Urban Labs initiative seeks solutions for world’s urban challenges

$10 million gift from Pritzker Foundation to support search for evidence-based policies

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago is creating a new network of five Urban Labs to address some of the world’s most daunting urban problems and help realize the promise of cities in an era of global urbanization.

UChicago Urban Labs will design and test the most promising urban policies and programs across five key areas: crime, education, energy and the environment, health, and poverty. The collaborative approach recognizes that many long-term challenges in cities are related, and require unified responses. To make an impact on the broadest scale, Urban Labs will partner with civic leaders and practitioners in Chicago and around the world.

“At a time when the world’s cities are growing more rapidly than ever before, the University has a singular opportunity to support rigorous research that tests policies and programs to improve lives—from the South Side of Chicago to urban centers around the world,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “This marks an important step in our faculty’s growing commitment to urban scholarship.”

Urban Labs will be launched with $15 million in seed funding, including a $10 million donation from the Pritzker Foundation. Building on the successful examples of the UChicago Crime Lab and Education Lab, this funding will enable the creation of three more related programs—the Health Lab, Energy and Environment Lab, and Poverty Lab. Each will be led by a distinguished UChicago faculty member. The Pritzker gift also will fund pilot projects by community groups, non-profits, or government agencies, to be selected through the Urban Labs Innovation Challenge. These projects will help propel research findings into tangible community improvements.

“The Pritzker Foundation sees philanthropic giving as an opportunity to make a difference in our community and in society. In the case of Urban Labs, we have an opportunity to do both,” said Tom Pritzker, executive chairman of Hyatt Hotels Corp. and chairman and CEO of The Pritzker Organization. “We are eager to support the next generation of policy innovations at the University of Chicago, which has an ideal combination of urban expertise and global reach.”

Combining perspectives across the five labs is crucial to addressing the big challenges that cities face, said Timothy Knowles, chairman of the Urban Education Institute and the John Dewey Clinical Professor in the Committee on Education, who has been appointed Pritzker Director of UChicago Urban Labs.

“A policy to reduce crime rates might also have a very significant impact on improving education, health, jobs, and poverty,” Knowles said. “By doing this work in a unified and collaborative way, we can understand the impact of the policies in real time and implement what we learn in cities around the country and the world.”

Each of the three new Urban Labs will be led by a faculty member who is a world leader in his or her field. Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Booth School of Business, has been named director of the Poverty Lab. The Energy and Environment Lab will be led by Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics and the College, and director of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC). David Meltzer, professor in Medicine, chief of Hospital Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine and director of the Center for Health and the Social Sciences, will be director of the newly created Health Lab. Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy in the School of Social Service Administration and Chicago Harris, will continue as director of the Crime Lab. Knowles and Ludwig will co-direct the Education Lab.

FIVE LABS, ONE APPROACH

The initiative comes at an important moment for the world’s urban areas, which are experiencing growth unprecedented in human history. About 3.9 billion people dwell in urban centers, and that number is projected to grow to 6.4 billion by 2050. Cities are engines of innovation and job creation, but they also pose complex problems that Urban Labs can help address.

Urban Labs will open new possibilities for a distinct University of Chicago approach, using scientific methods to develop effective urban policy interventions. The Crime Lab and Education Lab have shown the potential for such research to help guide evidence-based policies that enhance urban life.

“For the past few years at the Crime Lab, we’ve been working much more closely with policymakers to generate evidence that is both rigorous and relevant, and can translate very rapidly into actionable policy decisions very rapidly to address these important urban problems,” said Ludwig.

The Crime Lab has received national attention for evaluating programs shown to reduce violence and improve academic skills among young men in Chicago Public Schools. Two of the initial interventions it has tested are the Becoming a Man counseling/mentoring program developed by Youth Guidance Chicago and World Sport Chicago, and Match Education’s intensive math tutoring program. Randomized controlled trials conducted by the Crime Lab have found dramatic improvement in high school performance and reduction of arrests among students in these programs.

An evidence-based approach also can help guide urban policies globally, UChicago researchers have found. In India’s Gujarat, an urban center with a population of 60 million, Greenstone and colleagues worked with local officials to improve the environmental auditing system. Their pilot reforms reduced pollution by 28 percent and in January were officially adopted by the Gujarat government.

The Urban Labs Innovation Challenge will use the model pioneered by the Crime Lab and Education Lab and other projects throughout the university to test promising programs in each of the new labs’ topic areas. After a competitive selection process, one or more applicants will receive funding of up to $1 million for up to two years. Working with the grant recipients, Urban Labs researchers will draw on insights from frontier science to identify the most promising approaches for addressing key urban challenges, and engage practitioners who will help those organizations build the capacity to implement interventions at large scale with fidelity. Eligible applicants include organizations from the non-profit, public and private sectors that are committed to partnering with Urban Labs to test promising interventions at scale in Chicago.

Derek Douglas, vice president for Civic Engagement, finds the focus on partnerships one of the most compelling aspects of the Urban Labs initiative. “I see a tremendous amount of opportunity for partnering with organizations on the South Side, through the city of Chicago, in organizations across the country, and across the world,” said Douglas. “We can create a model for how urban research, practice, and policy can be implemented.”

Success for Urban Labs will be measured in the initiative’s positive impact on lives, Ludwig believes.

“My hope would be that in five or 10 years, Urban Labs together have identified a collection of promising policy solutions that can improve millions of people’s lives around the world,” Ludwig said.

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