Attention all disruptors. The nomination period is now open for the first MIT Media Lab Disobedience Award, which will recognize effective, responsible ethical disobedience across disciplines and around the world. The prize is a disruptive $250,000 in cash, no strings attached. The Media Lab’s objective in bestowing the award is to build awareness and support acts of productive disobedience.
Of course, the Lab is not looking for just any disruptor. The Disobedience Award will go to “a person or group engaged in an extraordinary example of disobedience for the benefit of society.” The organizers note that societies and institutions have a tendency to lean toward order and away from chaos. While structure has its place, they note, it can also stifle creativity, flexibility, and productive change.
“You don’t change the world by doing what you’re told,” says Media Lab Director Joi Ito. “The American civil rights movement wouldn’t have happened without civil disobedience. India would not have achieved independence without the pacifist but firm disobedience of Gandhi and his followers. The Boston Tea Party, which we celebrate here in New England, was also quite disobedient.”
Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs lean toward immediate gratification. So does the pharmaceutical industry and, for that matter, society as a whole. Unfortunately, inventions that require a long lead time to develop are often overlooked in favor of projects that promise a quicker pay-off—a phenomenon that may well be holding back disease cures and energy solutions. MIT is stepping up to address this issue with a pioneering new enterprise called The Engine, which will provide funding, expertise, and physical space to innovators studying breakthroughs that may take a bit longer to commercialize.
MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced the initiative in late October 2016 at The Engine’s headquarters in Central Square, Cambridge. He noted that many innovations never leave the lab because companies have difficulty finding financing. The Engine, he said, will power a grid of innovation networks, supporting startup companies working on scientific and technological breakthroughs that have the potential for transformative societal impact.
“If we hope for serious solutions to the world’s great challenges,” Reif said, “we need to make sure the innovators working on those problems see a realistic pathway to the marketplace. The Engine can provide that pathway by prioritizing breakthrough ideas over early profit, helping to shorten the time it takes these startups to become ‘VC-ready,’ providing comprehensive support in the meantime, and creating an enthusiastic community of inventors and supporters who share a focus on making a better world. We believe this approach can offer exponential growth to regions that pursue it successfully — and we want Greater Boston to lead the way.”
Is Hong Kong the next new enterprise frontier? In June, MIT unveiled its Hong Kong Innovation Node, a collaborative space designed to connect the Institute community with partners and resources in what has become a key global business hub and a gateway to Asia. The “node,” which will be run by the MIT Innovation Initiative, convenes MIT students, faculty, and researchers to work on entrepreneurial and research projects with Hong Kong-based students, faculty, MIT alumni, entrepreneurs, and business leaders.
The goal of the new environment is to help students learn how to move ideas more rapidly from lab to market. It also will increase opportunities for MIT students to conduct research in collaboration with Hong Kong universities. An innovative makerspace and startup programs for student entrepreneurs will add to the dynamism of the environment.
“By bringing MIT to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to MIT,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif, “the Innovation Node will deepen MIT’s activities in Hong Kong and, through Hong Kong, in the entire Pearl River Delta region. In creating this node in Hong Kong, MIT is committing to advancing our engagement with the region in a mutually beneficial way.”
In a prime example of innovation breeding innovation, MIT’s revolutionary new Inclusive Innovation Competition (IIC) rewards ideas that are just as groundbreaking. Sponsored by the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) in collaboration with the MIT Innovation Initiative (MITii), the competition will award a total of $1,000,000 dollars in prizes to organizations that are inventing a more sustainable, productive, and inclusive future. In particular, ideas must improve economic opportunity for middle- and base-level income earners.
The competition was invented to support solutions-focused organizations that have harnessed technology to develop breakthrough approaches that raise economic prospects for workers around the world. Funded with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the NASDAQ Foundation, and Eric and Wendy Schmidt, the contest is open to for-profit and nonprofit organizations of any size, age, type, or global origin.
Beset by dense fog and powerful currents, San Francisco Bay is one of the most treacherous waterways in the country. In 2007, a container ship plowed into the Bay Bridge in heavy fog. Five years later, an oil tanker followed suit. So when America’s Cup organizers approached the U.S. Coast Guard in 2012 about hosting the iconic cup races in San Francisco Bay, the prospect furrowed a few brows.
For Coast Guard Commander Jason Tama, SF ’11, however, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of a promising new technology. A career military officer and recent Brookings Institution Fellow, he has a particular interest in fostering innovation within the military. Working closely with the America’s Cup team, Tama and his Coast Guard colleagues led an initiative to develop a solution to the traffic challenges posed by the race.
“The traffic in San Francisco Bay can get as congested as other California thoroughfares,” Tama points out, “with 130,000 vessels traversing it annually. Waterways are divided by lanes just like automotive highways, and fully delineating those lanes and calling attention to obstacles like the Bay Bridge is a fairly outsized task. Buoys are expensive to place and maintain and tend to drift, especially in deep water.”
