Carnegie Mellon University

Seeding Societal Futures

What do we mean when we talk about innovation?

At a future-oriented, entrepreneurially-inclined research university like Carnegie Mellon, "innovation" is a common refrain, part of the very fabric of the place. But innovation should not happen for its own sake. It is vitally important to also ask questions regarding why an innovation is necessary, how it is developed and deployed, and who benefits from it.

The Block Center’s "Seeding Societal Futures" initiative examines the many ways that technology will reshape society in the coming years and seeks to support innovations that are inclusive in their design, ethical in their implementation, and effective in their ability to positively impact society in an age of rapid technological change.

To give one example, Heinz College alumna Leah Lizarondo has founded a nonprofit, 412 Food Rescue, that is driven to eradicate food waste while simultaneously combating the problem of food insecurity in low-income communities. To date, Leah’s organization has saved over 3 million pounds of food from entering landfills through an ingenious combination of technology, analytics, and the energy of thousands of passionate volunteers. 412 Food Rescue is perfectly emblematic of the kind of sustainable, scalable, and conscientious innovation that the Block Center will champion, and you can read more about them below.

Why is this important to us? Because at the Block Center, we are dedicated to leveraging our key strengths in technology, analytics, and policy to promote innovations that make the world not just more efficient, but kinder, more humane, and more inclusive. We firmly believe that these end goals are not mutually exclusive.

Technology and Community Projects

The Block Center has developed a new branch of work within its “seeding societal futures” portfolio that connects the Center and CMU students with community-based, equity, technology & economic development projects.

The goal of this line of work is to:

  • Develop a series of pilot projects with Pittsburgh partners that, if successful, can be scaled to other cities and states;
  • Establish the Block Center as both a trusted community partner a national thought leader within innovation and entrepreneurship policy;
  • Serve as a ‘training ground’ for students to begin a career in high-impact, technology-based economic development.

Current projects include:

AssetMappr: Building the Case for Informed Community Investments: Rick Stafford

This project will receive funding to develop a web-based tool to address the shortcomings of current practices in community asset mapping, which will be piloted in multiple municipalities in the region. This project is directly aimed at improving communities, particularly those in some distress, to seed their futures by enabling them to compete for government funding and private investments.

Jobs in an Appalachian Clean Energy Transition: A Regional Skills-Matching: Rick Stafford and Valerie Karplus

This team will develop an integrated research effort to characterize job opportunities in a regional transition to clean energy, with a focus on mapping the skill sets of today’s underemployed and vulnerable populations to employment opportunities in a decarbonizing regional economy. Focusing on ten counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, they will perform this mapping under scenarios that assume growth in different activities in a clean energy economy.


Leah Lizarondo

“Throughout the world, 40 percent of our food gets wasted, while one [person] in seven goes hungry.” 

Leah Lizarondo (HNZ ’03) was driven by this egregious statistic to co-found 412 Food Rescue, where she also serves as CEO.

The first full-time program of its kind in Pittsburgh, 412 Food Rescue works with food providers such as retailers, wholesalers, caterers, and even university dining services to recover food that is healthy and edible but that can no longer be sold. Once the food is collected, it is directly distributed to nonprofit and community organizations throughout Allegheny County in order to best serve individuals who are food insecure.

Part of what makes this possible is 412 Food Rescue’s innovative use of technology. Their mobile app, Food Rescue Hero, is a tool to organize volunteers and is the first phase of a full technology platform for food recovery. Volunteers are able to self-select rescues based on their own availability—the organization uses Food Rescue Hero and social media to alert volunteers of rescues based on their time preferences and location—and in many cases a delivery only takes between 30-60 minutes to complete.

In addition to rescuing over 6 million pounds of surplus food in Pittsburgh, Lizarondo has created a new standard for food rescue volunteerism. Her innovative Food Rescue model has been extended to other cities in the United States, including Philadelphia, Cleveland and San Francisco. 

In 2018, Lizarondo was named the Block Center's Entrepreneur-in-Residence. In 2019, she was recognized by the United Nations as a 2019 WE Empower Awardee for her work towards accomplishing the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

[Read the full story]

Can ridesharing help get the disadvantaged moving?

Citizens with lower levels of education and skill often confront challenges when seeking employment. The jobs best suited for their skills may be geographically distant from their homes, and the existing public transportation system may not provide them with an easy way of commuting to those jobsEffective cooperation between governments, regulatory authorities, and transportation networking companies could remove those barriers and make ridesharing systems available to disadvantaged citizens. 

To assess citizen response to a public ridesharing policy, the Future of Work Initiative is currently running field experiments in Pittsburgh and adjacent areas of Allegheny County.

This project is co-funded by Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

City Roads, Traffic Streaks

waynesburg_block_center.jpgCan we more evenly distribute the benefits of technological change?

With the advent of ride-hailing apps and food delivery services, American cities have unprecedented access to transportation, food and other amenities. But many of these technological advances do not extend to rural areas. Take the West Greene School District of Greene County, Pennsylvania. In this region roughly the size of Chicago, you'll find six post offices, four fire halls, just one police station, and a single medical clinic. With no public transportation, getting to a grocery store may prove difficult or even impossible without a car. If you do have a car, you may have to rely on the good graces of your neighbors if you run out of gas on the way to a grocery store  or you might not find a gas station for 20 miles.

While urban residents can acquire groceries and other resources at the touch of a button, many rural communities in the United States have not received the same benefits of technological change. 


Addressing the deeply intertwined issues of poverty and hunger in rural communities requires sensitivity to the unique features and needs of these municipalities. Through our partnership with Waynesburg University, we aim to develop technology-oriented, human-centered solutions to mitigate the complex social issues that rural America is facing today. 

Drawing from the expertise of leaders in community organizing and food recovery from both Greene and Allegheny Counties, students are using technology for good to extend the benefits of these innovations to rural communities. If done right, this work could provide Greene County Comissioners, the Greene County Food Security Partnership and the United States at large with innovative recommendations for addressing food insecurity and improving quality of life.

Educational Innovation

How can we anticipate and prepare for the societal impacts of technological change? From automation to robotics to machine learning, our rapidly-evolving technological landscape is poised to fundamentally transform our society. The solutions to larger questions surrounding the ethical implementation of artificial intelligence, the future of work and the nature of industry disruption are going to require an innovative, interdisciplinary approach. At the critical intersection of technology and society, Carnegie Mellon University is preparing the social entrepreneurs, policymakers and thought leaders of the future.

 Current Course Offerings:

  • Ethics and Policy of AI
  • AI and Public Policy
  • AI, Society and Humanity
  • Policy Innovation Lab
  • Societal Consequences of Technological Change: Education
  • Societal Consequences of Technological Change: Autonomous Vehicles