To outsiders, MIT can appear to be a place where people are good at “getting the right answers.” But I believe a more revealing distinction is that the people of MIT have a gift for asking the right questions—and one of the ways we frame those intriguing questions, experiment with the possibilities, and arrive at compelling answers is through the process called design.

Given its deep roots in engineering and architecture, design thinking has been part of MIT from the start, and it has gained growing relevance across the Institute. Today, you will find the people of MIT “designing” across a huge range of scales, contexts, and levels of abstraction, from a molecule to a machine to a metropolis, from a new material to a nanotextured surface to a system of production.

In the last few years, we have taken steps to promote design thinking across the Institute through the lens of problem setting: a multidisciplinary strategy for asking the right questions by thinking expansively about new possibilities, examining their implications, and continuously refining them to generate new approaches.

As you will see throughout this issue of Spectrum, design has particular power in addressing questions that have no single correct answer. As Hashim Sarkis, dean of our School of Architecture and Planning, explains, by teaching students to think as designers, we deepen their capacity for judgment. Design thinking gives students a strong but flexible process for exploring, testing, and refining solutions, and for making continual judgments, often centered on the most unmanageable variable of all: human beings.

By imparting the tools, human values, and habits of mind central to the design tradition, we teach a dynamic way of inventing excellent answers. Expanding the strategies we can employ to make progress has never been more important, as we seek—together—to make a better world.


L. Rafael Reif

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