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MIT and China partner to plot the growth of future cities

Where is the city going? What is the future of “urban?” How can we increase quality of life, solve transportation and energy issues, and provide affordable housing for millions of forthcoming city dwellers? MIT and China are partnering to find answers with the new Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which will be headquartered in a new space called the MIT China Future City Lab.

MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing have established this revolutionary collaboration to support research and startup teams that will develop leading-edge ideas that address the challenges presented by China’s rapidly growing cities. As a result, the partners hope to develop new models for urban living and infrastructure that address issues of urban resilience, health, housing, environmental sustainability, responsive urban management, and the development of smart cities.

The FCIC will draw upon MIT research to identify innovative concepts and technologies that can be implemented in China. The program’s founder and faculty director Siqi Zheng is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate. She is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University.

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Shaping the Commerce of Sport: MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference starts February 23

What is the secret to building a team around a superstar? What is the future of ticket selling at sporting events? What’s the best way to engage the modern sports fan? These are just three of the dozens of topics to be explored by leaders in the realm of sport at the upcoming MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference February 23 and 24 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in Boston.

A limited number of tickets are still available for this annual event, which has grown over the last decade to become the premier confab of sports movers, shakers, and innovators. Founded in 2006 by Daryl Morey ’00 and HBS alumna Jessica Gelman, the conference is chaired by Gelman and organized by MIT Sloan students. Its goal is to provide a forum for industry professionals and students to discuss the increasing role of analytics in the global sports industry. Now more than ten years old, the conference delivers rich opportunities to learn about and innovate the sports business world.

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Will a robot be delivering your next pizza?

Robots have their limits. They’re not good, for example, at thinking outside the box. Humans have it all over robots when it comes to discernment and adapting to changing circumstances, but a team of engineers at MIT is working to improve a robot’s soft skills. One of those soft skills is learning to be a good pedestrian.

Yu Fan Chen, the graduate student at LIDS (MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems) who is heading the research, says that socially aware navigation is critical for robots moving around in environments that require frequent interactions with pedestrians. The challenge is that pedestrians are a highly unpredictable force. Robots are programmed to adapt to certainties, as a rule, and are not traditionally equipped to deal with chaotic conditions.

Chen and his team are developing a robot designed to navigate and blend in with the crowd. The squat, waist-high robot sports a LIDAR array on top for high-resolution environment sensing. LIDAR (light detection and ranging) works on the principle of radar, but uses lasers to measure distances. The robot also uses webcams and a depth sensor to understand—literally—its place in the world.

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AI: The quiet revolution

Increasingly artificial intelligence drives every tool and every service we encounter in our daily lives. Leaders who don’t fully appreciate how to harness its value are not tapping the full potential of their organizations. But AI also has its limitations. The phrase Moravec’s Paradox was coined in the 1980s by artificial intelligence pioneers Rodney Brooks and Marvin Minsky of MIT and Hans Moravec of Stanford to capture the irony of AI—it’s as clueless, in some ways, as it is brilliant.

Computers can out-think most adults at playing chess, but ask it to join you at the dinner table, and it will be flummoxed. A toddler, on the other hand, would simply pull out a chair and sit down. High-level reasoning requires only basic computation from robots, but low-level sensory motor skills demand extraordinarily complex computational resources that robots have yet to master. So the moral of the story is know what to expect from AI. Its benefits are remarkable when it comes to mining and manipulating data, but it can’t perform simple tasks that require deft movement, intuition, or empathy.

(Image: SMART’s self-driving golf carts)

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Saving lives with smart fabrics

Fabric innovators convened at MIT recently to bring new significance to the term “smart dresser.” Uniforms made with materials that deliver cool or warm airflow. Augmented-reality headgear that can help field medics quickly identify and diagnose injuries. Lightweight body armor that protects the heart and neck. The three-day hackathon at the MIT Media Lab challenged engineers, designers, researchers, and product developers to create functional fabrics that address the inherent needs of emergency responders in volatile environments such as war zones and natural disaster sites.

The hackathon, hosted by the MIT Innovation Initiative, MD5 (the National Security Technology Accelerator), the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and the AFFOA (Advanced Functional Fabrics of America) gave participants the opportunity to work with leading-edge fabric technologies as well as with tech experts and seasoned entrepreneurs who could help them refine their new-product pitches. Continue reading

Machine. Platform. Crowd. The three most influential words in the new economy?

Over the last decade, MIT Sloan researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have become adept navigators of our digital future, and their most recent book, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future pretty much guarantees their place at the helm. The best selling authors of The Second Machine Age (2014) have taken the lead in making sense of the technological advances that are confounding the rest of the world.

In their new work, McAfee and Brynjolfsson, codirectors of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, help the average citizen understand what the integration of machines, platforms, and crowds will mean to our collective tomorrow. Robots are front and center in that digital future-scape. The authors talk about restaurants in which customers order, pay for, and receive meals without interacting with human employees. Ordering, they point out, is something that a robot—or a computer interface—can accomplish very adeptly if the programming is smart enough.

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The world is watching—and emulating—this Latin American innovation hub

“Work hard and keep your head down—that’s Chile’s unofficial motto,” says Rocio Fonseca, SF ’14, executive director of Start-Up Chile. “The goal of the average Chilean is to get a job working for a corporation.” Fonseca adds that small and medium-sized businesses in Chile are not innovation driven. “They tend to err on the side of playing it safe—and that complacency curbs growth and evolution. Chile is not an entrepreneurial culture.”

In 2010, the Chilean government launched the ambitious enterprise accelerator Start-Up Chile to help it turn that national attitude around. The program helps early-stage, high-potential entrepreneurs bootstrap their startups using Chile as a platform to go global. With an annual portfolio of 200-250 companies, Start-Up Chile has fast become the best business accelerator program in Latin America and is counted among the top five worldwide. It’s also the cornerstone of Chile’s national economic development strategy.

Start-Up Chile is actually a collection of three programs: a pre-acceleration program for early-stage enterprises, a seed program for startups with a functioning product and early validation, and a follow-on fund for top performing startups looking to scale up in Latin American and globally. With robust training programs, workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, and a busy calendar of networking events, Fonseca fosters a fertile environment that connects Chilean innovators with early-stage, high potential entrepreneurs around the world.

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The future of manufacturing is here, and it’s in 3D

Alan Mulally, SF ’82, the legendary turnaround-artist who resuscitated Ford Motor Company, has always stayed focused on what’s next. An early proponent of 3D printing, he said in an earlier SF Leadership Blog post, “Metal is in the near future. With the level of accuracy that is possible through this process, we are seeing a sudden and dramatic improvement in the quality and manufacturability of parts. It’s both economical and efficient because spare parts don’t have to be warehoused. Almost any part can be produced on demand—and its file can live in the cloud. Three-dimensional printing will revolutionize the manufacturing world.”

The company that arguably is creating the noisiest buzz in the 3D space is Burlington, Massachusetts-based Desktop Metal—one of BostInno’s “17 Boston tech companies to watch in 2017.”  CEO Ric Fulop, SF ’06, launched the startup in October of 2015 to bring metal 3D printing to design and manufacturing companies across the globe. Fulop and his team have raised $97 million in equity funding, including a $45 million round of funding led by Google, BMW, and Lowe’s. Previous investors include NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lux Capital, GE Ventures, Saudi Aramco, and 3D printing leader Stratasys. Desktop Metal is preparing for a product launch in late 2017.

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The MIT Media Lab Crowdsources Disobedience

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.”

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The Engine: When you realize you can change the world—but that it may take awhile

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.

Picture1MIT 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.”

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