MIT Inclusive Innovation Awards Stress Optimism as Tech Reshapes Work

Xconomy Boston — 

Digital technologies have helped create immense wealth and societal progress, but not everyone has shared in that prosperity.

The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy created the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge to highlight and support businesses and nonprofits that use technology to improve economic opportunities for people with low- and mid-level incomes. The winners of the second annual challenge, who will split more than $1 million in prize money, were announced Thursday evening at an event held at Boston’s City Hall Plaza during the HUBweek festival.

The four grand prize winners, who each will receive $150,000, are LaunchCode, the winner in the skills and matching category; AdmitHub, in the technology access category; EFL, in the financial inclusion category; and Logistimo, in the income and jobs category. (More details on them below.) The other 12 finalists will each receive $35,000. Around 1,000 organizations worldwide registered for the challenge.

“The dominant narrative about what technology does to jobs today is that it destroys them—it automates them out of existence,” said Andrew McAfee, co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, in an interview before the awards event. “I think it’s incorrect. … And I think it’s too pessimistic.”

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, is also optimistic about the future of technology and its relationship to humans.

“I take a strong view that very few of the jobs that we do today will go away,” said Schmidt, who spoke on stage during the awards ceremony.

Technology isn’t “automating jobs, but rather tasks,” he continued. “The tasks we’re automating are ones that require the least amount of judgment and creativity,” he said. “People will have more opportunity to do things we’re good at”—and those opportunities will be accessible to all people, not just “elites” or “the best-educated.”

Earlier on Thursday, Google announced its philanthropic arm will grant $1 billion over five years to nonprofits working to close education gaps worldwide, help people prepare for changes in the nature of work, and ensure everyone has access to economic opportunities. (Google’s philanthropic group also supports the Inclusive Innovation Challenge.)

McAfee said he thinks there is progress being made in the efforts to ensure all corners of society benefit from new technologies, especially when considering improving economic opportunities for people in emerging markets like China, India, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

“We’re giving people much, much more powerful tools than they’ve ever had before,” McAfee said. “I’m of the opinion that if you give people very powerful tools, they’re going to figure out powerful things to do with them.”

When asked if the social mission of the Inclusive Innovation Challenge lends itself better to nonprofits than for-profit ventures, McAfee said “there’s an opportunity for both.” He pointed to technologies that might help students stay in school longer (one of AdmitHub’s goals); universities would likely be willing to pay for that, McAfee said. Or consider technology that could improve the process of determining credit scores (EFL’s focus), something many companies would find valuable, he said.

“It’s tempting to think this is only do-gooder stuff,” McAfee said. “I think in some cases this approach can yield pretty good business models.”

Here’s an overview of the four grand prize winners:

LaunchCode is a St. Louis-based nonprofit that aims to help jobseekers gain the skills necessary for tech careers, and help companies find and hire diverse tech talent. Founded in 2013 by Square co-founder Jim McKelvey, LaunchCode offers free coding classes and matches jobseekers with paid apprenticeships that, ideally, lead to full-time jobs. LaunchCode works with employers in several cities nationwide, including St. Louis, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, and Portland, OR. (Executive director Jeff Mazur is pictured above, accepting his organization’s award.)

AdmitHub developed a virtual intelligent assistant that can interact with college students via text message. The chatbot can answer students’ questions on demand, send reminders and relevant information about enrollment tasks, collect survey data, and so on. The goal is to help universities and colleges, whose staffs might be strapped for resources, better support students and reduce dropouts. The company is located in the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston’s Allston neighborhood.

EFL provides an alternative credit scoring model that uses behavioral science and psychometrics. Its services enable people in emerging markets worldwide—many of whom lack credit history—to secure loans. The company has helped facilitate more than $1.5 billion worth of loans in 15 countries, according to a press release. EFL was born from research at Harvard, and its headquarters are now in Lima, Peru, according to LinkedIn.

Logistimo developed open-source, mobile software to help coordinate deliveries of goods, like milk and vaccines, to rural communities. The software can handle tasks like planning routes and delivery schedules, monitoring the demand of goods, and tracking order fulfillment. The India-based company has helped facilitate 14,000 deliveries for 1,000 customers over the past 18 months, helping to create more than 80 jobs and boost wages for many of the people making deliveries, according to a press release.

[Top photo courtesy of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.]