MIT Solve: Harnessing Collaboration and Design Thinking to Tackle Global Challenges

3 minutes read time
A placard sits atop a table during the MIT Solve Challenge.
A placard sits atop a table during the MIT Solve Challenge at the U.S. Department of State.

MIT Solve: Harnessing Collaboration and Design Thinking to Tackle Global Challenges

What happens when you bring industry leaders, government agencies, and creative facilitators together to discuss world problems? You get a roomful of people dedicated to identifying the most urgent issues facing our world today and conjuring ways to solve them. In the Office of Global Partnerships, we help create and facilitate public-private partnerships like these to tackle foreign policy issues and benefit all parties involved.

That is the premise behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Solve Challenge, a yearlong endeavor spearheaded by MIT to pinpoint global issues and encourage the world’s brightest talents to come up with new and creative solutions. For the past two years, we at the Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships have collaborated with MIT to shape the issues this design challenge focuses on in its earliest stages. By engaging the public sector in this endeavor, MIT is able to better direct their efforts towards global problems that present unique challenges. Through partnership, we’re able to initiate the creation of innovative solutions that utilize the experience and capacity-building resources of the public sector while factoring in the knowledge and expertise of the private sector.

Set up as a design thinking workshop, this year’s event included participants from across sectors with representatives from the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Georgetown University, Fannie Mae, Mexichem, Case Foundation, and the National Science Foundation to name a few. Participants were then split into several groups to brainstorm potential solutions revolving around one of four topics: Economic Prosperity, Health, Learning, and Sustainability.

Participants contributed their own expertise on the topics they felt were the most paramount to address, and also discussed what steps their companies, organizations, and agencies were currently taking to address those issues. Topics of this design thinking challenge varied and covered issues such as energy efficiency, resource sustainability, education funding, incentives for entrepreneurs, and disease prevention.

The Office of Global Partnerships has implemented similar design thinking approaches to tackling systemic global challenges. Design thinking is incorporated in our public-private partnership training course, and we’ve designed and facilitated co-creation workshops for other bureaus in the Department. Through our P3 accelerator Boldline, we’ve provided organizations with a three day partnership boot camp that provides skill training, access to mentors, and resources to help them scale their public-private partnership ideas. The last Boldline cohort focused on helping groups in the religious freedom space and December’s upcoming Boldline will help scale partnership ideas that combat propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Our Diplomacy Lab program partners Department of State offices with university classrooms across the U.S. where students develop and present proposed solutions to offices’ challenges, a brand of crowdsourcing we refer to as “course-sourcing.”

Each of these initiatives convene people together across sectors to move towards sustainable solutions with long-term impact. These are just a couple ways design thinking can have an impact in developing solutions to global challenges, and through the MIT Solve challenge, participants can see firsthand how partnership, collaboration, and shared goals can solve these challenges.

The future of our partnership with MIT on their Solve Challenge looks bright, as we continue bringing in a diverse group of people, from various industries and agencies, all of whom will become a part of a new generation of “Solvers.”

About the Author: Jim Thompson serves in the Secretary's Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.