MIT’s Inclusive Innovation Challenge Is Coming to Detroit in the Fall

MIT’s Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC), a competition awarding more than $1 million to tech entrepreneurs driving economic opportunities for workers, is coming to Detroit.

The brainchild of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, the IIC seeks to find and promote startups and entrepreneurial organizations using technology to increase financial prospects for low- and moderate-income earners. This year marks the first time the IIC is adopting a global tournament model, hosting challenges in five cities across the world. Detroit, where MIT has partnered with the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, is hosting the challenge’s North American tranche.

“We started the Inclusive Innovation Challenge three years ago with the belief that we’re living in one of the greatest ages of technology innovation in human history,” says Susan Young, the event’s producer. “But many people are not benefiting despite the fact that they’re trying. Jobs leading to prosperity are disappearing, but technology can be used to directly address the challenges we face and to create opportunities. It’s more about the technology than the people themselves.”

Lavea Brachman, the vice president of programs for the Ralph Wilson Foundation, says her organization successfully made the case to MIT that Detroit is an up-and-coming city in transition from a manufacturing economy to one based more in IT, healthcare, and other tech-enabled sectors.

Brachman says her foundation approached MIT after being impressed with the university’s efforts to figure out how the next wave of automation-heavy technological developments will affect the economy. “They were some of the first to understand that it may not lead to shared prosperity,” Brachman says. “We liked that they were encouraging entrepreneurs to think proactively about inclusion.”

The IIC is seeking entrepreneurs from North America, including the Detroit region, to participate in the challenge. Those interested in competing have until May 29 to apply. The challenge is open to any for-profit or nonprofit entity of any size, type, or nationality that is using technology to reinvent work and create opportunity for economically disadvantaged people. Applicants must also demonstrate traction and impact, showing they are beyond the idea phase.

“It’s not pre-ordained that technology will automatically bring people along,” Young points out. Detroit, with its industrial past, is facing a number of workforce issues directly affected by technology, such as wage stagnation and job loss due to automation. “That’s a major reason we chose Detroit—we’re happy to explore with the Ralph Wilson Foundation and their stakeholders, and reach out to other cities undergoing a similar transformation. We’d like to deepen our reach this year, learn, and apply those lessons to the future of work.”

Judges will choose 12 regional challenge winners to be recognized and awarded cash prizes at the IIC North American Celebration held in Detroit in September. Four regional champions will win $20,000 each and eight finalists will each win $5,000. Following the celebration event, four North American winners will advance to the IIC Global Grand Prize Tournament, hosted at MIT in Cambridge, MA, in October. Four global grand-prize winners, chosen from the regional winners around the world, will be awarded $1 million in prize money.

This year, Young says MIT is also looking to pioneer ways to measure the impact of the challenge and its network. “We’re just getting started, and it involves very nuanced questions and data,” she adds. “Nobody else is really doing this work.”

One of last year’s grand prize winners was AdmitHub, a company using a mobile messaging platform powered by artificial intelligence to guide students “on the path to and through college,” working with universities to understand bureaucracy and overcome barriers. Young says that’s the kind of mission and impact MIT is looking for.

“We’re hoping to shine a brighter light on entrepreneurs that are using technology to increase inclusion; spread the word globally; help the companies’ ability to succeed; and enter them into the MIT ecosystem,” Young says. “It’s not one and done.”

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