Jeff Clemetson | Editor
How do we change the world for the better? What can we do, or create, to make a real difference? How can we make it sustainable, both environmentally and financially?
Those are the questions posed to hundreds of students from 27 universities located in 12 countries across six continents who will be gathering at the University of San Diego (USD) on June 23 for its annual Global Social Innovation Challenge (GSIC).
GSIC is a competition where students come up with ideas, inventions, businesses, work plans, or any private sector enterprise that helps solve world problems. The competition started eight years ago as an idea of USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce to see if they could encourage students to “care about not only personal success but how to contribute positively to the world,” said Dr. Amit Kakkad, director of USD Center for Peace and Commerce.
After raising money from local donors, USD held the first competition in 2011, involving students from its School of Business and Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.
“We weren’t even ambitious enough to go to the whole university on our own campus,” recalled Kakkad.
Despite its humble beginnings, GSIC was well received and in its second year the entire USD campus was invited to compete. With the help of sponsors like the Moxie Foundation, the competition then expanded regionally, inviting other colleges and universities from Southern California. Then it expanded to include schools in Mexico — and this year the competition went truly global.
“There is a growing interest at the university level, across the board, for helping students get this experience, which — apart from the function of the skills they are getting at the university — in a way assimilates the idea that it is possible to personally succeed and at the same time not limit your success definition to just yourself, but do something that helps the world,” Kakkad said.
The competition is done in three stages. In the first stage, students pick a problem to solve.
“They are free to pick anything that they are passionate about, as long as it is not about ‘how can I get rich for myself,’” Kakkad said.
Student teams are required to study and understand the problem landscape, or how the problem began, and look at what is currently being done about it. By studying the problem, the teams can start to look for areas where a plan or invention might make a difference.
In the next round, the semifinal round, student teams present their ideas for potential solutions in solving the problems they identified.
“We’re very realistic, none of the solutions are probably going to solve the problem completely, but as long as it moves things in a positive direction, anything that helps,” Kakkad said.
The teams are judged on the solution — whether it has potential for measurable positive impact, whether it is acceptable or desirable to the people that need it, and they must show they’ve thought about risks, and have a plan for financial sustainability — not just philanthropic donations, but commercial applications that make money or other ways to get funding such as micro-loans or crowd-sourcing. Teams also must prove they are willing to keep going with their ideas after the competition and are competent to do so.
In the final round, which is being held on June 23, two teams from all the participating schools give a lengthy presentation of their plans in front of a panel of judges. Because of the global reach of the competition, some presentations will be done remotely using live video. Still, around half of the international teams will make the trip to San Diego to present in person, said Rachel Christensen, USD Center for Peace and Commerce assistant director.
The two teams representing USD in the challenge are Refugee Illuminated, a business plan involving micro-loans to help merchants sell affordable solar lanterns in refugee camps in Thailand that would reduce the number of deadly fires there caused by burning candles; and Water Sensei, a water quality testing and monitoring device that connects to smartphones.
“I didn’t know how bad the [water quality] problem was before I started looking into it,” said Water Sensei team member David Vessey. “Even here in San Diego we have a lot of water issues, especially California, let alone all around the world. People don’t think it’s such a big problem in developing countries but it very much is.”
Vessey said he got the idea to do something about water quality from working on other social challenges around the time of the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Vessey, who graduated from USD with a master’s degree in health care informatics, teamed up with partner Tonya Arora, who graduated with a master’s degree in cybersecurity, to start working on the Water Sensei prototype — an IoT (internet of things) device using Bluetooth to monitor PH and the presence of heavy metals in water.
“This product would be mostly directed toward millennials or just someone who is specifically interested in improving water quality in their homes,” Arora said. “They’d be monitoring it on their phones and looking at it regularly. So, one of the concerns there would be security because obviously you don’t want an IoT device to come into your apps or your phone and affect other information that you have on there.”
In addition to sending water quality information to people who purchase the device, the Water Sensei will also combine all the data from all the users to help monitor regional water quality.
“That’s the whole social innovation part of it, not just having it for yourself but sharing it with your community and collaborating,” Vessey said. “Even if everyone doesn’t have one of my devices, it can benefit the whole region if something like a Flint, Michigan tragedy happens again where it is neighborhood-wide and not just to one home.”
Another social aspect of the Water Sensei plan is to sell the devices as a subscription so that as new technology comes out, old devices can be returned and then brought to developing countries to help monitor water quality at a fraction of the cost.
Water Sensei and Refugee Illuminated will be two of the 50 teams presenting their plans to the panel of judges. Of those 50, 10 will advance and $50,000 of seed money for the projects will be distributed among them in some fashion — all could go to one, or some could go to three or four — at the judges’ discretion. From there, the teams will hopefully see their project realized and do some good in the world.
For Kakkad, whether the projects are completed and are successful or not, the GSIC will be a success because it teaches people who are in a position to become future decision makers in the world to be more aware of the world’s issues than the decision makers today.
“If we change [their awareness] a little bit through participation in challenges like this — whether they actually win the money at the end or not — the students have lived with these problems the better part of a year, trying to study the problem, understanding how the problem got to be where it is, what’s being done about it, why it’s not working, what are the gaps. At least they will not be ignorant about those things, at least they will not be as indifferent about those things as they were before this experience,” Kakkad said. “So, in a way, for us, that’s the win.”
— Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.