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  • harry2180

Humanitarian Crowd-Solving at SeaFreight Labs

Many people ask me to define what I mean by “Humanitarian Crowd-Solving”. They ask if it is the same thing as the MIT SOLVE concept of “social innovation” where MIT is seeking “social innovators who are using technology to solve today’s most pressing problems”. Or they wonder if it is a duplication of the ASME Idea Lab which is an “incubator for transforming ideas into devices that improve lives in the world’s underserved communities.” The short answer is “no and no”.

Both of these large initiatives are independent entities with their own funding, staff and branding. Their strategic focus appears to be on big themes, rather than on organizations. They recruit entrepreneurs to join structured business accelerators and they provide support and resources to assist each entrepreneurial team in scaling their organization and its potential. There is no direct connection between this work and any specific humanitarian organization.

At SeaFreight Labs, our focus is solely on the humanitarian organization with which we are working. Our view is that these organizations have unique expertise in delivering humanitarian assistance and our role is to partner with them to make them more successful in their work. Based on this perspective, Humanitarian Crowd-Solving is:


The output of a successful prize challenge is a winning submission. Once the prize money is paid to the winning Solver, the sponsoring humanitarian organization (“Seeker”) owns or has a license to the winning intellectual property. The question now becomes how to advance the solution to become something available at scale for the humanitarian organization to use in its daily work.

This is a classic business incubation use-case. There is a promising product (the winning solution) and a close-to-guaranteed market (the Seeker). Now we need to bring the solution to life in the form of one or more companies. The ASME Idea Lab has a great graphic which illustrates this situation well (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Tech Development Full Spectrum.

We need to move the winning solution from the left side of the graphic to the far-right side – “Product Launch”. Depending on the type of prize challenge used, the winning solution may have advanced as far as “Lab-tested Prototype”. In all cases, we believe that the Seeker is responsible for getting the solution through the “Field-Tested Prototype” step. The Seeker is uniquely positioned to work with the Solver to refine the design and try it out in the field conditions that educated the decision to select the winning solution and award it prize money.

If the field testing validates the attractiveness and utility of the winning solution, it is likely that the humanitarian organization will have reached the end of its core competency. It is again time to look for a partner to move the process forward in an efficient and effective way.

At that time, I think it would make a lot of sense to approach organizations like MIT SOLVE or ASME ISHOW to invite them to join with the Seeker in looking for a way to commercialize the winning solution. SeaFreight Labs is working with a couple of Seekers to support current field testing of winning ideas. If these field tests are successful, we will assist the Seekers in approaching social-innovation incubators and accelerators to complete the development of a winning solution so that it is commercially available at scale.

This is my ultimate definition of success for a humanitarian crowd-solving project: “Is the innovation initially sourced from the global crowd now widely in use by the Seeker so that the Seeker is more effective in its work?” This is the “True North” that guides and directs our humanitarian efforts at SeaFreight Labs.

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