Silver bullet solutions are no longer en vogue for international development. And, despite nostalgic anniversaries of space exploration, moonshot thinking has yet to materialize radical systems change on Earth. When it comes to addressing structural issues of inequality and corruption, finding solutions that are scalable and sustainable can seem out of reach. It’s in this problem space —between constructive critique and cautious optimism— that we found ourselves as part of the judging team and Challenge Leadership Group for MIT Solve

Solve is a yearly competition that advances solutions in four critical areas: learning, economic prosperity, health, and sustainability. This year MIT GOV/LAB was involved with the Community-Driven Innovation Challenge which “aims to find and support tech-based solutions to ensure citizens and communities create and improve social inclusion and shared prosperity.” Given the lessons learned about the limits of technology to engage citizens and result in government accountability, we were curious to see what would emerge from an open contest. 

2019 Solver teams from the Community-Driven Innovations Challenge (MIT Solve).

There was a total 580 submissions for the Community-Driven Innovations Challenge. Solve did a round up of the top five trends in the submission pool (TLDR: the #2 trend is on citizens holding governments accountable and MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Director Lily Tsai is quoted). Out of fifteen finalists, eight were selected as Solver teams for financial support and, more importantly, mentorship opportunities and connections to resources for growth and development. Of the selected teams, we’re particularly excited about four projects that link closely to MIT GOV/LAB interests:

  • Supercívicos is a citizen journalism video app that crowdsources data about public infrastructure and public services issues in Mexican cities. A big issue with citizen-reported platforms is the slowness or lack of government response, which can actually lower people’s trust in institutions. Interestingly, Supercívicos is experimenting with signed agreements with city mayors to increase their response rates. Next they will be trying to develop a response efficiency index and working to increase competition for good government performance. As a for-profit company, they are also looking for ways to make their model financially sustainable. 
  • RevelaGov uses artificial intelligence and big data to identify discrepancies in government data and performance that brings to light instances of government corruption in Brazil. In Brazil, there is a huge amount of government data available to make this project possible, but the challenge is how citizens, or other government actors, will be able to use the data to effect change. RevelaGov is partnering with media outlets to spotlight this issue and will be looking at ways to close the loop and promote anti-corruptions efforts. 
  • RETOS links rural community needs with university researchers in Colombia to make academic research more useful to areas in need. The GOV/LAB team was especially excited about their model because it aligns well with our engaged scholarship mission to co-design research with partners for improved governance outcomes.  We’re hoping to develop a case study with RETOS on their model to learn from both their successes and failures linking researchers with communities. 
  • POKET is a crowd-sourced platform that seeks to map the emerging economy, merchant by merchant. After piloting in Nigeria, they are working to expand next in South Asia. Their aim to make visible the informal urban economy by digitizing and mapping vendors is relevant to current research on urban informality that examines how informal and formal economies interact, as well as the social and political implications. POKET is grappling with how online searchability may affect vendors, especially in terms of adhering to government regulations and taxation schemes, which are part of being brought into the formal marketplace. 

Each team is at different stages of development and the next few months will be critical to see how the solutions move forward. Understanding what works will be equally as important as documenting and learning from what doesn’t work, so the Solve community can advance as a whole —ideally walking the line between creative tension and the cutting edge of innovation.