NAE regional meeting

Thursday, April 14, 2016

As prepared for delivery                                                      

Good afternoon! I am delighted to join Dean Waitz in welcoming you to this afternoon’s program.

It is our privilege to host this regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering. I want to thank President Dan Mote and Executive Director Al Romig for engaging MIT in the process, and for their ongoing leadership of the NAE.

By keeping the profession focused on the 14 “Grand Challenges,” the NAE has It is especially significant that the NAE focuses so intensely on engineering education. From the Vest Scholars to the Grand Challenge Scholars, you are making sure that the next generation of engineers approach their careers with a global outlook, a passion for advancing discovery science and interdisciplinary research, an entrepreneurial skill set, and an instinct to serve humankind. That is how engineers will change the world!

I also want to express my gratitude to MIT Dean of Engineering, Ian Waitz, for the energy, creativity and vision he brings to the Deanship, and for arranging the wonderful faculty presentations coming up this afternoon.

I want to share one observation that I hope will frame these talks in terms of what we are trying to do at MIT overall.

Like many of the nation’s great engineering institutions, MIT came to life in the middle of the 19th century. The Institute was founded to support and accelerate America’s industrial revolution – and it did! 

Today, in a very different time, we are reimagining the best ways for MIT to serve humanity now – in the US and around the world.In effect, we are trying to answer this question: In the 21st century, what should be the role of a research university to do the most good for society in the future?

A little context: The Western idea of a university is more than 1,000 years old. For centuries, universities were focused on preserving knowledge and educating more scholars. In effect, they were about self-perpetuation. But over the past few centuries, that has gradually changed. Now, the modern research university is mostly about advancing knowledge and educating a wide range of students to play active roles out in the world.

MIT does those things, too. They are at the top of our mission statement.

And I have come to believe that this is the heart of what today’s research universities need to do, and to be. Beyond advancing knowledge and educating students, universities also need to see themselves as leaders in solving problems, to make a better world.

(Now, I admit that our passion for problem-solving may somehow be related to the percentage of MIT people who identify as engineers!) But I believe this interest in tackling hard, real-world problems is infectious because at MIT, it extends far beyond engineering, from biology to business; architecture to economics to education.

From our experience, I can tell you that this kind of problem-centered approach is very powerful. An institutional focus on problem solving, to make a better world has at least three immediate, and unexpected, benefits:

First is in the classroom. When you frame the curriculum in terms of problem solving, students automatically get engaged and energized.

Second, we find that when we focus on solving big challenges, it liberates our thinking. Your first loyalty is to solving the problem – not to your discipline, or to the conventional wisdom. We are not limited by the boundaries between industry and academia. And as we drive to solve the problem, we are driven to make new tools, to seek out to new partners and to invent new technologies.

And third, when people are working together for the higher goal of making a better world, it becomes very easy to overcome cultural biases and differences. The people of MIT come from many different backgrounds. But when they work on big problems together, they naturally come to respect and rely on each other as human beings, and to put their efforts together for a common good.

In short, at MIT, we have found that by combining this focus on solving big problems for society, with our intense concentration of talent in science and engineering, we can achieve disproportionate positive impact.

MIT is applying this problem-focused approach in three areas: Education, research, and innovation.

This problem-centered approach is what inspired us to help answer the huge global need for quality education, so we joined with Harvard in creating edX, our joint, open source digital learning platform, which has now reached more than 7 million unique learners around the globe. For comparison, the global total of MIT’s living alumni is about 130,000!

Problem-centered thinking infuses our research, too. It encourages us to build radically interdisciplinary teams to take on big, looming societal challenges in areas like sustainable energy, fresh water and food, cancer, HIV, megacities, and climate change.

Many of these solutions may depend on new technologies, however, so I want to close by talking about one more area where MIT is working to solve important problems, to make a better world: Around the powerful problem-solving process of innovation itself.

Again, context: For those of you who may remember the MIT campus neighborhood from some years ago, I must tell you: Kendall Square has been transformed, and we are not done yet. Before, it was a slightly rough industrial landscape. Now, it is arguably the biotech capital of the world, not to mention a center for digital and clean energy technologies.

And it is hard to tell where MIT stops and Kendall Square begins. And reaching far beyond Kendall Square, MIT already makes a significant contribution to society as a source of innovators, and innovations.

For example, a recent study estimates that living MIT alumni have launched more than 30,000 active companies, creating 4.6 million jobs and generating roughly $1.9 trillion in annual revenue. Taken together, this “MIT Nation” is equivalent to the 10th-largest economy in the world!

So what is the problem to be solved around innovation? I believe there is a great deal we can do to help new ideas get to market faster. Our objective: to shorten the time from idea to impact. That’s important for “tangible” (non-digital) products. Why? In order to attract risk capital and reach impact. Tangible products, often based on new science, will play a vital role in solving the great challenges I mentioned earlier: energy, water, food, health, and more. But it can take a decade to develop those “new-science” ideas into market-ready products! Venture capital just will not wait that long. It takes “patient money.”

So we are exploring new ways to help companies based on new science thrive for the decade that it takes to get to market – with an idea we call “Innovation Orchards.” I believe there is a special role for universities to play in this effort.  Research universities produce new science. We educate the innovators. We are driving much of the innovation, and I believe we can and should convene the players from government, philanthropy, finance and industry, who can help these important tangible ideas succeed.

Innovation is the art of translating knowledge into prosperity and progress. And we aim to do it even faster!

I set out to share our thinking around a big question: In the 21st century, what should be the role of a research university to do the most good for society in the future? Although I have leaned heavily on examples from MIT, I hope you will understand my answer more universally. Because I truly believe that if research universities see themselves as leaders in solving society’s problems, and if we seek out partners like the NAE who share that vision, we can be a powerful force for making a better world.

Thank you.