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Bold innovations were on full display at the Polis Innovation Accelerator’s inaugural Policy Pitch Competition.

Three student groups competed for the top prize during the Zoom event, which included an all-star panel of judges, performances from the Duke Pitchforks, and appearances by the Duke Cheerleaders and Blue Devil mascot.

4 people, standing far apart, wearing masks
Winning team The Standard, made up of Taalin RaoShah PPS’23, Sagar Shah PPS’22. Sasha Gerber PPS’24 and Maya Miller PPS’22.  Their proposal, under the science and technology category, focused on clean energy, producing jobs, and reducing emissions.

The lively night culminated in The Standard winning the inaugural competition and securing an Audience Choice Award for their policy pitch centered around North Carolina’s energy system.

The competition was open to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Teams, which could be made up of two to four people, were tasked with developing innovative policy solutions to an issue in science and technology policy, COVID-19 and public health, racial justice, or voting.

An initial round of judging whittled the field down to seven semi-finalists. The semi-finalists were assigned mentors to help sharpen their policy ideas. The use of Sanford’s extensive alumni network to assist participants with the competition was an innovation of the planning team.

After another round of judging, three finalists were picked: The Urbanists, The Standard and Policy Plant Power.

The final groups were judged for the last time on their policy pitches by a new expert panel of judges. The teams could score a maximum of 180 points — 100 points for their written paper, 50 points for their presentation to the judging panel, and 30 points for the Q&A with the panel at the live event.

The following served on the final round judging panel:

  • Joyce Brayboy PPS ’85, managing director in the Office of Government Affairs at Goldman Sachs
  • Dominique Moore MPP ’19, Deloitte Greenhouse Presidential Transition Fellow
  • Sam Walker PPS ’80, interim executive director at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System
  • Minh-Thu Pham, co-founder of New American Voices and senior advisor at Connect Frontier
  • Patrick Steel, CEO of POLITICO

The live event saw each team give a short presentation of their projects, as well as complete the Q&A portion with the judging panel.

Prior to the that, the expert judges offered some advice to the groups on what makes a great policy pitch.

“Try to take into consideration the pros and cons of each side of the argument,” Brayboy said. “Overall, is it something that can be accomplished?”

“Relax, quiet your minds, connect your thoughts, and connect to people’s minds,” Walker said.

3 people on zoom
The Urbanists Team

First up was The Urbanists, made up of Lindsay Hu E’23, Zoe Macomber T’24, and Ayda Lee T’23. Their pitch centered on racial justice.

The Urbanists want to counteract the low stock of affordable housing in Durham by constructing prefabricated accessory dwelling units. These “ADUs” are independent spaces that often function as a standalone mother-in-law suite. Parts are premade in a factory and the ADU is constructed on-site, which is much cheaper than traditional builds. Property owners would offer space for these ADUs to be built in east or south Durham, and the Durham Housing Authority would be a key partner in offering financing and connecting tenants to the project.

After the short presentation, the judges started the Q&A period.

Brayboy asked about incentives for the property owners to be involved in this program.

The team answered that economic downturn brought on by COVID-19 has many people looking for any extra income. Since some of the rental income would go to the property owner, and the ADUs could be financed by outside partners, The Urbanists believe their solution will entice many property owners.

Next up was The Standard, made up of Sasha Gerber PPS’24, Maya Miller PPS’22, Taalin RaoShah PPS’23, and Sagar Shah PPS’22. Their proposal, under the science and technology category, focused on clean energy, producing jobs, and reducing emissions.

The Standard’s solution centered around North Carolina adopting a clean energy standard that would require utilities to use a certain amount of energy that doesn’t produce carbon. The team indicated that a change in direction was needed for North Carolina’s energy portfolio as the state is not on-track to meet clean energy goals. The team claimed that the economic growth created from their solution would be around $3 billion, with approximately 37,000 jobs created. The plan would incorporate nuclear energy, large hydropower, and natural gas with carbon capture. The team touted the plan’s bipartisan appeal and feasibility, along with its alignment with Duke Energy’s market guiding principles.

In the Q&A portion, Moore asked the team about the numbers they cited on job losses and gains under their plan — while The Standard estimates their plan will create 37,000 jobs, more than 300,000 North Carolinians lost their jobs in the pandemic.

The team responded that a Nichols School report on popular energy solutions found their plan had the highest marks across the board, include very high marks for economic development.

Four students with trees, and nature
Team Policy Plant Power

Last to go was Policy Plant Power, made up of Aaron Dickinson MPP’22, Kelly Jasiura MPP’22, Catherine Otero MPP/MEM’23, and Kelly Shen MPP’22. Their proposal centered on racial justice.

Policy Plant Power wants to counteract the growing effects of climate change on minority and low-funded communities by installing more shaded pathways in neighborhoods. Because of the racist history of redlining, many minority communities have much less shaded areas than other communities. With this history of inequitable planning comes the present moment of pressing climate change. The plan’s benefits include improving human health, mitigating heat effects, improving air quality and helping with flooding. The team sees this as a bipartisan solution with possible partners including environmental advocates, medical professionals and politicians looking for achievable climate policy. It also sees potential in that most cities already have urban forestry departments that can assist with upkeep.

During Q&A, Brayboy asked about gentrification concerns.

The team acknowledged this possible effect but think cities and towns can manage it with community partnerships and installing policies to counteract increased housing costs due to improved greenery.

While the judges broke away to deliberate, audience members were treated with tunes from the Duke Pitchforks, including an especially catchy acapella cover of Sunflower by Post Malone and Swae Lee. The competitors also received support from the Duke cheerleaders and the Blue Devils mascot.

The Audience Choice Award was open to all seven semifinalists. Members of the Duke community and public were encouraged to vote online for their favorite policy pitch.

5 people on zoom, cheering and smiling
Team The Standard cheering their win

The Standard and RMV 4 RCV both won the choice award, taking home $50 each and gift cards to the Duke bookstore.

RMV 4 RCV was made up of Nicole Rosenzweig PPS’24, Darshan Vijaykumar PPS’24, Jacob Rosenzweig, and Amiya Mehrotra. Their project under the voting category advocated for North Carolina to adopt rank choice voting.

After the Audience Choice Award winners were named, the judges tallied up their scores, and emcee Marayna Martinez, a Sanford PhD fellow at Polis, was ready to announce the winners.

Ultimately The Standard indeed set the standard, winning first place in the inaugural competition. Each team member received $1,000 for the inaugural win. Team Plant Power was awarded second place, with The Urbanists capturing third. Those team members received $500 and $250, respectively.

The Standard was noticeably excited about the win. In their final comments of the night, the team touted their pitch’s feasibility.

“You can have great ideas in this world but if they can’t become law or impact people what is the point?” said Shah. “We can make an impact through real legislation that can become law.”