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Climate change, fake news, and the refugee crisis are huge problems. We crowdsourced solutions.

Three pie-in-the-sky prototypes to tackle complex issues

By Schuyler Velasco

A platform to connect refugees to volunteers. An app that would help people track their carbon usage. A program that urges “unfriended” people to meet in real life.

When it comes to solving intractable problems, working together, especially under merciless time constraints, can lead to big ideas.

That was the goal of a design-thinking workshop Experience hosted last week at Northeastern University’s Toronto campus. Over the course of two hours, participants took on three of the most seemingly-intractable issues facing the world today: the global refugee crisis, climate change, and the spread of fake news. With the help of brief talks from subject experts — international correspondent Muhammad Lila on refugees; Northeastern public policy professor Jennie Stephens on climate; and technology writer Alexandra Samuel on fake news — those big issues were narrowed down to specific challenges that could have specific solutions.

Participants in the Experience Solution Sprint vote on ideas about the refugee crisis. Photos by David Chau for Northeastern University

Such big problems, of course, can’t be solved in one fell swoop, and the exercise wasn’t designed to do so. Instead, the goal was to give participants a sense that they can be part of the solutions, along with a framework and a set of tools to tackle problems in their own professional and civic lives. In corporate settings, design-thinking workshops can take days, but the breakneck pace pushed the groups creatively and compelled them to be bold, really lean on each other, and not worry so much about real-world feasibility.

The ideas they came up with in such a short time were ambitious, wide-ranging, and in some cases, a bit polarizing. Read on for the specific problems each group tackled, the prototypes inspired by their discussions, and the experts’ takeaways.

The Refugee Crisis

The problem: How can we help refugees share their stories so they can be better integrated into new societies?

Our idea: “The Journey” — a comprehensive, end-to-end online platform that enables refugees to share their stories before, during, and after resettlement while providing supportive resources to maximize their success. It would start with giving refugees the multimedia tools to capture and share their ongoing stories. It would help them connect and communicate with service workers, government representatives, service organizations, and individual volunteers once they’d arrived in a new country. And it would allow viewers to make micropayments to support the people whose stories they liked, and the refugee effort as a whole.

International correspondent Muhammad Lila on refugees

What our expert thinks: “I love the idea of being able to make micropayments to newcomers directly, ” says Lila, who has spent time on the ground in refugee camps and in conflict zones, like Syria. “Building out the platform would be a complicated process , but I don’t think it’s insurmountable. If we could implement even just one aspect of this, it would have the potential to help thousands of people.”

Constructive criticism: Lila thinks people in the early stages of their resettlement journey, many of whom have just lost their homes and loved ones, are probably too focused on simply surviving to worry about sharing their stories. “It becomes more viable when those refugees are in a stable situation,” he says.

We also wonder:  If refugees can be re-branded as “newcomers” to take the stigma away from the designation.

Climate Change

The problem: It’s impossible to move the needle on climate if those in positions of power remain unchanged. So how do we amplify new voices and empower them to make a real impact?

Our idea: The CFTI (Carbon Footprint Tax Incentive) App — A way to hold big institutions and individuals accountable for their climate impacts. The federal government would offer a tax break for corporations willing to support the development of an app that could track a person’s carbon footprint — based on metrics like flights taken, meat consumption, etc. The app would be free to the public, and people would get tax breaks themselves for using the app to improve their carbon footprint score.

The project could include a student contest for fledgling developers. Winners could go on to work for sponsoring companies and become champions of improving practices within; celebrity spokespeople and social media influencers could lend their time and fame to helping promote widespread adoption of the app.

What our expert thinks: “I like how this idea involves students, companies, and the government,” says Stephens, a climate and energy resilience advocate and the director of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “It attempts to connect public and private initiatives and includes youth and jobs.”

Constructive criticism: “Carbon accounting offers a way to measure some of the ways we contribute to the climate crisis, but it doesn’t capture everything,” Stephens cautions. “Depending on what was included in the tax break, this could end up benefiting privileged people, communities, and companies more, so there would have to be careful consideration to issues of equity and access.”

We also wonder: Are there ways to get other countries to buy in and participate?

Fake News

The problem: Studies show that people with more politically diverse social networks are less likely to fall for fake news online. So how do we include people with different viewpoints from ours into our networks?

Our idea: The “Unfriended” Program: People who want to unfriend each other on social media (or who have already done so) are encouraged to meet each other in person, with the goal of reconnecting and gaining common ground so that their respective diverse opinions influence each other. The initiative could be part of a social media platform’s terms of service, and some meetups could be organized around non-political shared interests — such as rooting for the same sports teams or enjoying the same hobbies. This could be part of a larger effort at taking online relationships into the offline world, which might also include community meetings and events for members of different online social networks. Participants who are in different locations could connect over video call. 

What our expert thinks: “So many of the conflicts, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities that arise online come about because text-based interaction is relatively ‘thin’ — it’s missing the context that comes from body language, tone of voice, and facial expression,” says Samuel, who writes and speaks extensively about the business and social impact of technology. “In-person or video meetups may make it easier for people to find common ground.”

Constructive criticism: “If you know it’s going to be harder, or at least more awkward, to extract yourself from an unwanted online connection, you may be more hesitant to friend people in the first place,” Samuel says. “On the one hand, that might be healthy. If we have smaller friend circles on social media we might find it less overwhelming and more meaningful. On the other, if people limit their social networks, I suspect they’ll be even less likely to connect across difference.”

We also wonder: About the feasibility (and safety implications) of banning anonymous posting online, or if unfriending people on social media networks should be disallowed altogether.

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Illustration by Verónica Grech


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