MIT’s inaugural Solve conference opened with a splash on Monday, as a diverse group of technologists, entrepreneurs, and experts hailed the importance of addressing our most urgent global problems.
“At MIT, we want to do good for the world,” President L. Rafael Reif said in his opening remarks at the event’s convocation, adding that the Institute has a “culture of real-world problem-solving.”
“With Solve, we want to accelerate positive change,” Reif emphasized.
The Solve conference is a multidisciplinary four-day event examining major challenges in health care, energy, the environment, food and water supply, education, civil infrastructure, and the economy, with attendees from over 30 countries.
Reif was followed on stage at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium by Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, which has helped organize the event. As Pontin observed, the kinds of problems being discussed at Solve are currently matters of well-being and resources, but could worsen significantly by mid-century, given that the world’s population might rise from 7 billion people today to around 9.6 billion in 2050, according to some estimates.
“Our systems are already stressed,” Pontin said, adding: “If we wait too long, some of these problems will not be solvable at all.” For instance, the onrushing presence of climate change, he observed, may well worsen our food and water supply by radically changing the conditions in which current agricultural practices work.
Still, as Pontin noted, “there is a case for optimism” when it comes to addressing global issues. After all, he pointed out, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally has dropped from 35 percent in 1993 to 11 percent in 2011.
One high point of Monday’s convocation was a video message of support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
“People working together make the impossible possible,” Tutu said. Urging conference attendees to be socially engaged and work to solve problems, Tutu emphasized: “The only crushing failure will be if you do not try.”
“If you can’t do this at MIT, where in the world can it get done?”
The Solve conference is organized around four main themes: Cure, Fuel, Learn, and Make. These relate to the general areas of health care; energy, environment, and food and water supply; global education; and advances in infrastructure, manufacturing, and innovation. The four main themes are ongoing concerns of MIT researchers, and many of the Institute’s faculty will speak at specific panels relating to these themes this week. Solve runs through Thursday, Oct. 8.
Solve’s keynote address on Monday was presented by Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Sachs said that addressing the world’s major issues represented “not hubris [but] a matter of basic decency.” And he underscored the progress that has been made on issues once regarded as insoluble: “We’re within reach of ending extreme poverty on this planet,” Sachs said.
Sachs also detailed how Solve’s agenda overlaps with a set of 17 new sustainable development goals the United Nations unveiled in September. Broadly viewed, Sachs said, those goals consist of ending extreme poverty; decarbonizing our energy system; creating sustainable food and agricultural systems; bringing smart infrastructure into cities; developing sustainable industrial production; providing universal access to health care and education; promoting job skills and employment; and enhancing social inclusion.
Sachs also encouraged conference participants to take action on these issues, asking: “If you can’t do this at MIT, where in the world can it get done?”
The Monday convocation also featured a wide-ranging panel discussion on health care and two panels on the issue of universal Internet access. The health care panel, moderated by MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield, included policy experts and industry leaders, and examined the foundations of research advances in medicine as well as the economics of providing care globally.
Indeed, one panelist noted, health care issues look very different depending on one’s perspective. Worldwide, about 3 billion people lack basic access to health care; while 17 percent of U.S. gross domestic product goes to health care spending, no more than 1 percent of India’s GDP is spent on health care.
And access for all
The speakers on the Internet access panels were introduced by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, who observed that global connectivity is increasingly important in education, work, and other facets of civil society.
“I think connectivity will become a human right,” Negroponte said.
Among the six speakers on those panels, electrical engineer Lawrence Roberts detailed the ways in which MIT researchers were instrumental in the development of the Internet, while Josette Sheeran, a former director of the U.N.’s World Food Program, explained how Internet access could “empower people on the ground” and help the organization deliver supplies more efficiently.
Yael Maguire of Facebook gave a talk on the company’s efforts to provide global Internet coverage via a series of solar-powered planes, which could extend connectivity to all parts of the world. “We want to connect every single person on the planet,” he said.
Rich Devault of X Labs — a division of Google’s new umbrella company, Alphabet — explained how Google is trying to do the same thing using balloon technology. Proving that the initial concept was worth exploring, he emphasized, had only cost a few thousand dollars — suggesting that ingenuity and a determination to get results can lead to progress on broader problems.
“It’s this kind of hands-on attitude of going out and solving problems that’s absolutely essential to tackling the connectivity problem,” Devault said.