Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Ultimate Mash-up

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the tenth annual Microsoft Imagine Cup, the world's largest student competition for software. Here is an article I sent to Microsoft Europe.

The Ultimate Mash-up

The prospects for Europe's youth were never bleaker; the prospects were never brighter. You cannot pick up a local paper or magazine without reading about the staggering unemployment and growing frustration among youth in European countries.  Even the best educated have had to ratchet down their expectations to find work, and even then there a few guarantees.  We could stop the story here and allow pessimism to win the day.

But the lessons of the Imagine Cup tell another story.  Team after team with project after project defy the odds with innovation.  I have often counted off the "no's" of Imagine Cup students:

1) No business experience
2) No marketing experience
3) No money
4) No time
5) No sense of limitation

It is that last one that makes all the difference. The contestants I have listened to over the past five years as a software design  judge are not limited by statements like "that will never work here".  They just "do" with whatever means they have within their reach, and then some. And their enthusiasm for their solutions is contagious.

This results in some interesting discoveries that are what I call the "three mash-ups". The first is mashing-up common components in new ways. For example, the team from Jordan, a winner in 2011, duct-taped a WII box to a monitor, pulled the diode from a TV remote and mounted it on a baseball cap, and wrote software so that a young paraplegic woman could simulate a mouse and operate a cursor on a PC by tilting her head and pausing to click.   Watching the team's video is a moving experience (See  In her words, the OaSys System gave her back her life. Notice the technology pieces that were used; nothing new or extraordinary; but the connection of the parts is brilliant.  The innovation is in the mash-up of the everyday tech.

The second mash-up is in the opportunity for one team to join up with another at the Imagine Cup finals and talk about combining their projects.  At the 2009 competition, I saw an amazing application from the team from Poland that translated music to braille and back again.  The software and use of a Windows phone was extraordinary.  But the braille reader component they used was expensive. The team from China, on the other hand, had invented a braille reader from off-the-shelf components for a tenth of the cost.  At the showcase, I introduced the China team to the Poland team and asked them to do a demo for each other.  The conversation began for how they may combine efforts, mashing up their solutions, if you will, for something that could reach more people.  The key is to find each other and work together.

The third mash-up is combining the inventor-entrepreneur with humanitarian work. The Imagine Cup has encouraged students to write solutions that address the UN Millennium Development Goals.  Each team must demonstrate how their application addresses one of the MDGs.  Most teams focus on improving health or the environment. And the solutions are creative indeed, as shown by the examples above.  Going forward, there is an opportunity for Imagine Cup finalists to take their ideas to scale at humanitarian organizations like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.  Perhaps as volunteers, or interns or employees of the future.  That is my wish, and something for which I continue to advocate.  I believe this will be the ultimate mash-up of talent and need for the greater good in the world.

What are the three most important words in this article? Find, mash-up, and together.  I can think of nothing more optimistic in my conversations with students at the Imagine cup finals in Sydney this week.

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