The 2016 MIT Inclusive Innovation Awards

Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Irving Wladawsky-Berger

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 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 runners-up 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.  In all, 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.  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.

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.

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.

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.

Long-term Implications

Let me explain why I feel particularly proud to be associated with the Inclusive Innovation Competition.

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.”


This blog first appeared Dec. 26, here.