By Steve Kelman

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Civic tech internship programs wins Harvard innovation challenge

(Image by  Sky Motion/Shutterstock)

I have written a number of blog posts in the past about the amazing organization founded by Harvard undergraduates called Coding it Forward, which recruits students for summer tech internships, sponsored by participating agencies, in the federal government. The idea is to offer an untypical summer internship – Coding if Forward doesn’t allow jobs “installing SharePoint in agencies,” the typical summer tech internship in government they saw on the USAJobs website at the time. The lead founder, a graduating senior named Chris Kuang, will now be working fulltime for the organization.

Recently Harvard made an amazing announcement. This year’s “President’s Innovation Challenge,” an annual university award honoring student innovation, was given to Coding it Forward in the category of "Social Impact or Cultural Enterprise."

The President’s Innovation Challenge grows out of something called the Harvard Innovation Lab (“I lab”), established in 2011 by then-Harvard President Drew Faust. In the background was that era’s startup frenzy that took undergrads by storm -- and a worry that Harvard, which traditionally didn’t even have an undergrad engineering major, was being left in the dust by its Cambridge neighbor MIT. The move was seen as an effort by Harvard to establish a strong footprint in the startup world.

The central focus of the I lab was and is in the sweet spot of youthful entrepreneurship and startups filled with potential dollar signs -- new financial instruments or high-end services for the wealthy, and IPOs with large numbers of digits in front of them. Startups gained enormous cachet among the young by mixing being cool with being lucrative. They used the word “innovation” rather than “startup” because of a fear that otherwise the initiative would be connected too closely to the Harvard Business School, contrary to President Faust’s “One Harvard” push. (Government readers may recognize this as the environment that has made it so hard to recruit talent for public service.) The I lab offered a space where student would-be entrepreneurs could work on their ideas, as well as workshops and in-person consultation with I lab entrepreneur advisors.

At any rate, fairly early in the history of the I lab, it took a detour when in 2012 President Faust announced a Presidential Challenge on Social Entrepreneurship, to reflect a kinder, gentler face of the startup boom. This was to encourage student social enterprises, both non-profit and for profit. The initiative was housed in the I lab. Meanwhile, around the same time a number of deans established social innovation startups at their schools.

Then in 2017 the social entrepreneurship challenge morphed into the President’s Innovation Challenge, still housed in the I lab, combining the 2012 social entrepreneurship initiative and the efforts going on at various individual Harvard schools.

With the President’s Innovation Challenge, startups without the big dollar signs were granted a real place at the Harvard table. The program has five tracks; with each track's winner receiving $75,000 and a runner-up getting $25,000. (The Bertarelli Foundation funds the prizes.) This year there were about 350 applicants for prizes.

In the past, the public service track has been won by non-profit startups. The last two years prizes went to an app that helped people file for bankruptcy for free, and another to one that helped tenants complain to landlords or appeal an eviction.

This year, however, for the first time a program targeting government has won the prize in the social impact track. Indeed, there have only been two applications since the award started of student ventures, called Aegis and Neptune, in the civic tech space, both hoping to sell to the government. Ad Hoc, Nava, Skylight, Agile 6, Oddball, and Fearless, take note!

In his interview for the award, Kuang said “that government was the most effective vehicle for social change that we have in the United States and that our work with Coding it Forward is helping our public institutions fulfill their potential to serve all Americans. The coronavirus and economic crises have laid bare the need for effective public institutions and services -- evidenced in part several states' inability to keep their unemployment portals up under heavy traffic -- and also revealed how technology is and will be an increasingly crucial lever for change.”

A May awards ceremony was attended virtually by several thousand people, compared to a thousand at a formal event the previous year. The young executive director of the I lab, Matt Segneri, came dressed in “business casual sweatpants.”

Current Harvard President Larry Bacow (the first Harvard president to have graduated from the Kennedy School), stated: “Since the pandemic began, I’ve been asked one question over and over again by our students, our faculty, and our staff; by our alumni, and friends all over the world, ‘How can I help?’ It’s a question you’ve been asking since the President’s Innovation Challenge kicked off this fall, and you’ve answered it in ways that continue to inspire and uplift me … This year is far different than any of us wanted it to be, but it has underscored the power of knowledge to save lives, to save communities, and let’s face it, to save our future.”

Having helped out Kuang over the years with Coding it Forward – together with my Harvard colleague and former Deputy Federal CTO Nick Sinai – I felt real personal pride at this latest success. But most importantly, Kuang represents the insight that government still has the ability to attract some young people trying to create a better world. That is good news for government but also, during these rough times, also good news for the country. Chris – and the students they have helped recruit -- keep on working to make a difference for society.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jun 05, 2020 at 6:28 AM


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