Solve at MIT – Plenary opening

Monday, May 8, 2017

As prepared for delivery


Good afternoon!  It is with great pleasure that I welcome you all to Solve at MIT!


Thank you so much for joining us!


Together, the people in this room represent an impressive cross-section of human creativity: Scientists and technologists. Students and faculty. Business leaders and policymakers. Artists, musicians and social entrepreneurs.


What unites this diverse group is a shared passion for working with others, and applying our creativity, to make a better world. And that is the great work we come together to tackle today. Let me begin with some important thank-yous, to the many, many people who have helped Solve come to life:


First, our gratitude to the participants in this opening session: Moderator Ina Fried and panelists Ash Carter, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Erik Brynjolfsson and Yo-Yo Ma. Thanks also to Solve’s generous supporters Atlassian Foundation, X and the Inter-American Development Bank.


We are also grateful to the many brilliant MIT faculty who have shaped and guided Solve from the beginning, and to Jason Pontin and the team at MIT Technology Review, which has supported Solve’s incubation. I must also offer a very special thank-you to Solve’s Executive Director Alex Amouyel, and to the remarkable staff she has assembled, for putting together this week’s conference, for creating Solve events around the world and for putting Solve on a very exciting path for the future.


And finally, I want to thank the Solve community and all the Solvers – as well as all applicants to Solve – for their commitment to addressing some of society’s most pressing challenges. Please join me in offering our thanks and congratulations to everyone involved.


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We come together at a complicated moment in the world – a time of significant uncertainty. 


As we all know, humanity is confronting some tremendous challenges: How to feed the coming human population of 9 billion, on a planet that is not growing any larger. How to repair the lives of the 60 million human beings who struggle today as refugees, or make headway against chronic diseases, or take effective action against climate change, or help make sure that technology continues to create more opportunity than it destroys.


At the same time, this is a moment when many longstanding assumptions have been turned upside down, in the US and many nations around the globe. In many places, voters are redefining traditional parties. Countries are reconsidering their relationships.  Societies are questioning their ideals. And institutions are re-evaluating their missions.


In effect, just as humanity faces so many serious – and truly global – challenges, the mechanisms and institutions we count on to solve those problems are having serious problems, themselves!


I take all that to mean that we could not be here – ready to Solve! – at a more important time. And as I look out on the world, I am more certain than ever of the power and significance of the collaborative, problem-solving, global platform we call Solve.


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In the two-and-a-half years since we first announced Solve, it has evolved in important ways. As many of you know first-hand, since then, Solve has launched specific actionable challenges, around refugee education, carbon contributions, chronic diseases and inclusive innovation. In this first cycle, Solve attracted more than 400 proposed solutions, from 57 countries.


·      More than 30 judges selected finalists to come to Solve at the United Nations in March, which brought us our first cohort of 29 Solver teams.


·      Over the next two days, the Solve community will have the opportunity to meet and make connections with these Solvers. We hope you will leave inspired to help them – and full of new ideas of your own.


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Let me explain our motivation in creating Solve.  It’s pretty simple:

At MIT, we want to do good for the world. It’s right there in our mission statement: Advance knowledge…educate students…and bring knowledge to bear on the world's great challenges – for the betterment of humankind.


That is a powerful reason to get out of bed every morning!  But at a time of such serious global challenges, it is also a responsibility that keeps us up at night.


On our campus, that mission has created a deep culture of real-world problem solving and a pervasive commitment to serve society. And yet we know very well that MIT is not the only place with such a skilled and gifted community of problem solvers who want to do good. And we understand – with the greatest humility – that even the most brilliant technologists and scientists cannot make progress against the most serious global challenges alone.


In fact, we recognize that many of the really big problems for our planet are global – and that most of them will require a combination of solutions that are local.


So, for us at MIT, the conclusion was obvious: We must keep pushing forward in our own research, education and innovation. But we must also reach out in new ways. We must connect with new partners, with people who share our passion and drive to do good for the world. Everybody – everybody – should have a place at the problem-solving table!


And this is where YOU come in! Our dream for Solve is simple, too: to link together and cultivate a global “community of solvers.” Because if we combine our strength, and inspire one another, all of us can accomplish together far more than each of us could accomplish alone.


With Solve, we want to accelerate positive change by uniting this group of highly motivated, globally connected movers and shakers, thinkers, and doers; by focusing deeply on the most effective ways to bring science, technology and policy to bear on the world's great challenges – and by getting to work!


And for those of you who are not directly part of the official Solve community, please know that there are many ways for you to get involved too. You can support our Solvers by mentoring them, or volunteering your time to help, or connecting them to other people who may have resources to help them succeed. You can submit a solution to the next cycle of Solve challenges yourself – which, incidentally, opens today! You can participate in Solve-a-thons over the next few months. And you can volunteer to support the Solve team – there is an internship program for students, and Solve is also looking for screeners and mentors for its challenges. I encourage all of you who are interested to find ways to be part of the work of this community – a wonderful new force for good in the world.


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Just one more thought. This is something I have observed in more than 30 years of watching our students and faculty – a dynamic that I am certain you have seen in your own organizations:


MIT is a mosaic, a fantastic intermingling of people, disciplines, ideas and cultures from every corner of the world. It is also a place where people have been known to have strong points of view! That variety, combined with that intensity, could be a recipe for conflict, or even gridlock.


But here is the beautiful thing I have witnessed, over and over: When we get very different people focused together on solving very hard, meaningful problems, whatever differences that exist at the beginning, disappear, and people achieve amazing things.


I hope and trust that, in that same spirit, the Solve community can work together over time to drive positive change. If we accomplish that, I believe we could offer an encouraging example, to individuals and institutions around the world, that this is one great way to get difficult things done.


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Let me close by turning our attention where it most belongs: On our Solvers.


These brilliant innovators – and the bright sparks of their ideas – are the light that inspires us in a troubled time.


We will hear from one of them – Hila Azadzoy – in a few minutes. And they will all have a chance to share their stories and their solutions this week. I hope many of you will get to know them!


But for now, I would like to invite on the stage a representative of each of our 29 Solver teams, so we can recognize and thank them here today.

Let's join together in celebrating these inspired problem-solvers – and then join together in delivering their best solutions to the world!