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Creating food desert oases: Harvard and MIT innovators pitch options

In large swaths of the world, including the United States, urban areas are plagued with food deserts—places where residents have little or no access to affordable, nutritious food. In fact, 40+ million Americans now live in 6,500 food deserts that have been identified across the country. As a result, they also live with significantly higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The winners of the 2018 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize have developed inventive solutions to this dilemma, which has defied 21st-century governments and NGOs.

EatWell, a team of students and agribusiness experts representing the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, won the $15,000 first prize with their plan to bring healthier meal options to low-income communities. They are developing simple, low-cost meal kits that can be sold in food deserts. The team’s test market is Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood where 60 percent of families fall into the low-income category and are served by a single grocery store. Consequently, only a third of all Mattapan residents have access to affordable, nutritious food.

EatWell’s process is to survey residents about meal preferences. A professional chef and dietitian then work together to create simple, healthy, quick-to-table recipes. In Mattapan, that meant a chicken pot pie dish chock full of vegetables and a Haitian pork dish. The $15 kits cost far less than competitors like Blue Apron, in part because they aren’t shipped and don’t have in-box refrigeration.

Crowdsourcing the wisdom of farmers in Africa

The $10,000 second prize went to Context Insights, an outgrowth of a class project in the MIT Sloan course Opportunities in Developing Economies taught by Tavneet Suri. Suri, an associate professor of applied economics, is also scientific director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Africa and the cochair of J-PAL’s agriculture sector. Context Insight’s idea is to crowd-source crop-price predictions from farmers in Africa and aggregate that data for governments and microfinance institutions so that they can increase crop investments that alleviate market volatility.

Context Insights uses the wisdom of savvy local farmers to forecast the price of basic commodities like maize, commodities that are critical to life in sub-Saharan Africa. The team is now piloting the platform with the East Africa Exchange, the largest regional commodity exchange in East Africa. Its goal is to connect the owners of small farms to agricultural and financial markets.

The Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize is sponsored by Rabobank and supported by Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab and the MIT Food and Agriculture Club.

Learn more about the Rabobank-MIT Food & Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

Read a related story in MIT News.

AI: The quiet revolution

Increasingly artificial intelligence drives every tool and every service we encounter in our daily lives. Leaders who don’t fully appreciate how to harness its value are not tapping the full potential of their organizations. But AI also has its limitations. The phrase Moravec’s Paradox was coined in the 1980s by artificial intelligence pioneers Rodney Brooks and Marvin Minsky of MIT and Hans Moravec of Stanford to capture the irony of AI—it’s as clueless, in some ways, as it is brilliant.

Computers can out-think most adults at playing chess, but ask it to join you at the dinner table, and it will be flummoxed. A toddler, on the other hand, would simply pull out a chair and sit down. High-level reasoning requires only basic computation from robots, but low-level sensory motor skills demand extraordinarily complex computational resources that robots have yet to master. So the moral of the story is know what to expect from AI. Its benefits are remarkable when it comes to mining and manipulating data, but it can’t perform simple tasks that require deft movement, intuition, or empathy.

(Image: SMART’s self-driving golf carts)

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A Spinout with Olympic Impact

When the International Olympic Committee settled on Vancouver for the 2010 games, Bruce Dewar, MOT ’92, wanted to make sure the region could survive it. Host cities have suffered devastating economic fallout, and Dewar was determined that the Vancouver Games would give back to the community as much as it reaped.

As CEO of 2010 Legacies Now, he developed and supported projects to help British Columbia leverage the games to strengthen local communities—an effort that the International Olympic Committee has lauded as best practice. Today, seven years after the event, Dewar is still tapping the impact of the Games. In 2011 he launched a venture philanthropy organization called LIFT Philanthropy Partners that grew out of the new enterprise climate generated by the Olympic Games.

LIFT invests in building the capacity, sustainability, and impact of charities, nonprofits, and social enterprises working to remove barriers to health, education, and employment for vulnerable Canadians. Dewar, who is president and CEO, says that LIFT is improving the fabric of society. “We’re building self-sufficiency. We’re building confidence. We’re building support networks.”

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“Speed-dating” for job hunters reinvents the search

Fremont-Smith It’s called Happie, and even before reaching its one-year anniversary, the pioneering job search startup has earned a right to the name. Happie leverages digital matchmaking innovations to connect job hunters with employers more speedily and productively than conventional online systems. Founder and CEO Jennifer Fremont-Smith, SF ’10, calls it “speed-dating for job hunters,” and her inventive model has caught on quickly. Already, more than 300 employers are working with the site, and the number of Happie job seekers has climbed into the thousands.

Fremont-Smith’s premise was this: prospective employers and employees today feel very much at home in the digital environment. “It’s where they bank, communicate with friends and family, and access their entertainment,” Fremont-Smith notes. “They’re also used to posting selfies and videos, so creating an arena where job hunters and providers can meet and chat via video falls well within the contemporary comfort zone. And in the potentially stressful job search realm, those familiar tools make for a welcoming experience.”

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Building better buildings with digital tools

Picture1Ingenious apps are exploding on the marketplace daily, but they have little worth if the people they’re designed for have no interest in using them. Keiko Miyazaki, SF ’14, head of global strategy and marketing for PanaHome Asia Pacific, Panasonic’s real estate arm, says the construction industry is a case in point.

Not everyone is comfortable living and working in digital environments, Miyazaki points out, and professionals in the construction industry, as a group, tend to be more resistant than most. Based in forward-focused Singapore, PanaHome is expanding across Asia into Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where builders and contractors are more deeply entrenched in traditional methods.

Miyazaki entered the building industry two years ago motivated to help advance it into its digital future, one of Panasonic’s key goals. She says the industry naturally lends itself to digital tools and that those tools have the power to increase creativity, efficiency, productivity, and sustainability. She gives as an example apps that aim to produce a sort of virtual construction site, digitizing all aspects of a building project in one central cloud-based database, making it easy to monitor individual—as well as intersecting—aspects of a project as it progresses.

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