outcomes we would want. We would then share our ideas and find where clusters of ideas might exist. This was our table after this first round.
Next, we considered the obstacles that exist when trying to reach these outcomes. We were told to not focus on larger barriers such as funding or policy, but those which are more easily addressed. Here was our table after another five minutes.
After this, it was time to brainstorm challenges. Defining the problem is critical in actually having workable solution, so there were many considerations such as scope, not suggesting solutions within the problem, not getting caught up in jargon, and more. An ideal challenge could be addressed with many types of solutions, could impact a large number of people, and tends to tackle global needs. Solve also suggested that the types of problems that can be solved with technology more than policy fit better with their model. After again working individually, we shared our challenges, noted patterns, and tried to define two challenges to submit to Solve. This was perhaps the hardest part of the evening. Here are two sets of challenges from neighboring education-focused tables.
The final part of the process was filling in the remainder of the challenges sheet with the hope of finding next steps if attempting to develop a solution. This was also a challenge in some cases. With that, our workshop was done in just under two hours.
From a schools standpoint, I think Solve is an interesting system for considering social issues and finding what others are considering within the problem solving process. Looking at the final selected solutions from previous challenges, it tended to be established organizations with access to resources already, but if students were to spend extensive time on developing a solution, they may be able to compete. Of course, the process would be more important than any finalist status, but it provides an easy way to compare solutions from different parts of the world.