Big Ideas@Berkeley: An Ecosystem of Social Innovation

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Author:Luis Flores

BERKELEY, Calif. — Big Ideas@Berkeley held its annual award ceremony earlier this week, just as the $1 billion sale of the popular smartphone application Instagram made international headlines. “Impressive, but not that impressive,” said Prof. Ananya Roy, in response to news of the sale.

Roy, the Distinguished Chair of Global Poverty and Practice, explained that the successes of social media are to be expected in a contemporary environment that places disproportionate value on entertainment innovations.

Big Ideas Awards Ceremony“I am not saying that this type of technological innovation is easy,” said Roy. “What I am suggesting is that, as a society, we have found ways to value this kind of innovation… but we have not found a way to create an ecosystem that supports innovations that have social purpose.”

That is where the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition comes in.

“The competition is very unique and provides much more than just funds,” explained Diana Alonzo, whose team Youth Leadership Now (YLN) won the grand prize. “Big Ideas provides a support network for students who want to transform their ideas into reality.”

Beginning last September, new and expanded contest resources—such as pairing competing teams with mentors; offering weekly office hours with past contest winners; holding proposal writing workshops; and providing early feedback from judges—helped make the proposals submitted this year among the most competitive in the competition’s six-year history.

Mentors provided by Big Ideas@Berkeley are cited by many contest winners as instrumental in the drafting of a clear proposal. The mentors, who are often industry or academic experts, provided the student teams with insight on the practical steps involved in implementing their ideas, as well as logistical and business advice.

“Big Ideas gave Politify ( the time and attention that is so crucial to the early stages of ventures,” said Nikita Bierwhose team won first place in the Information Technology for Society category. The Politify website allows users to forecast the impacts of political candidates and political scenarios on their personal finances just by answering a few questions.  With the support of Big Ideas mentors and notable UC Berkeley economists, the website has the potential to increase political awareness and facilitate transparency.

Politify’s rapid growth would not have been possible without the remarkable network of policymakers and industry executives,” said Bier.
Footstep Energy, a proposal to use piezoelectric tiles to convert the energy of footsteps on heavily transited campus areas into electrical energy, benefited greatly from the expertise of their mentor.

“[My mentor] told me writing a business proposal, in a sense, is just like writing a story, a story and problem about current life and the potential of a future we can achieve,” said Katherine Yip, a sophomore student pursuing degrees in Economics and Statistics.

Similarly, the developers of Pika Pen, a winning proposal for a low-cost, sensor-rich pen that will allow children with disabilities to improve their handwriting, benefited greatly from the timelines and deadlines provided by mentors and the contest schedule.

“Since we already had huge time commitments in school, we might have let our idea slide,” explained Evan Chang-Siu, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering. “However, by providing timelines, judging criteria and, of course, financial incentive, the Big Ideas competition really helped motivate our team.”

Inspiring among a group of exceptional proposals are a few that use this model of mentorship and empowerment as an integral part of their projects. Alonzo’s YLN seeks to enable social innovation in West Oakland by connecting mentors and local youth through photography, internships, and education.

Similarly, the PiE Mentorship Program will recruit UC Berkeley students for yearlong mentorship programs with Bay Area high school students. Through valuable one-on-one interactions, PiE hopes to inspire students to pursue college degrees in science and technology.

Public research universities are especially qualified and responsible for creating alternative ecosystems that value social innovation, said Roy. With support from the Rudd Family Foundation, the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition is attempting to do just that.

The next big idea, according to Tom Kalil, founder of the competition and current Deputy Director of Policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology, is “to figure out how to get other research universities to steal this idea.”