By Published: Aug. 19, 2019

Map the System competition encourages CU Boulder students to deeply understand social challenges before pitching solutions

Competitions in social innovation aimed at college students have become more and more common as universities seek ideas or products intended to address social challenges across the world.

But to Don Grant, professor of sociology and director of the Social Innovation Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, too often such contests skip a critically important step in addressing any social need: understanding.

Don Grant

Don Grant. At the top of the page, students are shown in competition. Photo courtesy of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

“Most competitions place a strong emphasis on giving a catchy elevator pitch,” Grant says. “They also stress coming up with flashy solutions as opposed to really understanding the problems students are trying to address. Consequently, the solutions offered by the winners of these competitions often do not work or fail to have the larger impact they promise.”

That’s why Grant is launching CU Boulder’s first Map the System competition this fall. Part of the Global Challenge program, an initiative of the Skoll Centre at the University of Oxford, next spring's competition will judge how well students understand a social or environmental problem and develop solutions based on that understanding.

The winning individual or team will then go to a global Map the System competition at Oxford in the United Kingdom. Past winners have addressed a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from wildfires, deforestation and food waste to the opioid epidemic, refugee integration, and students’ mental health.

“Tackling global challenges starts with understanding a problem and its wider context, rather than jumping straight into a business plan or an idea for a quick fix,” according to Oxford’s Global Challenge website. 

“Social change is complicated. Mapping is a way of understanding its complexities. Mapping out the system allows us to think about context and the many interacting factors that contribute to the development of the issues facing us—be they economic forces, political movements, or global trends. It gives us the tools to understand the whole picture and takes us out of our silos.”

Tackling global challenges starts with understanding a problem and its wider context, rather than jumping straight into a business plan or an idea for a quick fix."

Grant hopes the competition will encourage students to “fall in love with a problem before they solve it,” hone their research skills and interview people most affected by their chosen social challenge. 

Map the System is partly a response to persistent requests from CU Boulder students who are eager to act in the world.

“They really want to make a difference,” Grant says. “Universities have done a good job of raising awareness about problems. The competition will give students an opportunity to build on that awareness and develop the knowledge base they need to solve problems.”

Map the System participants will have access to a handful of tools not available elsewhere. Grant hopes to seat a panel of experts recruited from the annual Conference on World Affairs to judge the entries and even serve as ongoing mentors. 

And if students want to get a handle on how to succeed, they can go right to the source: Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of Global Challenge at Oxford, is now a consultant living in Boulder and has agreed to conduct a series of workshops this fall on the competition that is open to all CU Boulder students.

“That’s part of the reason I got interested,” Grant says. “I thought, ‘Wow, we have this great resource, the actual creator, living in our city.’”

At a time when many politicians and pundits dismiss the findings of the social sciences and other fields of study, Map the System and the Global Challenge can shine a spotlight on the critical importance of these academic disciplines. 

“Problem solving is the most in-demand skill in the American workplace,” Grant says. Map the System is an exciting opportunity for students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world challenges.

More information on CU Boulder’s Map the System competition will soon be posted on the Social Innovation program website,

Information about Oxford’s global competition can be found at  

For questions questions about the competitions email Professor Don Grant at

(This article has been updated to remove references to worshops now complete.)