Natural gas has been a source of energy in the UK for more than 200 years. The fuel provides one-third of all energy consumed for heat, and it accounts for four-fifths of total peak energy demand. National Grid UK—a government-regulated energy monopoly—is responsible for meeting nearly half of that demand, serving approximately 25 million gas customers annually. The company’s innovation team, led by Director of Network Strategy David Parkin, SF ’12, plays a key role in helping the country meet its targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s true that regulators help shape our business model,” notes Parkin. “But the government’s mandate also explicitly funds our research and development. It’s an environment that inspires a bit of envy among our colleagues in National Grid’s U.S. offices.” Even as they work to decarbonize the existing network, Parkin and his team are developing innovative forms of natural gas that can be injected into National Grid’s existing 284,000 km of pipes—a length that could circle the Earth six times.
Radar. The word conjures up images of colossal metal dishes pointed toward impending danger. Anupam Nayak, SF ’10, is out to replace that old black and white picture we now have imprinted on our brains with images of fuzzy slippers and warm blankets. She and Lucas van Ewijk, former head of the radar department at TNO, the leading Dutch research institute, and a small group of entrepreneurs have decided it’s time to free radar from its confined military identity. Radar is a powerful, versatile tool, they believe, and can be a crucial game changer in other realms. Healthcare, for example.
“We realized we could install a radar device the size of a business card in a patient’s room—either at home or in the hospital—to monitor respiration and other vital signs,” Nayak says. The idea of continuous patient monitoring blossomed into the startup Applied Radar Technology, which successfully navigated three years of regulatory trials before attracting the attention of the marketplace. She and van Ewijk decided to set up a new entity, VDisha, that can truly expand radar research and commercialization into the healthcare realm. In collaboration with government-funded radar research groups in the Netherlands, their aim is to expand VDisha into a multi-million dollar international initiative, bringing in partners from research groups around the world.
Necessity has been the driver of invention in Africa perhaps more than any other region of the world. In most nations on the continent, notes Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, everyday life requires innovative responses to a daunting string of challenges. “You have to be able to think on your feet and develop creative workarounds to get things done.”
Gregersen believes this demanding environment could prove ideal for producing the next generation of innovators. In Africa, he says, business leaders have few opportunities for complacency. “Leaders hoping to create new markets and develop business opportunities have to be open to surprises. They also must be able to take setbacks in stride. In temperament, nearly all successful innovators are very present in the world around them. Operating in a somewhat unstable environment commands your attention and delivers opportunities you might overlook if everything is running smoothly.”
Not that uncertainty and turmoil are ideal conditions for sustainable development. Gregersen acknowledges the profound constraints that exist on developing a generation of creative entrepreneurs in African countries. “One of the great tasks of present-day leaders,” says Gregersen, “is establishing trust-based environments for teaching and learning in communities across the continent.” Gregersen cites the transnational art education initiative Room 13 as one example of how this can be accomplished.
Regulation is generally considered a dirty word in the realm of big energy. “Regulation stifles innovation,” is a common mantra throughout the industry. But David Parkin, SF ’12, has a different perspective. When Parkin worked for a natural gas startup earlier in his career, innovations related to carbon footprints and renewable sources didn’t figure into his strategic vision. “There’s a bit of irony in my current position,” says Parkin. “Here I am with the UK’s largest natural gas provider in a strictly regulated environment, and I have to be more nimble and innovative in my thinking than when I was with a startup.”
As Director of Network Strategy for gas distribution at National Grid UK— a government-regulated energy monopoly—Parkin, has to innovate within the confines of comprehensive criteria. “Our performance,” Parkin explains, “is measured by the security of the supply, affordability for consumers, and the extent to which we are minimizing greenhouse gas emissions. We have to balance all three within an eight-year price control structure. Regulators set our revenue based not on what we spend to provide natural gas service but on what we achieve for our customers on those three criteria.”
This recently established regulatory framework exerts a strong influence on National Grid’s entrepreneurial thinking. “Historically, we were driven by the same imperatives propelling most large companies—minimize expenditures and maximize revenue,” says Parkin. “Now, we have to identify and develop innovations that deliver beneficial outcomes across several performance metrics through an eight-year cycle.”
Clarity of vision, says South African tech entrepreneur Xoli Kakana, SF ’08, is central to all African solutions. And she believes that the absence of that vision is what plagues the continent. “Most African leaders exhibit very little understanding of the systems and power bases that sustain the problems plaguing their nations,” she says. “They do not commit boldly to tackling all components of those systems with the persistence and focus necessary and supported by the appropriate mechanisms that enable monitoring and evaluation.”
Founder and Group CEO of ICT-Works, Kakana knows a thing or two about clarity of vision. She has overcome myriad cultural and technological challenges to raise the standard of IT and telecom services in South Africa and boost career opportunities for women in her country. She concedes that the sheer enormity of the African continent—with 54 individual nations—makes it very difficult to generalize about leadership challenges, but believes that most African countries are hindered by a few common failings—poor governance, for example, weak institutions, a lack of infrastructure, and a reluctance to own any of those crippling problems.