A Big Pritzker Give Aims to Spark Social Innovation

Quick: what do crime, education, the environment, health, and poverty all have in common? And how can we make improvements in these areas that feed off of each other? The University of Chicago and the Pritzker Foundation want to find out so they can ramp up impact and break down silos in the social sector. 

With $15 million in seed funding, including a $10 million donation from the Pritzker Foundation, UChicago will house five labs collaborating to tackle some of the country's most daunting urban problems, and translating this work into new national and global practices.

Chalk up another win for the cause of social innovation, which is a rising obsession among funders these days. Not everyone is fixated on bankrolling breakthroughs to knotty domestic problems, and instead gladly keep writing checks to food banks. But a growing slice of the funding world is ready to throw millions at efforts to find new and different solutions.

Will some of this money go down the drain? You bet. That's inevitably the case with experimentation. But good work is also likely to emerge. 

In the case of the "Urban Labs," the Pritzker Foundation is looking for ways to find and spread best practices for addressing urban problems like homelessness, recidivism, environmental pollution, health care deficits, and income inequality. In a press release about the donation, Tom Pritzker, executive chairman of Hyatt Hotels Corp. and chairman and CEO of The Pritzker Organization, expressed particular interest in working with UChicago because of its reputation for amplifying social policy initiatives both in the U.S. and abroad. 

Three million dollars of the Pritzker gift will go to pilot projects carried out by community groups, nonprofits, and government agencies selected by the UChicago labs. Eligible organizations can be from the nonprofit, public and private sectors. UChicago is looking for committed partners who will work with it to test promising interventions at scale in Chicago.

Timothy Knowles, chairman of the Urban Education Institute and the John Dewey Clinical Professor in the Committee on Education, has been appointed Pritzker Director of UChicago Urban Labs. He will also co-direct the Education Lab with Jens Ludwig, the McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service Administration, Law, and Public Policy, who will continue on as director the Chicago Crime Lab as well.

UChicago's Crime Lab has already had some research findings that garnered national attention, including the finding that cognitive behavioral therapy used with at-risk young men in the "Becoming a Man" youth guidance program resulted in a 43 percent decrease in violent crimes committed by those participating. President Obama recognized this research during the launch of "My Brother's Keeper" last year.  

The Crime Lab also got accolades from Earvin "Magic" Johnson when he cited it as one of the drivers in his venture, City Youth Empowerment, LLC, making a $10 million dollar investment in spurring summer employment for youth in Chicago. 

Each of the labs will be led by a UChicago faculty member with specialized expertise in the lab's subject area. Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the Booth School of Business, will be directing the Poverty Lab.  Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor of Economics and the College and director of the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago, will direct the Energy and Environment lab. David Meltzer, professor in Medicine and chief of Hospital Medicine at the University of Chicago Medicine and director of the Center for Health and the Social Sciences, has been named director of the newly created Health Lab. 

The plan is for all five labs to be housed in the same downtown building in Chicago, with a goal of opening for business on July 1. The university is currently searching for 14,000 square feet of space for the project.