Urban Labs Innovation Challenge to focus on Chicago

Although the work of UChicago Urban Labs is global, its inaugural competition for partners seeks promising ideas that can be implemented in the city of Chicago.


The Urban Labs Innovation Challenge seeks to generate evidence on what urban policy interventions work, for whom, and why. Urban Labs are seeking letters of interest from organizations or agencies with promising strategies for addressing one of the focus areas of the three newly created Urban Labs: energy and the environment, health, and poverty. The labs also welcome interventions that span multiple issues.

Chicago is the focus of the Innovation Challenge, though groups from outside the city that propose launching a program in Chicago are eligible to apply. The winning programs will be structured as a randomized controlled trial or using a similarly rigorous evaluation design. The competitive process will involve Urban Labs researchers who will draw on insights from frontier science to identify the most promising approaches for addressing key urban challenges, as well as practitioners who can help with the capacity to implement interventions at larger scale. Eligible applicants include organizations from the non-profit, public and private sectors that are committed to partnering with Urban Labs researchers to rigorously test their interventions at scale.

Initial letters of interest are due May 1, 2015, and from those, an advisory committee of civic leaders and academic experts will select a smaller group of applicants to submit full proposals by Aug. 7. The inaugural round of Innovation Challenge recipients will be announced in September, after a careful review process. One or more grantees will be chosen to receive funding of up to $1 million for up to two years. More information about the Urban Labs Innovation Challenge can be found at urbanlabs.uchicago.edu.

‘Making sure that every dollar…makes a difference’

The director of the new Poverty Lab, Prof. Marianne Bertrand, said Urban Labs and the collaborations with outside groups will provide evidence needed to solve some of the toughest problems facing cities.

“If I reflect on what the Poverty Lab and Urban Labs could achieve five years down the road, I would hope we could see an improved allocation of funding,” said Bertrand, who is the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “Urban Labs could really help us get closer to this dream of making sure that every dollar of charity, every dollar of tax money actually makes a difference.”

Applicants for the Innovation Challenge may wish to target their ideas to some of the areas of interest that the new labs have identified. For example, the Poverty Lab is seeking ways to develop parenting skills and address youth underemployment. The Energy and Environment Lab is looking for ideas to improve energy access, reduce air pollution and develop urban responses to climate change. The Health Lab hopes to develop strategies to reach homebound older patients, and to improve patients’ mental health and care for frequently hospitalized patients.

David Meltzer, director of the new Health Lab and professor in Medicine, said he is excited to bring the rigorous approach of medical science to the search for public health solutions in cities. He believes the individual Urban Labs will benefit greatly from working together.

“We know that these problems are tremendously interrelated,” said Meltzer, who is also chief of Hospital Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine and director of the Center for Health and Social Sciences. “It’s one thing to be sick. It’s a much more difficult thing to be sick and poor and in a neighborhood that’s so unsafe that people won’t come to help you. So the interactions are myriad.”

Meltzer leads the UChicago Hospitalist Project, which has identified the critical role of physician experience in improving hospital outcomes and reducing costs. He also is leading a large, randomized controlled trial with the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare, to measure the importance of patients having the same physician between hospital stays and outpatient clinics.

Taking evidence-based approach

Energy and the Environment Lab Director Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics and the College and director of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, sees the creation of Urban Labs as both a necessity and opportunity.

“We’re at a point where federal, state and local budgets are going to be tight for the foreseeable future,” Greenstone said. “The only way to figure out what works and what doesn’t is with an evidence-based approach.”

Greenstone envisions the Energy and Environment Lab addressing issues ranging from access to energy to air pollution and climate change.

“Several billion people around the world don’t have access to reliable energy,” Greenstone said. “That affects their lives. It affects children’s ability to study. It affects people’s ability to start businesses. It affects their ability to warm their homes at night.”

The potential to find new insights and solutions through the combined specialties of the five Urban Labs is especially exciting, Bertrand said.

“Better schooling experience translates to better jobs. Better health translates to better jobs,” she said. “So there’s going to be a huge amount of overlap, in terms of the outcomes of the different kinds of policy interventions we’re going to be studying.”