We are an innovation lab for social change.

Driven by curiosity, unfettered by orthodoxy, and grounded in the sciences of human behavior, we’re investigating bold new ways to tackle the world’s biggest problems.

Criminal justice reform

The US criminal justice system suffers from over-incarceration, hurting individuals and communities. While a growing number of jurisdictions are turning to electronic monitoring to reduce overcrowding in prisons, this new system often unfairly financially burdens participants and restricts their movement, preventing full participation in the economy and community.

We believe the smart use of monitoring technology can be the most transformative innovation in criminal justice in our lifetimes. We are working with a large municipality to revolutionize their electronic monitoring program, using state-of-the-art data science techniques to enhance public safety while minimizing the program’s financial and social impact on participants. Our long-term goal is for electronic monitoring programs to allow participants to remain integrated and productive members of society.

Other work in this area includes:

  • Monitoring and reducing unjustified use-of-force by the police
  • Developing a safe and anonymous platform to report unlawful gun possession and use
K-12 education

Today we force our students to learn rote mathematical formulae and methods they will never need, while ignoring opportunities to improve data literacy and critical thinking skills.

In partnership with Blueprint Schools Network and Schmidt Futures, we are identifying ways to reimagine K-12 math education in both the delivery of instruction and the content we teach. (Listen to the Freakonomics Radio episode on our work preparing young people for an increasingly data-informed world.)

For about two-thirds of Americans, school does not end with K-12. We partner with a major nonprofit to apply insights from big data to the way students find and apply to colleges. And we work with a tech company to disrupt the status quo in higher ed with a set of rigorous but accessible certificate programs that replace the four-year degree with a drastically more affordable alternative.

Mental health & well-being

We are in the midst of a mental health crisis, with steadily climbing rates of suicide, anxiety, and depression, particularly among young people.

We investigate the most salient issues facing the world today: How do we alleviate loneliness during a time of social distancing? How do we leverage the wide reach of social media to establish peer-to-peer connection and mentorship? How do we integrate mental health services into municipal crisis response services? How do we harness the rich biometric data collected by wearable technologies to better understand the connection between mental health and physical health?

We know that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed to truly unlock new insights to these questions. We have established relationships with cutting-edge technology companies, governments, academics, nonprofits, and even celebrities as our advisors. Together, we ideate on radical solutions, develop experiments and prototypes, and scale up existing solutions.

Global Development

Despite the progress made since the First United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (1997-2006), its namesake goal has not been achieved. At RISC, we bring behavioral economics to the world of international development to drive individual behavior change and bottom-up economic prosperity.

We’ve partnered with an NGO focused on technological innovation to improve food security and financial security for smallholder farmers in Eastern Africa through the distribution of disruptive agricultural technology, as well as to expand access to medical care in South Asia.

In partnership with other global NGOs, we have also researched efficient school investments to enhance student outcomes in Uganda. As data collection is key to understanding which investments work, we further work to expand testing and measurement in these schools.

Climate change & environmental protection

Climate change poses imminent environmental, economic, and social threats to our world. Yet, national and international policy are making little headway in stemming the flood of greenhouse gas emissions and toxic pollution.

We are in search of high-impact and cost-effective solutions to reduce emissions, with a focus on using creative incentive structures to mitigate concentrated pollution sources. We see substantial opportunity to mobilize the private sector—responsible for most emissions—to develop new cross-sector partnerships. And as the clock ticks on mitigation, we are preemptively exploring ‘Plan B’ options or ‘insurance policies’ to mitigate the worst impacts of a warming world.

Other work in this area includes:

  • Negative emissions research, policy, and governance
  • Minimizing the carbon intensity of the agriculture sector
Human & animal health

A 21st-century pursuit of health necessitates an integrated approach in research and a commitment to radical thinking.

We advise global health NGOs on the design of behavior change campaigns that make effective use of social media to drive measurable health outcomes; we partner with a large nonprofit to optimize their organizational capacity and ability to connect minority populations with life-saving treatments; and we work with Sendhil Mullainathan’s Nightingale Project to establish a system through which medical research benefits from open source medical records.

To improve animal welfare, we are exploring a range of interventions in industrial agriculture—from marketing campaigns to financial innovations—that can make life better for all species.

Social media for social good

Social media has made headlines for a whole slew of societal ills — exacerbating depression and loneliness among young people, polarizing nations through its echo chambers, allowing peddlers of dangerous misinformation to find new audiences… and yet, it has also allowed the underrepresented to have a powerful digital voice, brought strangers together in communities old and new, and powered social movements across the globe. Social media in one form or another is here to stay — how can we design it to mitigate its harms and help it bring out the best in humanity?

We work with leading social media platforms and academic experts to examine and recontextualize their existing issues, use existing features in new ways that leverage social media’s wide reach to be a force for good, and design new features that nudge users to engage productively and healthily online.

& more...

Our work is not limited to areas listed here—we welcome any and all big ideas and seek opportunities to collaborate. Feel free to submit a proposal to our ideas forum or reach out to us through our contact form.

What we do

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About Us

At the Center for RISC, our mission is to generate breakthrough solutions to the world’s most difficult social problems.

The Center for RISC is the brainchild of Steven Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics. We are not an academic group or research lab. Instead, we investigate today’s social issues by combining unconventional perspectives with empirical data, generating radical solutions with real-world relevance. We then test and scale those solutions through a mix of partnerships with academics, nonprofits, government agencies, international organizations, and private corporations.