Several months ago, MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy launched its first annual Inclusive Innovation Competition (IIC). MIT is one of the world’s top research universities, renowned as well for its entrepreneurial culture. But the objectives of the IIC are quite different and unique. Instead of competing on creating the most advanced technologies or compelling startups, the IIC is focused on innovations aimed at improving the economic opportunities of middle- and low-income earners around the world.
Applicants competed for $1 million in prizes to be awarded in four main categories: Skills, - how employees were re-skilled for new types of jobs; Matching, - how qualified people were connected to new types of jobs; Humans + Machines, - how technology is used to augment human labor; and New Models, - how new business models revolutionize labor markets and job opportunities. In each of these categories, the grand prize winner was awarded $125,000, while each of the four runner-ups received $25,000. In addition, four additional $25,000 Judges Choice Awards were given to organizations deemed by the judges to be uniquely inventive.
I’m a Fellow of the Initiative on the Digital Economy, and served as one of the judges in the competition. 243 applications were received from around the world, from which we selected 24 finalists. I personally reviewed around 20 applications, and was really impressed not only by their innovative ideas, but also by their courage and determination as they addresed some of society’s toughest problems.
The four grand prize winners were selected from among the 24 finalists and announced at the 2016 IIC Awards Ceremony several weeks ago. The winners were:
99Degrees Custom (Humans + Machines Category): An apparel manufacturing company based in Lawrence, MA, that has developed a partially automated production line enabling it to offer fast-turn production and on-demand customization while helping to transform a struggling regional workforce into a digital economy workforce.
“As off-shored mass production becomes obsolete, regional speed factories are the future, enabling brands to respond to demand, hold less inventory, and innovate ahead of their competition… In apparel manufacturing, automation and job creation are not mutually exclusive. The bridge we’re building between an antiquated industry and an advanced manufacturing industry offers a unique opportunity to employ a manually skilled workforce, pay living wages, and invest in transitioning that workforce into a future innovation economy workforce.”
Iora Health (New Models Category): A health care organization that uses community health coaches to serve 45,000 patients in 29 locations across 11 cities, and gets paid not per sick visit, but for keeping people healthy.
“Iora Health has built a new model of care delivery from the ground up, built on relationships and not transactions, and centered around the concept of health coaches, people from the community who are chosen for empathy and work closely with doctors to help patients execute on their care plans… We have 3 health coaches per doctor, and they are key to our incredible outcomes which include much better health, and keeping our patients out of unnecessary specialist visits, ER trips, and hospital admissions, resulting in 15-20% lower total healthcare costs. We also built our own IT system to help our coaches do their job.”
Laboratoria (Matching Category): An organization that aims to empower young women from low-income backgrounds by giving them access to education and helping them find technology jobs with Latin American companies. Initially based in Peru it’s now expanded to Mexico and Chile, and aims to reach 10,000 young women by 2020 across Latin America.
“Laboratoria takes advantage of a real market demand - the need for developers across the tech sector - and solves it by addressing one of the most pressing social problems in Latin America: the lack of quality education and job opportunities for low-income youth. We select and recruit young women with promising talent and take them through an immersive 5-month training program. Our comprehensive education approach includes not only technical skills but also a personal and professional development program that teaches soft skills essential to the job market. Upon graduation, we connect our coders with tech companies in need of their talent.”
Year Up (Skills Category): A Boston-based non-profit that provides low-income, underserved young adults with career relevant technical and professional training that positions them for employment in high-growth industries.
“Year Up, a national nonprofit organization operating in sixteen markets, endeavors to close the Opportunity Divide, the vast gap that exists between youth who lack access to job opportunities and Fortune 1000 companies who lack access to a pipeline of diverse, skilled talent. Year Up has over fifteen years of experience equipping low-income young adults with skills and experience that will allow them to compete for, and obtain, professional jobs with career pathways. 85% of our graduates are employed and/or enrolled in school full-time within four months of program completion, and employed graduates earn an average starting wage of upwards of $18/hour.”
Let me close by explaining why I feel particularly proud to be associated with the Inclusive Innovation Competition.
MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) was launched in 2013 to explore “how people and businesses will work, interact, and prosper in an era of profound digital transformation.” From the beginning, one of its top research objectives has been to understand the future of the workforce in our rapidly changing digital economy.
A few years ago, I participated in an IDE sponsored roundtable on the future of jobs that discussed many of the issues IDE is now addressing. After listening to a number of experts throughout the day, the main conclusion I took away from the roundtable is that, - while having lots of ideas, hypotheses and hopes, - we truly don’t know where jobs will come from in the coming years, particularly for middle- and low-level income earners who’re being left behind by the digital revolution.
In the intervening years, technology advances have continued their relentless pace. Examples abound. Having conquered chess 20 years ago, earlier this year an AI program won a round of Go, -a much more complex game than chess, - against one of the world’s top players. Our robots keep getting smarter and more capable. And, while we’re not quite sure when they’ll be all around us, self-driving vehicles keep achieving milestone after milestone.
People have long worried about the impact of technology on jobs. Technology has been replacing workers and improving productivity ever since the advent of industrialization over 200 years ago. In past technology-based economic dislocations, the periods of high unemployment eventually worked themselves out. Over time, these disruptive technologies led to the transformation of the economy and the creation of new industries and new jobs.
No one can really tell if technology will once more end up creating more jobs than it destroys, or if this time will be different and automation will end up replacing many jobs while creating few new ones. And even if technology doesn't lead to massive unemployment in the long run, technological advances are already disrupting labor markets and contributing to social and political unrest around the world. “The economic challenge of the future will not be producing enough. It will be providing enough good jobs,” wrote Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers in a 2014 WSJ article.
That’s why it’s particularly heartening that MIT, which is creating many of these advanced technologies, is now also seriously addressing their painful impact on workers everywhere, - searching for breakthrough innovations to help improve their economic prospects.
“All of these winners exhibited amazing innovation and a commitment to creating a more inclusive future. They are leveraging technology to improve economic opportunity for the broad middle and base of the income distribution,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT professor and Director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy. “Each one is proof that technology can be used as a tool to create jobs and help people - customers, employees, and employers alike.”