Evidence and Ideas for Change Why we need more empowered institutions
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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Theoretical neuroscientist and serial entrepreneur Vivienne Ming’s provocative comments at our Next50 forum in May created quite a buzz, so we invited her back this month for a live taping with our Critical Value podcast team. You can listen to the episode here. In it, she argues for new kinds of empowered institutions that help protect society and advance social good in an era where few can keep up with technological change. In our Next50 (PDF), the Urban Institute, with our sophisticated analytic capacity and social commitments, can be one such empowered institution.

A little background on Vivienne, in case you’re unfamiliar with her: She’s the founder of Socos Labs, an independent think tank that combines neuroscience, machine learning, behavioral economics, and more to impact global policy and explore the future of human potential. She speaks frequently on artificial intelligence (AI)—as she did with us—specifically, her AI-driven research into inclusion and gender in business.

As Vivienne said in her interview with podcast host Justin Milner, AI isn’t perfect; it can lead to problematic outcomes and deepen systemic biases. Its decisionmaking power relies on looking at massive amounts of historical data and identifying patterns. And when those data reflect societal biases, the algorithms can perpetuate and harden inequities.

For this reason, Vivienne argues that although AI can play a role in helping governments model and design new policy, this technology should not be making the decisions. Instead, a diversity of empowered institutions with experts who get AI and can unpack its potential and shine a spotlight on its perils become essential.

For the past few years, Urban has been developing our capacity to be just that—an empowered data intermediary that is rapidly learning to unpack how predictive analytics are shaping society. Under the leadership of Khuloud Odeh, our vice president for technology and data science, and our chief data scientist, Graham MacDonald, we’re continuously deepening our use of new technologies like big data systems and cloud computing to democratize data and improve our research. We’re designing tools that identify bias in data, which can help reduce discrimination in policy decisions and support advocates and community groups in holding their leaders accountable. And we’re increasingly providing companies, governments, and others with guidance on what data to share and when, to best serve the public’s interest.

As advancements in technology transform how we live and work, we are giving more organizations windows into our worlds, and they're collecting data about every aspect of our lives. This is precious information that can be harnessed for good—to advance equity and expand opportunities—or to do harm. As we look to the future, it’s critical that we support and empower more institutions—and people—to understand and ensure we use AI and other technologies in ways that protect our values and advance opportunity for all.

I’m interested in hearing more from you on this topic. How are you and your organizations embracing new technologies to advance your mission?

The micromortgage solution wins. Urban research analyst Sarah Strochak was a winner in the Reconstruct Challenge, a national competition sponsored by Louisville-based Access Ventures, which identifies and funds innovations to make equitable housing more accessible. Sarah and Urban’s Housing Finance Policy Center and its partners won a $300,000 grant to pilot a new micromortgage product that streamlines fees and costs, simplifies processes, and allows for affordable home purchases for families with low and middle incomes. Sarah—one of our many young entrepreneurs at Urban—pitched our micromortgage idea at the competition and was one of six selected winners. Now Urban will engage in an 18-month proof-of-concept phase, where we’ll test our solution in the Louisville and southern Indiana regions.