Report details steps needed to accelerate innovation at MIT

by David L. Chandler MIT News Office December 3, 2014

New Innovation Initiative aims to reshape the role of the university in the 21st-century economy.

Innovation in the service of society has been at the core of MIT’s mission since the Institute’s founding more than 150 years ago.

Now a preliminary report, leading up to the launch of an MIT Innovation Initiative, is proposing a series of steps aimed at fortifying MIT’s culture of innovation — suggesting a suite of resources, programs, and facilities to aid in bringing significant innovations out of the labs and into the daily lives of people around the world, and to do so faster and more effectively.

Compilation of the report was led by the co-directors of the Innovation Initiative: Vladimir Bulovic, the Fariborz Maseeh Professor of Emerging Technology, and Fiona Murray, the William Porter Professor of Entrepreneurship. The two professors are associate deans for innovation in the School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management, respectively.

The effort was initiated in October 2013 by MIT President L. Rafael Reif. In his charge to the advisory committee, established to define the scope and goals of the new Innovation Initiative, Reif wrote, “With an interdisciplinary attitude and an appetite for hands-on problem solving, we define compelling new questions, attack them in novel ways — and bring our students with us every step.”

The report reflects contributions from a 19-member faculty advisory committee, led by Bulovic and Murray, and including representatives from all five of MIT’s schools. The report, based on substantive research and input from stakeholders both inside and outside MIT, outlines a set of priorities to help the Institute in supporting innovation, and a set of proposals to be prioritized and implemented over time.

“At MIT, our mission directs us to advance knowledge and educate students in service to the nation and the world; this profound work will always be our central focus and inspiration,” Reif wrote in a letter to the MIT community introducing the preliminary report, and welcoming feedback. “But our mission also compels us to bring knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges — a good working definition of innovation as we practice it at MIT. With this new initiative, we have an opportunity to deliver better solutions to the world — and in the process, to deliver to the world a better MIT.”

A legacy of innovation

The preliminary report, titled “The MIT Innovation Initiative: Sustaining and Extending a Legacy of Innovation,” observes: “MIT will always be defined by its central focus on education and research. Yet more and more, innovation belongs to our mission as well.”

MIT’s forthcoming Innovation Initiative, the report adds, is focused on “providing a forum and a framework for enhancing the Institute’s innovation engine in ways that accelerate our community’s ability to transform brilliant ideas and fundamental research into positive and substantive social and economic impact.”

The report outlines a series of steps to foster these goals; some could be implemented immediately, while others will require further study and discussion to refine their details. The recommendations encompass four broad priorities:

  • strengthening and expanding MIT’s innovation capabilities;
  • cultivating communities that connect across campus and engage MIT with broader worldwide innovation needs;
  • developing additional, transformative hands-on infrastructure; and
  • formalizing, studying, and promoting the science of innovation through a new Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy.

The report emphasizes that these steps represent a continuation of MIT’s longtime approach to education and research: Already, the study says, the Institute offers more than 50 courses specifically related to innovation and entrepreneurship, across all five of its schools, enrolling more than 3,000 students. Other programs and competitions, including undergraduate research opportunities and MIT’s annual $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, have involved thousands more students in activities related to innovation.

Growing demand

While such programs are an established part of MIT’s culture, the report notes that they are so popular that the Institute cannot meet current demand for them — either in terms of physical facilities, or in financing for such things as prototyping facilities and support for entrepreneurial projects. In addition, the report says, there is a clear desire for more ways to facilitate collaborations across schools and departments, and for more ways for MIT’s innovators to interact with communities around the world.

“We need to get better at recognizing and responding to the sorts of global challenges that exist,” Murray says. “We need to ensure that MIT’s solutions actually reach the people who need them by designing the right kinds of organizations and policies to ensure they reach impact.”

Specific proposals in the preliminary report include education with greater emphasis on learning that goes beyond traditional academic knowledge and research — specifically, encouraging solutions to real-world problems, scaling them up, and delivering them where they are needed. Toward that end, the report suggests creation of an undergraduate minor, a graduate certificate in innovation, and programming for postdocs.

“Our students are driven to make a positive difference in the world,” Bulovic says. “While at MIT, we need to enable them to hone their skills in translating ideas to innovations, so they can go on to provide solutions that scale rapidly and achieve broad positive impact.”

Opportunities on- and off-campus

The establishment of vibrant, small-scale global innovation communities to expand MIT’s innovation footprint is described in the report as another priority. These might bring together alumni, students, faculty, outside entrepreneurs, policymakers, and funding sources, all of whom could work together on problem-solving and implementation of solutions. The report states that by engaging with stakeholders around the world there is an opportunity to build on the long tradition of “science diplomacy” that forged mutually beneficial relationships among scientists around the world to inspire an era of “innovation diplomacy” On campus, specific suggestions include better coordination of MIT’s many hackathons, festivals, and competitions related to innovation, as well as a student leadership council to help coordinate the activities of the more than 40 existing student groups and clubs focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

The report proposes a significant expansion of infrastructure, such as spaces for scaling up innovations, and the development of new sources of funding — such as new faculty innovations fellowships, visiting partnerships, and innovation advocates who could work with on-campus teams to help develop innovative ideas. Dedicated innovation spaces, situated in various locations around campus, could provide facilities and equipment specifically geared toward the development of both inventions and the teams to carry them forward. Expansion of the present research seed-grant programs, and establishment of new ones, would support dedicated research time for translating ideas into prototypes, accelerating their path to scale-up and impact.

Another key goal of the report: fostering and developing a “science of innovation.” The report notes, “We believe that the drivers and outcomes of innovation warrant rigorous, multidisciplinary analysis that increases our understanding of how to generate innovation more constructively, efficiently and effectively.” The report also proposes creation of a Laboratory for Innovation Science and Policy to “develop new knowledge of the innovation process; promote new data, methods and metrics related to innovation science; and translate evidence-based insights into practical recommendations for industrial and policy partners.”

Bulovic and Murray welcome thoughts from all members of the MIT community on the framework and scope of the activities outlined in the report. They will host several community briefings; the first of these will occur Monday, Dec. 8, from 3 to 4 p.m. in Room E14-633. Feedback may also be sent to innovation@mit.edu.