Define the problem.

Learning Objectives

In this module, you will learn how to…

  • Understand your community and gather evidence about issues there
  • Choose a problem for your team to solve
  • Brainstorm potential solutions that will address your community’s needs
  • Clearly define the problem your team will go on to solve

Understand Community Needs

Congratulations! You have registered to take part in Technovation and you and your team are excited to solve a problem in your community by creating a mobile app. Your team may or may not already have an idea for a problem to solve. Either way, let’s take a look at how people often approach problems and make decisions.

Our brains are constantly processing information and we are often problem-solving without  even realizing it. Suppose an important homework assignment is due and you forgot. You write something up at the last minute and hand it in, but it is not your best work. You are reacting, and that is sometimes necessary, but are you responding to an actual need?

Finding an idea for your Technovation app requires you to identify your community’s needs. Sometimes the people in your community are reacting to problems they have, and are not seeing that there might be more effective solutions. Your job will be look at the world around you and observe your community closely. You will gather observations and evidence which will later be used to help support the argument for why your team has arrived at a particular solution, and how it effectively solves your community’s  needs.

But first, how well do you know your community? You can live somewhere for a long time and come to realize that there’s a lot going on there that you weren’t even aware of! The next two activities will help you become more aware your community.


Activity: Community Documenting


This activity will help you gather information and characteristics about your community so that you can better understand its needs, and should take about 60 minutes to do. In advance, the team should agree on a particular area of a city or place of interest to them and then plan a time to go there to do the activity. Afterwards, they should find a place where they can write responses to questions, and then discuss their responses together.

What You Will Need:

  • Pens or markers
  • Paper to write on or this worksheet
  • Clipboard (optional but good to have)
  • Camera (optional but also good to have, you can use the camera on a phone)

What You Will Do:

  1. Go to the area your team has chosen to observe. If you have the worksheet, you can use that to record your responses. Otherwise, write down where the area is on a piece of paper. Be specific.  
  2. Slowly walk around the area once and make a note of or take pictures of the major structures (e.g. churches, stores, buildings, schools).
  3. Walk the area again, this time looking for less obvious things. Some examples: a well-kept yard on a street of concrete, a community garden, a row of trees, a vacant lot, billboards. If possible, use your cellphone or camera to take pictures. As you observe this time, write down not only what you see, but also what you hear, smell, or feel.
  4. When you return inside, respond to the following questions:
    • What surprised you the most about the community?
    • Can you see any problems that are affecting the community? If so, who is it affecting and how?
    • What do you think this community needs to help solve the problem/s?
    • Who would be responsible for making that change and how?
    • How might the community needs be solved by technology?

Discuss what some of the common things your team noticed were. Were there any surprises? What were some of the problems that you noticed in the community? Do you have pictures that can help illustrate your points? Does your team feel strongly about any of these issues? Why?

There are other ways to gather information. Below is another activity you can do to help visualize the community in another way.

Activity: Our Community A-Z


Note: If a mentor participates, he or she can help assess whether teams need to gain more information about the community or the problem they are choosing to solve.


Another way to visualize communities is by the brainstorming words that describe them. After you discuss your observations from the community documenting activity, you can try this too. It’s fun!

What You Will Need:

  • Write out the letters of the alphabet on a chalkboard or a whiteboard for each team member. You could do this on paper instead, with one piece of paper per person.
  • Something for each person to write with

What You Will Do:

  1. Each team member should write one word that describes the community for as many letters of the alphabet as possible, as fast as she can. For example, "R=Rural". To make it more fun, you can make it a competition. Don't overthink this—it should be spontaneous!
  2. Afterward, everyone should take a look at all the words that came out of this activity and discuss them. Are there any commonalities? Any surprises? What kind of new information came out of this activity that didn’t happen with the physical observation?

What's Next:

Now that you have gathered evidence of issues in your community, you and your team should talk about which of the issues are important. Then, you can decide which one to work on. Before this conversation takes place though, let’s take a look at the themes that Technovation is asking participants to develop solutions for this year, as this could influence your decision.

Technovation Themes

Here are some themes inspired by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that you can use for inspiration when brainstorming ideas. Here are details on each of the themes, and some examples of UN goals and targets for the year 2030:

Poverty. Examples include eradicating extreme poverty (measured as living under $1.25 a day), implementing social protection systems for all, and ensuring that all men and women have equal access to economic resources.

Environment. Examples include improving education and awareness about climate change and strengthening resilience to climate-change hazards in all countries. If you look at the other two related categories: Life Below Water and Life On Land, you will find more ideas.

Peace. Examples include significantly reducing violence, ending abuse of children, reducing corruption and bribery, ensuring equal access to justice for all, and ensuring public access to information.

Equality. Examples include ending all form of discrimination against girls and women everywhere, eliminating all harmful practices such as early and forced marriage, enhancing the use of enabling technology to promote the empowerment of women, ensuring universal access to reproductive rights, and ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership.

Education. Examples include ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning experiences for all.

Health. Examples include ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all ages, maternal and child health, universal health coverage, and access for all to safe, effective, quality and affordable medicines and vaccines.

You can learn more about the Sustainable Development Goals here.

Activity: Decide on a Problem

Now that you have discovered and gathered evidence of the issues in your community, it is time to choose a problem your team would like to work on for the project.

