The future of work is a prime interest of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, started in 2013 by researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee.
To help come up answers to questions about the impact of automation on jobs and the effects of digital innovation, the group launched the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge last year, inviting organizations around the world to compete in the realm of improving the economic opportunities of middle- and base-level workers.
More than $1 million in prizes went to winners of the 2017 competition in Boston last month in four categories: Job creation and income growth, skills development and matching, technology access, and financial inclusion. Awards were funded with support from Google.org, The Joyce Foundation, software firm ISN, and ISN President and CEO Joseph Eastin.
“The grand challenge of our era is to use digital technologies to create not only prosperity, but shared prosperity,” said Mr. Brynjolfsson in remarks at the awards event. “We created the Inclusive Innovation Challenge to recognize and reward the many amazing people and organizations that are working to accomplish this mission.” He added: “Our award winners and other entrants show us that broadly shared prosperity is possible, which makes a great antidote to pessimism and negativity.”
The competition received around 300 applications from all over the world. As I did last year, I served as a judge. I was really impressed with the innovative ideas, courage and determination of applicants as they addressed some of society’s toughest problems.
The grand prize winner and runners-up in each category are helping people all over the world, including in Myanmar, Rwanda and Afghanistan. I’d like to share some highlights because all deserve our recognition.
Category: Job Creation and Income Growth
Purpose: Leverage technology to create new jobs that pay better wages.
Grand prize winner: Logistimo. India-based Logistimo has created a platform to ensure that vaccines and medical supplies make it to where they are needed. Many rural communities lack access to essential goods. Logistimo’s digital auction platform aggregates demand for supplies, optimizes loads, routes and schedules, and tracks fulfillment. The company’s approach supports milk runs and line-hauls, integrating trucks, bikes, boats, and drones. In less than two years, it has managed 24,000 deliveries for 1,000 customers, and created more than 80 jobs.
Hogaru. About 90% of the 30 million cleaning workers in Latin America work without contracts and usually for low wages, Hogaru says. The company, based in Bogotá, Colombia, connects these workers with small and medium-sized businesses, providing the organizations with reliable cleaning services and the workers with improved working conditions and wages.
SkillSmart. Many job descriptions list check-box items such as education or years of experience, SkillSmart says, but not enough on skills needed for the job. The Germantown, Md.-based company helps employers focus on the skills they seek and matches companies with good candidates.
Tuteria. Based in Nigeria, Tuteria connects reliable, knowledgeable tutors with students interested in a range of subjects, from match to cooking. Tuteria vets tutors to ensure high-quality teaching skills and enables secure payments.
Category: Skills Development and Opportunity Matching
Purpose: Help prepare people for new categories of job and connect to appropriate job opportunities.
Grand prize winner: LaunchCode. The nonprofit, with six locations in the U.S., provides free coding education to people who lack traditional credentials. LaunchCode then matches job seekers with paid apprenticeships at hundreds of companies. More than 80% of apprentices become full-time hires.
iHub. The organization, based in Kenya, opened work spaces and meeting rooms in Nairobi, where promising developers can work with established engineers on real projects for local companies. The company plans to expand beyond Kenya.
Leap Skills Academy. Leap offers training, mentorship, and placement opportunities for low-income, rural students in India, helping students prepare for the workplace in the digital economy.
New Day. In Myanmar, where 80% of the population has smartphones, New Day created a platform to connect job seekers with potential employers using mobile technology. The service is free for people looking for jobs.
Category: Technology Access
Purpose: Help people get connected to the digital economy.
Grand prize winner: AdmitHub. About 2.5 million U.S. students enroll at colleges each year, AdmitHub says, but 48% fail to earn a degree within six years. Dropouts disproportionately come from underserved communities. Boston-based AdmitHub offers a virtual assistant, powered by artificial intelligence to help students navigate – with personalized support — the financial, academic, and social situations related to attending college.
African Renewable Energy Distributor Ltd. This Rwanda company has developed solar-powered, portable kiosks where people can charge phones and access Wi-Fi and online services. Using a micro-franchise business model, the company hopes to empower women and people with disabilities to run the kiosks.
Digital Citizen Fund. Based in New York, with offices in Afghanistan, the company has built 11 internet training centers and two media centers for women and girls in Afghanistan to gain digital literacy. Just 5% of Afghanistan’s population has access to the internet, Digital Citizen Fund says, and few of those are women or children. A project is underway to expand into Mexico.
Dot Learn. The cost of broadband and slow speeds of existing internet service hamper online education in Africa. Using an MIT-developed technology that compresses video, Dot Learn is making online education in Africa as inexpensive as text messaging.
Category: Financial Inclusion
Purpose: Improve access to financial services to stabilize families.
Grand prize winner: EFL Global. Cambridge, Mass.-based EFL uses psychological measurements to help assess lending risks to extend credit to some of the three billion people worldwide who lack a traditional credit history. EFL uses psychometric and behavioral science-based credit scoring to approve potential borrowers who might be unable to get credit otherwise. EFL has made $1.5 billion in loans in 15 countries.
AID:Tech. An estimated two billion people worldwide have no documented legal identity, which is often necessary for accessing public and financial services. Aid:Tech, in Dublin, uses a blockchain platform to let undocumented people create a digital ID to conduct transactions.
Nomanini. This company in South Africa provides point of sale and enterprise management software to informal merchants in Africa so they can do business with customers for whom traditional banking services are too expensive.
Tala. Peoplein Kenya, Tanzania, and the Philippines who are financially underserved can use their Android phones to apply for short-term, unsecured loans from Tala. Its app will analyze 10,000 data points to determine an applicant’s creditworthiness.