When Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, it was clear—war had again struck in Europe. Since then, over 5.4 million Ukrainians would be forced to leave their home country to seek shelter in more than 15 countries worldwide. As the horrors of battle played out in front of millions around the globe, MIT EMBA alumni knew they needed to act.
“We wanted to help,” said Olga Lidenko, EMBA ’17. Her classmate echoed her thoughts. “We wanted to do something beyond donating money,” said Jarrod Post, EMBA ’17.
The group wanted to act—with impact, well-engineered intervention, and in the spirit of principled, innovative leaders who seek to improve the world.
Together with MIT Sloan’s support, the MIT EMBA community had the knowledge and power to move mountains and solve worldwide challenges. With this mindset, Jarrod, Olga, and their classmates, Stanislaw Kowalcyk, EMBA’ 17, Sergio Medina, EMBA ‘20, and Ipek Stillman, EMBA ‘17, came together ready to deploy their knowledge and expertise to tackle the multitude of challenges surrounding the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. But where to start and where to focus for maximum effect?
“Our group’s first goal was simple,” said Medina, the social entrepreneur who has been professionally engaged in refugee assistance for over a decade. “We need to immediately support Ukrainian refugees.”
To hone in on the problem, they turned to the Organizations Lab (O-Lab) problem-solving framework. As a team, they spent hours analyzing the current state to understand refugee challenges and the assistance available to them from governments, private networks, charities, and non-profit organizations. They learned that various types of support, from housing to financial to medical, was already available in many countries.
Yet, while connecting the human chain of information flow, they revealed a glaring gap—information about the available assistance was disjointed and siloed, making difficult, even impossible, for displaced people to reach this information quickly, let alone obtain the support available. In fact, it was taking people days and even weeks to access basic needs and urgent medical assistance. On top of that, a language barrier was compounding the problem, as most of the refugees did not speak a language other than their native one.
Lessons from System Dynamics helped the team appreciate the magnitude of the crisis and the existing system effects. In many European countries, the complexity of resource allocation and the management of refugee needs quickly became an enormous operational challenge. In System Dynamics terms, the team identified several negative and positive feedback loops contributing to the problem: as people fled Ukraine, their access to information about assistance dwindled, thus decreasing the speed at which they could connect to appropriate aid resources, increasing the strain on the first response system (refugee camps, volunteers, etc.).
These combined issues made it impossible for the system to accept new refugees and get them help. In fact, some European countries were forced to limit the number of displaced people they could accept, another negative loop, putting an even greater burden on other countries, further clogging the system.
The obstacles became clear—disjointed and siloed aid information was slowing down humanitarian crises management, making it increasingly inefficient. With this information, the team tackled the next challenge: what is the desired future state and the solution to the problem?
Takeaways from the Competitive Strategy course came in handy—a platform solution was the best answer. This would seamlessly link demand and supply by connecting refugees with the help available to them within minutes and in any language and any location. In addition, a platform could allow different stakeholders to either contribute to or benefit from system resources.
This is how the team started developing a solution called RADA, which means “advice” or “council” in both Polish and Ukrainian.
“The vision behind RADA is simple, yet powerful,” said Kowalcyk, a technology leader with multiple start-ups. “As an AI-powered technology platform that quickly connects displaced people with the support available to them, RADA can quickly search for, analyze, and provide aid suggestions to people in need through a multi-modal approach that uses social media, phones, websites, and apps.”
If someone shares that they’re seeking housing in Poland for themselves, two young children, and a dog, RADA receives the transmission in Ukrainian, analyzes keywords to find appropriate resources and aid agencies, then provides recommendations. Within minutes, the requester can receive an answer in their native language free of charge. RADA can also respond to additional questions and requests, refining searches to provide additional resources as necessary.
The MIT EMBA alumni built the initial RADA prototype via an intelligent knowledge bot. The bot uses AI algorithms to communicate with refugees to obtain key information on their needs, which is then sent to another AI system for a knowledge-based search on the available resources. Any resource/aid information is automatically and continuously collected from open-source data curated by aid agencies.
“We designed RADA to serve as an intelligent, interface-integrated, end-to-end platform where aid agencies and recipients can connect in a central place,” said Medina. “We hope it will help to cross political, financial, logistical, and ethnocentric barriers to optimize the reach of support to those in need.”
What’s more, he adds, “RADA will accomplish this based on raw data directly from the users, bypassing estimates/any unrelated information, as well as any human-based limitations and errors.”
The value of RADA’s platform, however, goes beyond the vital end-end connection of displaced people to sources of aid.
“Analytics on refugee-need data can create actionable human intelligence and inform decisions for more efficient industry resource allocation,” said Kowalczyk. “It is this multi-sided, value-creation model that will enable the long-term sustainability of RADA as a platform for global humanitarian aid.”
The intelligent platform will connect other future partners and resources to the system stakeholders to improve the services and outcomes. A key goal of the EMBAs is to leverage the strength of MIT and MIT Sloan alumni networks to build on RADA’s reach as a not-for-profit entity.
“We’ll be inviting other alumni to contribute their skills, knowledge, and expertise to solving non-profit agencies’ biggest problems through focused engagements,” said Stillman. “Combined with these broader consultancy services, RADA could become the ecosystem for tackling the most acute problems of current and future crises around the world.”
For the MIT EMBA alums working on this project, this vision represents the most exciting aspect of RADA—an opportunity for other alumni to step up as principled and innovative leaders aiming to improve the world.
The team is currently seeking funding to develop the RADA platform further and make it scalable. They welcome any connections and advice to help expedite steps. For questions and ways to help, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.