Fix one city and you may change the world. After all, more people than ever are flocking to metro areas: more than 75% of the globe’s population is expected to be urban by 2050. Figure out how to help the underprivileged in just one of those zones, the theory goes, and you can transport it elsewhere. If everyone did that, there would be a lot of societal Band-Aids to go around.
The Future Cities Accelerator, a partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation and Unreasonable Institute, has awarded $1 million to a series of groups willing to try. Ten winners will receive $100,000 each and the chance to participate in nine months of workshops and coaching designed to help them succeed and expand.
More than 300 organizations applied to the contest, aimed at improving poor and vulnerable lives. Groups chose their own sectors of interest, with winning proposals covering education, employment, affordable housing, hunger, and connectivity. Poverty, of course, is a systemic problem, and one solution won’t come close to fixing everything, but attacking from many different angles could increase the odds for success. "The comprehensive sets of needs that this addresses are really exciting to see," says Teju Ravilochan, co-founder of Unreasonable Institute.
In the case of education, many of the concepts reinforce each other. The Washington D.C.-based group Storytime hopes to encourage more kids to read by texting families illustrated books. Meanwhile, CommonLit, another D.C. group has launched a website that helps teachers assess older kids’ reading proficiency with personalized plans to fix it. In Denver, Learn Fresh can tackle the math side of things with an NBA-sanctioned basketball board game and app turns player stats into teachable moments. In Baltimore, Thread matches extremely low-performing kids with mentors to offset challenges they may face at home.
Many winners are also seeking to "amplifying the effectiveness" of government provided services, Ravilochan says. In the Bay Area, Haven Connect, wants to simplify the affordable housing hunt by streamlining a previously confusing and time-consuming application process so more people can be housed.Two other groups, Chicago-based mRelief, and New York’s Propel, do the same thing for first securing and then budgeting and managing food stamps, respectively.
A number of these solutions can reach families because of the "Obama Phone" or Lifeline Assistance program, which has helped 20 million low-income people get free cell phones, limited service, and in some cases subsidized internet. Yet another winner, EveryoneOn, will work with internet providers, cell phone companies, and government officials to expand connectivity to those without access even more.
The winners also have some real differences. Some groups are local, while others have branched out elsewhere. There’s also a mix of nonprofits and social-mission companies. Rockefeller thinks that diversity is an asset. "It is our hope that this challenge has encouraged and inspired next generation leaders to look differently at the problems facing our world today, and that our winners now have the resources and tools they need to grow their promising solutions," writes associate director Josh Murphy in a press release.
To wit: C4Q, formerly the Coalition for Queens, which teaches impoverished adults how to code and matches them with tech companies like Google and AirBNB. The group hopes to learn how to bolster their philanthropic funding with more social impact investment, which could be more sustainable long term. Exactly what form that might take is still debatable. While most graduates have secured work, several have gone on the launch their own ventures—who have gone on to be part of accelerators like Y Combinator and TechStars. "Our ultimate goal is people not just getting jobs but creating companies," says founder and CEO Jukay Hsu. "We are very much a startup too, and as we continue to grow we feel fortunate to be able to work with thought leaders who can get us to the next level."
Alternatively, the traditionally commercial Spoiler Alert, located in Boston, uses an online platform to help businesses in New England donate and sell leftover food to local nonprofits. The service helps clients reduce food waste while better itemizing their inventory, eco-footprint, and resultant tax break. "What we’re looking to get out of the program is the ability to expand our work and impact on reducing food waste and fighting food insecurity at scale," says Emily Malina, cofounder and chief product officer.
There’s an extra incentive for everyone to move quickly. Ravilochan would like to see winners ready to solicit yet another wave of support at the Social Capital Markets SOCAP conference in October.
Correction: This article formerly stated that Haven Connect automated the online application process so more people can qualify for assistance. The organization doesn't automate or help people qualify for assistance, just affordable housing, so we've updated the description accordingly.