What you will need:

  • Post-its or paper
  • Pens or markers
  • Or, if you are on a virtual team, you can use ideaboardz.

What you will do:

  1. Have everyone think about the community needs and write down the problems they are interested in solving on a post-it, a piece of paper, or a notecard on Put one idea on each post-it. No idea is right or wrong.
    • For each problem, include two sentences. Write one about why the problem is important and what the evidence is for this.Write the second one about whom the problem affects and how.
  2. After about 15 minutes, everyone should bring their post-its up to the wall and look at them as a group.
  3. Discuss whether there are any patterns. Here are some important questions to answer:
    • Is there any overlap in interest?
    • Are the problems so wide in scope that they will not be easily addressed by an app? If so, can they be broken down into smaller problems?
      • Keep in mind that the problem will need to be addressed by a mobile app, so you will need to make good use of the features that mobile technology has to offer such as GPS, camera, accelerometer, or voice recognition. This will be discussed further, but it is good to keep in mind now.
  4. Your team should now pick one problem to focus on. 

Activity: Brainstorm Solutions

In the past few activities, you’ve  shared ideas about the kinds of problems your team is interested in solving. Now it’s time to start thinking about technological solutions, particularly mobile app solutions, so you may want some tips on how to brainstorm effectively.

Brainstorming is a group activity technique that is designed to generate a large number of ideas. Here are some tips for good brainstorming:

  • Be sure to capture all ideas, even wild ones!
  • Defer all judgement, on other people’s ideas, and on your own!
  • Build off each other’s ideas.
  • Be visual - you can draw instead of write words.
  • One conversation at a time - don’t cut each other off.
  • Go for as many ideas as you can.
  • Stay focused.

Here is a video from Stanford that shows examples of less effective ways to go about brainstorming, and more effective ways, so you can better understand this process.

What you will need:

  • Big sheet of paper or whiteboard
  • Markers

What you will do:

  1. Give yourselves about 30 minutes to generate ideas together. It is recommended that you go through this process with your mentor to help keep you on track.
  2. Review the idea to make sure you are keeping the the user, aka the person or people whom the problem affects in mind. Think about whether the solution leverages the features of mobile phones, such as GPS, accelerometer, camera, etc. You can ask your mentor to review the idea too and ask for feedback.
  3. If the team agrees that the user’s needs will be met by the app idea, and that the solution will make good use of mobile phone features such as GPS, accelerometer, camera, etc., then move on to the next step of creating a problem statement that your team will refer back to throughout the course of the project.
  4. If your team is not sure that the user’s needs will be met by the app, or whether the app will be a good solution to the problem, then your team will need to go back to brainstorming to identify another solution that can make good use of mobile phone features. It would be a good idea to enlist the help of your mentor in this process.

A problem that is well stated is half-solved.”

—Charles Kettering, American inventor, engineer, and businessman

What is a Problem Statement?

Now that you have an idea for your project, you can start working on your problem statement. A problem statement is a brief piece of writing that explains the problem that your team is addressing. It should outline the basic facts of the problem, explain why the problem matters, who it affects and how, and present a direct solution.

It’s important that you write the problem statement together as a team so that you all agree and remain focused on the problem you are solving as you move through the rest of the curriculum. Otherwise you might work on  something only to find that it doesn’t meet the original goal!  

Your problem statement should answer 4 questions:

  1. What is the problem? In design terms, this also translates to: what is the need?
  2. Who does the problem affect and how? This is important because the people who are affected by the problem will be the users of your app.
  3. Why is it important to solve? Why is this problem compelling and do you have any evidence of the problem to back up your argument? What insight do you have to offer in solving the problem?
  4. What is the solution? This does not need to be a long response right now, just enough to give a little understanding of how the problem will be addressed.

For your purposes right now, the problem statement should not be longer than a paragraph. You can definitely explore your ideas and write them down, but as a team you should narrow down your problem statement together.  

Example: Discardious by Team Charis

Here is an example of a project statement from a past Technovation finalist team. Your problem statement will similarly become polished as you do research and build upon your idea:

“Calabar is densely populated and results show that 70% of individuals and businesses there store refuse, 95% use open dumps and 65% dump their refuse into gutters. This effect has led to inefficient waste disposal and an unhygienic business and home environment. Business and homeowners have a tight schedule that prevents them from disposing their waste regularly and there are no frequent visit from waste disposal agencies. Our team proposes to provide a platform for fast food companies, hotels, and individuals to dispose their waste conveniently and on time. We will provide pick up carts to get their waste in order to reduce associated health risks, will educate citizens on the effect of improper waste disposal, and will provide updates and tips on best practices.”

Here is a demo of the Discardious app that Team Charis created.

In the Discardious app, the user can:

  • Login
  • Select a location for a cart near them
  • Select the number of waste bins that are needed
  • Enter the address for the waste bins to be brought
  • Agree to the terms of conditions
  • Report a hazard by entering a location, writing a short report, and taking a picture of the scene
  • Receive a message that the report has been logged

Create a Problem Statement 

Now it’s time to write your problem statement! Here’s a basic template.

Here are a few resources with more tips on writing a problem statement:

When your team has agreed on the problem statement, show it to your mentor for feedback.