We ended 2019 with lighter hearts, dreaming of the best hindsight/vision 2020 puns to come in the new year. It was a year for the history books, just not the way we hoped. We end this year on a different note, cautiously optimistic about the future, while preparing to meet the long winter ahead here in the U.S. 

Still, reflecting at the year’s end is an ingrained ritual. It’s important to take a look back and see what we learned and what we were able to accomplish, despite the circumstances. As our yearly tradition, we asked our team to look back at all the stories from 2020 and to nominate their favorites. (You can also see the top stories from 2019, 2018 and 2017). 

Here are the top five picks with a few freebies. Stay safe!

To Improve Learning, Invite Friendly Criticism by Varja Lipovsek. It might be easy to give honest feedback to someone you’ll never work with again, but how do you give feedback when you want to actually maintain and strengthen the relationship? That’s advice that’s applicable to all people, no matter where you work or what your organization is like. Learning from failure is a sign that our team is on track —trying to tackle issues that help everyone in their working relationships and professional life, not just academic-practitioner relationships. And it encourages honesty and straight talk when sometimes that can be extremely challenging for all of us. 

How Door-to-Door Canvassing Slowed an Epidemic by Peter Dizikes for MIT News. This piece highlights MIT GOV/LAB Faculty Director Lily Tsai’s research into how government outreach helped limit the spread of Ebola in Liberia. Published weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic started to spread across the U.S., the article talks about how community volunteers combated misinformation and encouraged people to take precautions. Building trust is critical! For more on translating lessons from our Ebola research to Covid-19, check out features in Forbes, Psychology Today, and a podcast, all of which informed our current work on the pandemic highlighted in Science and MIT News.

The Promise of Using WhatsApp for Low-Tech Distance Learning by Alisa Zomer for MIT News. This research turned out to be surprisingly prescient, since we’re now all looking for effective ways to learn and collaborate remotely. Is there a way to make online classes possible and valuable to all students in the future? And could WhatsApp actually be a tool for that? This research collaboration with Grassroot in South Africa really tried to meet people where they are and tackle a big problem that’s relevant worldwide, no matter what the subject matter is.

Taking Behavioral Science to the Field in Kenya by Alisa Zomer, Kelly Zhang, and Chaning Jang for WZB Magazine. This piece reminds us of “normal” time when we were able to dream big and actually travel. Partnering with Busara, we created and executed a one-month course on designing behavioral science games to study how people make decisions. The course combined different disciplines, methods, and a full research design cycle in an intensive cross-cultural exchange between U.S. and East African scholars. The pandemic put data collection on hold, but we are really excited about this model in the future. 

Action Plan to Support Anti-Racism and Black Lives —A Start by MIT GOV/LAB. Talk is cheap and our action plan tries to set out a vision and process to hold ourselves accountable to our commitment to anti-racism, by investing the time and resources to make it happen. We are the first to admit that we don’t really know how to address something as big as systemic racism, but we’re taking it one step at a time, starting with educating ourselves.