At the KSA Annual Meeting The New Kendall Challenge, we were honored to have MIT President Rafael Reif as one of our featured speakers. And as many students and Kendall workers consider their return to the area, President Reif updated us all on how MIT continues to transform – despite a pandemic – and illustrates his wishes for our collective community’s future.
Through this long year of sudden adjustments and difficult surprises, all of us at MIT have been very grateful for the spirit of collaboration with the City of Cambridge – and all our Cambridge neighbors. Thank you for your leadership!
This year, another source of confidence has been the K.S.A. itself, under the inspired leadership of President C.A. Webb. I have great admiration for everything you have done to keep us all connected, learning, and focused on what is most important. Of course, it would be more wonderful if we could really be together in Kendall Square the old-fashioned way! But, we are surely on a path that will get us there before too long!
I would like to offer a few of my hopes for Kendall Square moving forward. But I will begin by taking a step back – all the way back to 1980 when I first joined the faculty at MIT.
I arrived with a brand-new degree from Stanford, but even so, I loved everything about MIT: the people, the culture, the intensity… or almost everything! Winter took some getting used to.
One thing I simply could not get used to was that MIT paid so little attention to its surroundings. I left California just as Silicon Valley was starting to boom, and I took two things from that experience.
First: I saw the significance of place and proximity in driving innovation.
And second: I came to see that if a university really wanted to make an impact, it had to look outward and find ways to deliver its ideas to the world.
In Silicon Valley, the answer was to spin out start-ups. These tiny companies were everywhere! Just by existing, they were creating the culture, the workforce and ecosystem they needed to thrive. By contrast, in the ‘80s, MIT was also looking outward – but it was skipping over Cambridge, and even skipping over Route 128, to develop its global focus. The Institute was also continuing its long held pattern of working with big companies, but it had very little interest in thinking about start-ups.
I do not need to tell you that times have changed!
As a few generations of MIT leaders saw what was happening in California, they started to imagine what could happen here. Beginning around 2005, when Susan Hockfield was President and I was provost, we recognized that it would make a tremendous difference if the Institute also invested itself, in every sense of the word. There were conversations about trying to bring the software industry back to the East Coast.
But I remember feeling very clearly that it was time to say, “What we lost, we lost! Let’s make the most of the unique strength of this place: Biotech! If someone wants to do theater at the highest level, they go to Broadway! If they want to do software, they can go to Silicon Valley. But if they want to do biotech – let us be the place!”
Today, of course, thanks to the immense creativity and commitment of thousands and thousands of people in hundreds of companies and organizations, that crazy dream has entirely come true.
“The densest concentration of life science talent in the world.” “The most innovative square mile on the planet.” We use these phrases routinely now. And of course, Kendall is also much more than biotech alone.
Today, when people try to explain the Kendall phenomenon they usually say something nice about the importance of MIT. But I want to tell you a secret: MIT’s success depends on Kendall Square!
To live up to our mission of service “for the betterment of humankind,” we need this incredible community to thrive and we need it to be self-renewing. All of this history, combined with the experiences of the past year, leads me to a few reflections. If you asked about my hopes for the future of Kendall Square, I might say three things:
First, I would like Kendall Square to be a place that never forgets the source of its strength: a great system of mutual inspiration, support, and collaboration. Stretching from fundamental science all the way to practical impact, it is a system that embraces absolutely everyone.
We saw that system at work in the most beautiful way with the development of the COVID vaccines. To the general public, the vaccines seemed to come out of nowhere; an overnight success. But of course, the “miracle” of these vaccines was the fruit of about four decades of fundamental university science and applied industry research.
As someone who has believed in Kendall Square for a long time, I find it deeply gratifying that three major companies, with their feet planted right here, are playing a major role in stopping a global pandemic. If we want Kendall to thrive in the long run – to be self-renewing – and to live up to its potential, we must always remember that our strength lies in treasuring that whole creative system.
Second, I would like Kendall to be a place that is always pushing the frontiers of knowledge and possibility, and at the same time, a place that takes responsibility for the consequences. This is very much how Kendall Square began when experimentation with DNA was just emerging. To non-scientists, the technology felt mysterious and risky, so the Cambridge City Council wisely insisted that the scientists involved explain what they were doing and help the community come to understand and support it, too.
At MIT, we are thinking in that same way today in a different realm.
You may know that we recently launched the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing. With dozens of new faculty members, Schwarzman College is already a very important force on the frontiers of machine learning and artificial intelligence. But we decided that given the power of these technologies – from the start – the College would need an equal emphasis on ethics. So today we have important research stretching from the limitations of facial recognition software to the dangers of risk prediction in the criminal justice system.
My third wish for Kendall Square is that it becomes an even more delightful place to live and work. That it continues to be a good neighbor to its long-time Cambridge neighbors and a place that welcomes, attracts, and nurtures talented people from every background – people who want to make a serious difference.
At the Kendall Square Association, I know you are doing inspiring work with your “Inclusion Drives Innovation” program. That kind of professional development across the organizations in Kendall is how we are going to drive real progress. At MIT, we are embarking on our own Strategic Action Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
In terms of making Kendall as a place more delightful, I feel I must warn you that while you were working from home, MIT has been busy!
As many of you know, MIT has also continued to work closely with the community and city to advance a comprehensive mixed-use redevelopment on the Volpe site. The proposal will bring housing, retail, open space, a community center, a job connector and an entertainment venue – in addition to lab and office space. Our Volpe team is examining all aspects of the project through the lens of equity and inclusion and they have just completed seven community workshops to understand the challenges and opportunities that lie before us.
MIT has also been working on a number of more immediate building projects. I don’t know about you, but I am dreaming of having a sandwich in the sunshine, out in that wonderful open space! I think it is safe to say that when we all come back to Kendall, things will be different. But I have no doubt that Kendall will come back better than ever!