The annual exhibit for Social Innovation was held on Wednesday, Jan 17, 2024 at Alfaisal University. The exhibit showcased technology solutions that emerged from the MIT Solv[ED] program at Alfaisal University and the Co-Create Fellowship program. The exhibit was attended by the President of Alfaisal University, HE Professor Mohammed Alhayaza, and the Dean of Engineering, Dr. Muhammad Anan.
The programs support Alfaisal University’s social entrepreneurs and innovators via its tailored programming, advising, and mentorship. The MIT Solv[ED] program is designed to spark a sense of agency in young people encouraging, inspiring, and supporting them to become problem-solvers in their community and the world. Alfaisal University partnered with MIT in 2022, and hosted the MIT Solveathon in December 2022, and hosted the year-long program in 2023 to support local innovators. The Solv[ED] program brought together a community of youth, education providers, and cross-sector leaders to support them in their quest to make a positive impact on the world. The Co-Create Fellowship focuses on the humanistic co-design model of designing assistive technologies for people with disabilities. The co-create program is introduced to Alfaisal University’s students in their freshman year as part of the “Software and Society” courses that are offered by the Software Engineering program in the College of Engineering.
These two programs are aligned with the rapidly growing appreciation for the multiple ways in which academic institutions can produce change: not only by identifying new levels of excellence and by encouraging specific innovations, but also by changing wider perceptions, improving the performance of communities of problem-solvers, building the skills of individuals, and mobilizing new talent or capital. The core contributions of these two programs at Alfaisal University derive from their openness: their ability to attract diverse talent, generate unexpected approaches, and reveal unusual perspectives in the face of a problem or challenge. The Social Innovation exhibit shed light on a broad spectrum of approaches that the innovator teams (solvers) considered, ranging from the form of “cross-disciplinary solutions” that involve collaboration among unlikely partners, to the “crowd-sourcing and citizen-science approach” which were characterized by the attraction of talented individuals who are outside established systems of innovation.
The ability of these programs to mobilize new talent was an important driver of innovation in the projects that were showcased in the Social Innovation exhibit. The ability to mobilize emerging talent is uniquely suited to the web-connected era, a period of open source information and wide open innovation that makes it easier for accelerated innovation programs to reach unexpected places and talented individuals. Moreover, the ability of these programs to bring together powerful networks that enable members to share ideas, approaches, and best practices was evident in the project showcase. As noted by the program director, Dr. Areej Al-Wabil, “These programs contribute toward strengthening the problem-solving community—not only to help solve a specific problem, but also to bring ideas and people together to encourage future collaboration and innovation”. In many cases, the societal benefit of these accelerated innovation programs derives not only from the specific achievements that innovators acquire such as IP and awards but rather from the capacity development and community building aspects of these programs. The essence of social innovation is to create social change through new processes, products, services, or programs. The exhibit highlighted how communities, rather than individuals, are the basic unit of sustained innovation. Having a shared cause provided the participants in these two programs with a sense of momentum and purpose.
In these programs, developing skills is itself a principal goal of the program. Alfaisal University actively seeks to educate participants and award-winners alike. In the Solve and CoCreate programs, participants were coached during the year-long programs, enabling them to learn valuable lessons regardless of the formal outcome. Although many innovation programs have learning or skill-building elements, few sponsors see this as an area of focus or actively seek to educate and improve skills through their programs. Rather than seeking particular solutions, Alfaisal’s programs encourage mass participation and seek to shape the life trajectory and commitments of individual participants.
Social entrepreneurs and impact-driven technology start-ups have an increasingly important role in addressing societal and economic challenges. Purpose-driven social enterprises, which measure success by the good they do rather than the profits they make, have been on the front line in addressing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) whether that is reducing inequality, responding to a health challenge, or mitigating the impact of the digital divide. While social entrepreneurs and innovators may have energy and talent in abundance, solving economic, societal and environmental challenges often requires synergy between the right technology, partners and people. The Social Innovation exhibit at Alfaisal University highlighted that by empowering the innovators with the right tools and partnerships facilitates further development of their operations and products to deliver social value in our local context and globally.
The organizers acknowledge the generous support of the Office of Research and Innovation for the MIT Solv[ED] and Co-Create programs at Alfaisal University, as well as the summer enrichment programs (AUEP) and Colleges of Engineering and Medicine in facilitating the participation of their students and faculty in the accelerated innovation programs.