Working for a Better Future

By harnessing digital technologies and channeling entrepreneurial energy from around the world, we can shape our economic destiny.

By Devin Cook, Executive Producer, MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge

“I work hard, so that you will have the opportunity to do better than I have,” my grandpa used to tell my sisters and me. Millions of people around the world are like my grandpa. They work hard so that their children and grandchildren will enjoy more secure and prosperous futures than they themselves experienced.

But work is quickly changing, owing in no small part to the impact of digital technology on business, the economy, and society.

While digital technology has enabled wealth to grow more rapidly than ever before, not everyone is sharing equally in this prosperity. Working people across the world — from the middle to the lower tiers of the income bracket — struggle to envision a more prosperous future for themselves and their children. And rightfully so. We live in an age when wages haven’t risen faster than inflation in over 40 years. One percent of the world’s population owns more than half the global wealth. Some research shows that 47% of jobs in America are at risk of being automated. Feeling optimistic about the future of work and prosperity seems impossible to many.

But at MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), we do feel optimistic, and we believe others should feel optimistic too. Why? Because reinventing the future of work to create shared prosperity is within our power.

By harnessing digital technologies and channeling entrepreneurial energy from around the world, we can shape our economic destiny.

This is the grand challenge that we are tackling at the IDE. How? Last year, we took action. We launched the first annual Inclusive Innovation Challenge, a $1 million awards program celebrating technology-driven solutions that are reinventing work to create shared prosperity.

Creating this first-of-its-kind Challenge was an experiment of sorts. We wanted to find out which organizations are currently innovating to create jobs and increase incomes for working people. So we launched the IIC….and we were blown away by the results. We received almost 300 applications from 35 countries. We recruited over 80 judges to score applications and ultimately, we brought 24 Winners to the MIT Media Lab to celebrate their success.

Our Winners exemplify the important innovations required today to reinvent the future of work to create shared prosperity. For instance:

  • 99Degrees is bringing apparel manufacturing back to the United States by training its workforce to use advanced manufacturing equipment.
  • Iora Health is creating an entirely new workforce of health coaches, augmented by technology, who work with patients and doctors to improve health outcomes and cut costs.
  • Laboratoria is teaching low-income women in Latin America technical and soft skills and matching them with opportunities in the tech sector.

We awarded $1 million in prizes to these Inclusive Innovators and believe they are the heroes of the Second Machine Age: They are reinventing work to ensure more, if not all, people enjoy the prosperity, wealth, and quality of life that digital technology is creating.

After the IIC Awards Celebration this September, we were energized, excited and optimistic about the power of technology to create jobs and increase incomes and we now feel an even greater need and urgency to our goal. This year’s U.S. election may have served as a wake-up call demonstrating the depth of the frustration, anger, and fear that many people are experiencing because they don’t have work or they feel financially insecure. People are looking for solutions to their personal economic challenges and see technology as the problem, not the solution.

At MIT, we are indoctrinated in the power of technology to make the world a better place. But many working people — whether waiters in New York City, or former coal miners in Kentucky, or small-scale farmers in Kenya — may not hold this same belief because they have not personally experienced the economic benefits that technology promises.

We don’t want the waiters, the factory workers, the small-scale farmers to turn away from technology. We need to invent new tools that benefit working people so that the appetite for investing in new technology continues, and excitement about technology can grow.

On March 22 we will launch the second Inclusive Innovation Challenge to celebrate and accelerate Inclusive Innovations that are creating greater shared prosperity. The challenge we seek to address this year with the Inclusive Innovation Challenge is to reinvent the future of work. But we also have a new, and perhaps even more important call to action: We must spread a message to working people that technology can change their lives for the better. We must show working people that technology can and will work for them today and for their grandchildren in the future.