What I Saw at the MIT Solve Challenge Finals

By: Cynthia McCaffrey, Director, UNICEF Office of Innovation

Skeptics beware…..This is about something exciting, meaningful and relevant coming out of the United Nations week-long General Assembly meetings.  Alright, the MIT Solve Challenge held on Sunday September 17 was technically a side-meeting, but it was timed to dovetail with the United Nations meeting.

©MIT Solve Challenge

UNICEF proudly joined a panel of judges for the “Youth, Skills & the Workforce of the Future Challenge.” Relevant indeed, Solve was trying to identify how to reach disadvantaged youth around the world to impart the skills they need to prepare them for the workforce of the future so they can succeed in the 21st century.

It was an exciting day for two main reasons.

The competition was fierce – filled with dynamic, compelling solutions that are worth investment; The room buzzed all day with questions, ideas, and feedback that created new connections all aimed at solving a problem we all face;

The final judging was building on a selection process that started over the Summer when over 494 potential “solvers” from just over 84 countries responded to the challenge with their innovative solutions.  The competition was intense with innovative use of technology to reach and teach young people.  Somehow judges narrowed this initial list down to 20 finalists.

©MIT Solve Challenge

The panel and 20 finalists all came together in New York City where these bright ideas were presented and judged.  Naturally, it is tough when there is a group like 40K Plus harnessing technology to provide quality education to hard-to-reach villages. And when there is Open Learning Exchange (known for short as Ole) creating Community Learning Centers with and for communities to give disadvantaged youth access, often for the first time ever, to knowledge and skills that give them a shot at creating a living for themselves and their families.  And organizations like ScriptEd which was founded by a group of teachers, bringing all they know and learned in the classroom to bring coding programs to underserved youths in urban areas.

These are just three of the ultimate Solvers who were selected.  See all the winning solvers here as well as all 20 of the finalists who designed and pitched their innovative approaches to a challenge confronting us all.

Photo: Adam Schultz. MIT Solve Challenge

Chairs and champions of this youth skills challenge were Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah and Ms. Laurene Powell Jobs, whose genuine interest in helping young people helped attract the hundreds of solvers to submit their ideas. Sweetening the deal was support from the Atlassian Foundation and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.  Both organizations are in it for the long game. They are mobilizing attention and resources to invest in these solutions.

So, it is no surprise that all day long the halls were humming — humming with Solvers sharing ideas, lessons, and challenges with judges, sponsors and partners in order to build bigger and better networks and solutions for our world’s youth.  Now, I for one think building up our youth for our future is tangible, meaningful and necessary – and was thrilled to see it in action.

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