Welcoming Remarks at the Opening Convocation of Solve

Monday, October 5, 2015

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon! I am Rafael Reif, MIT’s president. And I am delighted to welcome you to the inaugural session of Solve.

We have, in the audience, a multifaceted gathering of talent, influence, aspiration and accomplishment.

  • The speakers, panelists and participants in Solve represent remarkable creativity and leadership across many fields. Some have traveled from faraway cities and organizations. Some just dropped in by subway, from other institutions in the neighborhood! Others come from the ranks of MIT’s own faculty and students.  We are thrilled to have all of you with us today.
  • We are also excited that this opening session has attracted many leaders who are interested in understanding what MIT is trying to achieve with Solve.


On that note, let me start by saying that creating and organizing this week’s programming was a serious achievement, in itself – so let me offer a few thank-yous.

  • First, I am deeply grateful to two senior MIT leaders, Provost Marty Schmidt, and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz. They were my partners from the beginning as we developed the vision for Solve, and they have guided its development every step of the way.
  • I also want to express my great admiration to the tremendous team that turned the first seeds of the Solve concept into a four-day feast of ideas and problem solving. I am referring to Jason Pontin, Chris Shipley, and the whole crew at Solve and Technology Review.
  • I also owe a debt of gratitude to the remarkable MIT faculty who curated the intellectual content of our four Solve pillars:
    • For Cure, Institute Professor Phil Sharp
    • For Make, Professor Emeritus Rod Brooks
    • For Fuel, a joint effort by Professors Angie Belcher and Bob Armstrong
    • And for Learn, another dynamic duo: Professor Eric Klopfer and the CEO of edX Anant Agarwal.

Every one of them represents the best of MIT. So I want to tell you as we start, that you are in very good hands – the very best we have!

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Let me explain what MIT is trying to achieve with Solve.

There is always risk in convening an event with this breadth, aspiration and high profile. In fact, there are people who think that this is not the kind of thing that universities should do! What’s more, the individuals I just thanked have big, serious, day jobs already, and do not need additional responsibilities.

But I asked them to take on the challenge of creating Solve for a big, simple reason:
At MIT, we want to do good for the world. It is in our mission. It is central to our culture of real-world problem solving. And back in 1980, when I first arrived as a brand-new faculty member, that pervasive commitment to serve humanity was a big part of what made me feel so attracted, attached, and identified with MIT.

And yet we know very well that MIT is not the only place with such a skill 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.

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! Not just for four days, but for four plus 354, until we come together again next year on September 26; reassess what we have done and where we are; and choose the next steps.

I am all in favor of “moving” and “shaking”!  But we are here to try to do more.
We are here to Solve.

And if together we can make real progress, that will also be an important “proof of concept”: the concept that, in the 21st century, universities have a special role, not only in educating future generations to live meaningful lives, but also as conveners, connectors and problem-solvers, in confronting humanity’s great shared global challenges.
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Let me close with 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 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.

That process of collaborating to do good for humanity is gratifying for everyone involved. And I would like to think that all of us are gathered here because every one of us recognizes that the world needs more of this kind of effort, now!
I hope and trust that this community of Solvers 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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Every spring, I have the pleasure of presiding over MIT’s Commencement ceremonies to deliver a “charge” to our graduating students. Every time, I find myself delivering a single message to them, a single dream.

This is not a Commencement audience, and for most of us, Commencement was a while ago! But, in a way, we are the Inaugural class of Solve 2015 – and I have much the same dream for all of us:

As we convene here – and as we go back out into society – I would like us to think big and act boldly. I would like us to think of the status quo as only the beta release.
I would like us to rewrite the source code. Rewire the circuits. Rearrange the molecules. Reformulate the equation.

In short, I would like us, together, to hack the world – until we have done for humanity all the good that is within our power to do. Let’s get started! Thank you.