When I travel, I find that people everywhere tend to think highly of MIT, but they can’t quite put their finger on what makes us different. In one sense, like any research university, MIT is an academic institution whose mission is to “advance knowledge and educate students.” What sets MIT apart, I believe, is our dedication to bringing “knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges,” and to do so for the “betterment of humankind.”
And that focus on problem-solving in service to the world has two powerful side effects that help explain the MIT difference, too. First, it liberates our thinking. We stop worrying about boundaries between disciplines and focus instead on what it takes to solve the problem: making new tools, seeking new perspectives, and inventing new solutions. MIT has a long tradition of interdisciplinary creativity, bringing together experts from a broad range of fields to tackle complex challenges from many directions. We also draw great strength from the alliances we build beyond our campus, with researchers, entrepreneurs, business executives, philanthropists, and innovators who share our passion and commitment to changing the world.
The second side effect is that when a group of people circle together around solving a hard problem, the human tendency to focus on differences in background almost disappears. Cultural biases tend to fade, replaced by aspirations that unite and inspire the whole team. When students, faculty, and postdocs work together to solve the world’s clean water problem or to figure out how to educate a billion people, they develop bonds of mutual respect and interdependence that are more profound than any formal diplomacy.
These two dynamics invigorate our community every day—and I am optimistic that, this fall, they will also energize the work of “Solve,” which Technology Review editor-in-chief and publisher Jason Pontin describes in this issue of Spectrum. In October, MIT will convene leaders from around the world to catalyze meaningful progress on tough global problems that no sector or institution can solve alone. Working within four themes—Learn, Cure, Fuel, and Make — we will use Solve to define and advance practical, actionable solutions, in the best tradition of MIT.
Working together, there is no end to the opportunities to advance and apply our knowledge for the betterment of humankind.
L. Rafael Reif