August 18

Elisha Clark

NexThought Monday – We’re in this Together: With the Practical Impact Alliance, MIT building broad network to support BoP enterprise development

Today, many corporations, social ventures and non-governmental organizations are exploring inclusive, market-driven models to create shared value in base of the pyramid markets. However, while the innovation necessary to make these models successful requires multidisciplinary approaches, most of it is still practiced in relative isolation.

As organizations strive to make life-enhancing products and services available to the world’s poor, they are encountering common challenges – from understanding the needs, wants and habits of resource-poor communities to managing complex logistics in remote locations with limited infrastructure. In confronting these challenges, organizations are gaining essential knowledge and experience in what it takes to be effective in these new contexts. These insights are seldom captured, however, and as a result organizations often duplicate efforts to build the capacity and knowledge necessary to accelerate progress.

In light of this reality, a question comes to mind: What if world-leading organizations teamed up, sharing their knowledge and working together to develop and scale technology and business solutions to poverty?

MIT and world-leading organizations come together

It has always been a fundamental pillar of MIT’s mission to generate, disseminate and preserve knowledge, and to work with others to bring that knowledge to bear on the world’s greatest challenges. At D-Lab, we have been working to harness the talent and ingenuity of MIT students and faculty to co-design appropriate solutions to poverty for more than a decade. With the launch of the Scale-Ups program in 2011 and the leading of two USAID Development Labs, the International Development Innovation Network and the Comprehensive Initiative for Technology Evaluation in 2013, D-Lab has cemented its position as a leader in development-focused entrepreneurship and innovation.

Through these initiatives, D-Lab has increasingly been engaging with large organizations, partnering to scale-up MIT innovations against poverty. From our place at the center of academic, industry and international development collaborations, we saw the opportunity for much greater impact if these organizations were to share and collaborate not just with MIT, but also with each other.

This February, alongside the MIT Scaling Development Ventures Conference, D-Lab hosted a workshop for representatives from 15 multinational corporations, social ventures and non-governmental organizations, the likes of which included Unilever, Danone, Vodafone and the Grameen Foundation. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the creation of a collaborative, global network of organizations actively engaged in scaling-up innovative and market-driven solutions for global poverty reduction.

The Practical Impact Alliance

The workshop participants responded enthusiastically to the proposition, and their support and continuous engagement over the following months allowed us to shape the Practical Impact Alliance (PIA). By fostering shared learning and collaborative action among a community of change-makers from within leading business, social and academic actors, PIA aims to increase, accelerate and sustain impact on global poverty.

As members of the Practical Impact Alliance, leaders from diverse organizations with aligned missions will be able to share learning, collaborate and develop best practices together. Through PIA’s activities (facilitated by D-Lab) member organizations can increase their individual and collective impact – all while leveraging and supporting the work of MIT programs focusing on global poverty alleviation.

We’re currently in the process of recruiting founding members from corporations, social ventures and NGOs for PIA’s inaugural year. Membership will bring access to a network of leaders working across industries and geographies, as well as experts at MIT and partner institutions who are actively advancing thinking in such fields as appropriate design, market and user research, technology evaluation, and developing-world business models. Find more information on membership rates and other details in our prospectus.

SDV speaker Alban Jacquin of Schneider Electric chats with conference attendees. (credit: Nancy Adams)

SDV speaker Alban Jacquin of Schneider Electric chats with conference attendees. (Credit: Nancy Adams)

What we do

The Practical Impact Alliance was conceived to foster four complementary pathways to reduce global poverty: practical innovation, shared learning, collaborative action and change inspiration. Our activities are designed to be flexible, and are focused on helping members work toward these goals in ways that suit the needs of each unique organization. PIA’s activities include:

  • Working groups: Working Groups are at the heart of the Practical Impact Alliance. Each year, PIA members will work together to determine areas of common interest or need. Working Groups formed around these chosen themes will drive the content of PIA programming throughout the year, allowing members to tailor their participation to the needs of their organization.
  • Themed workshops: Member-driven workshops at MIT or a partner site in which participants will come together to advance thinking on subjects of shared interest. Workshops will result in open-source resources for the benefit of both alliance members and the broader development community.
  • Co-design summits: Field-based seminars in which PIA members will be immersed in local markets to collaborate with community members and local innovators to co-create solutions to local issues, while gaining first-hand experience with stakeholder needs and the constrains of BoP markets.
  • Innovation challenges: Leveraging the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge platform, PIA members will be able to sponsor challenges focused on topic areas relevant to their business, allowing access to fresh, market-relevant innovations through supporting student teams.
  • Internship placements: Through PIA-facilitated internship placements, member organizations can access MIT’s exceptional student talent for focused projects, enabling organizations to augment internal resources for faster innovation and a fresh focus – all while students gain valuable experience within organizations at the forefront of social value creation.
  • Scaling Development Ventures: The annual SDV conference convenes international development and business practitioners from across industries and geographies to examine how best to bring poverty-alleviating solutions to market. In addition to regular conference programming, PIA members will have access to special workshops and networking events with conference speakers and contributors.
  • Case study development: MIT will collaborate with member organizations to harvest knowledge and experience related to market-driven poverty alleviation. MIT will distill and disseminate this knowledge through published case studies, allowing organizations to magnify their impact through shared learning.

With recruitment under way, we are looking ahead with excitement to PIA’s first year of action. We’ll be kicking off 2015 by combining our first co-design summit with a launch event for our founding members in Africa (a location is still to be determined). Here, members will get to know each other’s interests and goals, and will form the working groups of the first cohort. Alongside these formative activities, members will immerse themselves in the local context, work-shopping real-world projects with each other and with members of the local community. In April, the third annual Scaling Development Ventures conference will integrate directly with the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge for the first time, giving members the opportunity to convene their working groups at MIT, participate in a showcase of student innovation and access the world-leading experts represented in SDV’s speakers and participants.

That’s just the beginning. The founding members will help to lay the foundation for the Practical Impact Alliance. They will shape the initiative and enable participants to become powerful agents of change in their organizations – all while growing the resources available for international development practitioners, business leaders and entrepreneurs working in base of the pyramid contexts worldwide. There’s still time, so please consider this your formal invitation to join us in our inaugural year, and please watch out for our upcoming website, which will be available in early September at If you think PIA membership could be right for your organization, you can download the prospectus or contact me at

We’re excited for what 2015 will bring and what we can create together.

Elisha Clark is Partnership Coordinator, Scale-Ups at MIT’s D-Lab.