Early in the book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” the author, Yuval Noah Harari, warns that humans may be investing “too much in developing AI” mainly to satisfy immediate economic needs while providing “zero incentive” to expand human consciousness and compassion. It’s an all too familiar pattern of human progress, yet fraught with ever more serious consequences.
But smart tech, including AI and machine learning, can be used to spur ‘human goodness’ while also generating meaningful economic value. Our company, 3P Partners, Inc, a women-led, Certified B Corp, uses smart tech tools and behavioral strategy not to extract users’ attention and erode society but to imbue in users an appreciation of the true value of engagement in everyday actions that benefit society.
3P first introduced its tech-for-good platform to higher education institutions, recognizing the serious economic and social challenges many students in the U.S. face. As little as $1000 in debt can force a student to drop out of school. This impacts not just the students — a cohort of entering students who drop out can lose $3.8 Billion in lifetime income — but also their college or university which stands to lose an average of $13 Million annually due to attrition. Food insecurity and mental stress are also on the rise among university students, with a study conducted by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab revealing that 36% of university students are not getting enough to eat.
What if students could get discounts on healthy food or pay a portion of their school expenses with a ‘currency of good’ they earned for verifiable engagement in everyday behaviors that could be tracked using apps. The behaviors might include simple-to-do actions such as riding the bus, biking, taking a fitness class, recycling, completing mindfulness modules, reaching financial wellness milestones or volunteering.
This is precisely what 3P’s ‘digital good’ platform is designed to do. Available on Android and iPhone, and using a virtual currency called PIPs (for Positive Impact Point) the PIPs Rewards app provides its university customers a low-friction, high-return tool for tracking and rewarding repeat engagement in health and sustainability behaviors. The currency is backed through fees charged to customers as well as to partnering service providers — Lyft, B-cycle, Neuroflow, and others — that prefer to award PIPs to their users rather than set up their own rewards program.
Michelle Sze, a PhD candidate in physics at CU Boulder, was an early adopter, having signed on to be a beta tester of the app when it first launched in the fall of 2017. An avid PIPster, Michelle has earned over 70,000 PIPs in the months since; even learning to ride a bike, so she could earn for biking to and from school each day.
A favorite use for her PIPs has been to redeem them for credits from Flatiron Meal Plan, a prepaid dining and discount card. “You can use FMP credits almost anywhere, at least at most of the grocery stores I use,” she said. But when Michelle realized that if she accumulates enough PIPs, she could convert them into a ’PIPs for School’ grant, she stopped redeeming her points. “I’d rather save them for PIPs for School,” she said.
Michelle was the first recipient of a ‘PIPs for School’ grant, which she used to pay a portion of her final semester fees. She had saved and ultimately committed 31,500 PIPs to PIPs for School. With one PIP equaling one cent, the points she had earned making everyday health and sustainability choices were converted into a $315 grant towards her school fees. In addition, thanks to a new fund called the PIPs Education Fund, Michelle received $315 more in matching funds, for a total of $630. This may not seem like a large sum, but in Michelle’s view, it was “a great help for me in terms of paying my fees.”
Ofelia Morales, director of the CU Boulder Office of Financial Aid who worked with PIPs Rewards to create the first university PIPs for School program, believes “PIPs for School offers students an entirely new way to pay part of their tuition and fees, which we hope provides another tool to help them achieve their academic goals.”
Keeping college affordable and supporting students' sense of financial wellbeing are priorities at the university, according to Morales. “When [PIPs for School] was presented to us, it really was aligned with our strategic goals.”
PIPs is an engine fueled by the good we do each day. When institutions value good — when they invest in it — the return on their investment is tangible, not just in the form of quantifiable gains in student retention and success rates, but in progress toward campus-wide health and environmental performance goals.