Speech by MIT Associate Provost, Professor Philip Khoury

07 May 2012

Your Excellency President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mr. Chancellor

Mr. Philip Ng, Chairman of the Board of Trustees

President Thomas Magnanti

Vice President Wu Ping

SUTD Administration, Faculty, and Students

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is my distinct honor to be invited to address you in my role as the representative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, on this grand occasion of the University Inauguration Ceremony. 

I want to congratulate everyone who has been responsible for getting the Singapore University of Technology and Design up and running. So much visionary thinking and so much hard work have gotten you to this point in time, and I am confident that SUTD’s future will be one filled with success and achievement that will serve Singapore, its region, indeed the world for generations to come.

Before I proceed any further I want to acknowledge the fact that I have had the privilege of knowing His Excellency President Tony Tan for twenty years now. When I made my first visit to Singapore in the early 1990s as an MIT Dean he hosted me and helped to introduce me to this remarkable country and to the MIT family in Singapore. I stand here in awe of him because of all he has contributed to enhancing Singapore’s knowledge economy. 

And I also want to acknowledge that I have known SUTD President Thomas Magnanti for many years as well. We served together as school deans at MIT. I admired him then and that admiration has only grown as I have watched him bring leadership to the SUTD enterprise. Believe me, we miss him back at MIT, but we also know that he has a mission here in Singapore that we at MIT subscribe to and support.

Many of you will know that the Singapore Government invited MIT to establish a collaboration with SUTD to help guide the university’s development in its first years. This collaboration is the largest MIT has ever undertaken with another university anywhere in the world. I would argue it is also the most exciting “university-to-university” collaboration MIT has ever undertaken. 

We agreed to the collaboration for at least two powerful reasons: 

First, MIT already had a healthy number of years of successful research and educational collaborations in Singapore, and so by agreeing to collaborate with SUTD, we knew we were building on years of very positive experiences in the Singapore education and research environment. In collaborating with SUTD, MIT feels we will be going from strength to strength. 

Second, we found the SUTD vision – that of establishing a vibrant new culture based on the integration of technology and design – a truly compelling vision, a vision that MIT shares.

In deciding to engage in this collaboration, MIT observed that SUTD wants to establish a culture that ties together research and education, to have excellent research drive excellent education or learning, which is precisely what undergirds MIT’s own culture. And by creating with SUTD an integral between design in engineering and design in architecture, MIT will also be creating a very similar integral at MIT as well. In the process SUTD and MIT will together “nurture technically grounded leaders and innovators to serve” the needs of society here, in the United States, and elsewhere.

What does this SUTD-MIT collaboration entail?

First, MIT is already working with SUTD to identify and nurture for SUTD the best available faculty talent in engineering and architectural design but also in the basic sciences, the social sciences and humanities.

Second, MIT is developing with SUTD the educational programs and the dynamic interdisciplinary curriculum that supports these programs for SUTD. A great deal of creative thinking has gone into the design of this entirely new curriculum, and my MIT colleagues are testing out elements of the new curriculum on our campus and are really excited about participating in the deployment of the new curriculum at SUTD.

Third, MIT has begun the process of transferring some of the most vital elements of the signature MIT research culture to SUTD, including what MIT does in the way of innovation and entrepreneurship. And that culture is one that will not only link SUTD to MIT, but will also prepare SUTD to become a genuine contributor to the development of state of the art research. This research will support an innovation culture eventually leading to new start up industries across a variety of fields, much as MIT has accomplished for decades in the United States. In this way, SUTD can be a significant contributor to Singapore’s economy, something that MIT prides itself on doing for lead sectors of the United States economy. 

One major key to this collaborative research-innovation effort is the International Design Center, with its main node on the SUTD campus and a smaller, mirror branch on the MIT campus directly tied to the SUTD research center. This center will be the “hub of innovation in the field of design.” SUTD and MIT together aspire “to make this International Design Center the best place in the world to conduct breakthrough research to address the grand challenges facing the world today” and tomorrow. 

Now some of you may be asking yourselves why has MIT agreed to do all of this under the banner of collaboration with SUTD? Doubtless there are skeptics who think it is because of the funding that flows back to MIT from Singapore. Funding is important, but MIT has many other opportunities to secure funding in this world. So there has to be a more convincing answer. I think that answer has to do with MIT’s great respect for Singapore’s commitment to building a culture of innovation here, a culture that MIT recognizes is getting stronger and stronger. It also has to do with MIT’s respect for Singapore’s willingness to address some of the greatest challenges facing the world. And lastly, it has to do with the fact that MIT shares with SUTD the vision that these global challenges can best be met by creating “design solutions” that span the learning cultures of engineering and architecture and beyond. Together, we believe we can push back the frontiers of knowledge in one of the most crucial areas of hands-on learning, the area of design, and the technologies that can advance design. Design can help shape the solutions to some of the world’s grand challenges. In fact, without systematic design none of the grand challenges will be addressed properly and thus successfully. 

This brings me to my final point, and it is linked to why MIT has embraced the opportunity to collaborate with SUTD. It has to do with the forces of globalization. Globalization we all know to be a “historical process that grows out of human innovation and technological progress.” Globalization in the narrowest sense refers to the “increasing integration of economies around the world.” But in a wider sense, it also refers to the “movement of people and knowledge across international borders and the variety of interactions that emerge from this kind of connectedness.”

When we look at the effects of globalization on higher education and research we observe several developments, 3 in particular.

First, we observe the phenomenal increase of student mobility. More than 3 million university students worldwide study outside their home countries today, and within a decade or so there could be as many as 8 million doing so. Singapore is in that mix both in terms students from other countries coming to study here and Singapore students going abroad to study.

Second, we observe that a significant number of countries are creating top-tier research universities around the world and especially in Asia. Singapore is certainly a leader in this regard, and SUTD is Singapore’s most recent effort at building a leading-edge research university.

Third, while the global competition for top rankings among research universities is very fierce, and Singapore research universities are very much players in that competition, at the same time we observe the phenomenon of growing research collaborations across international borders. That phenomenon is likely to increase at a much faster pace than it has in the past decade or more. And we are watching this in SUTD’s case through its collaboration with MIT and also with Zhejiang University in China, all with a technology and design focus. It is these research collaborations across borders that will most likely lead to the kind of solutions to the globe’s grand challenges we are all seeking. Bi-lateral, tri-lateral, and multi-lateral international research collaborations are where our research universities are heading, and SUTD has understood this from the start, and this understanding and commitment will redound to SUTD’s and Singapore’s advantage in the future, as it will to MIT’s advantage.

So my simple point is that our universities must both think and act globally if they hope not merely to survive into the future but to thrive and have their desired impact. New media -- new forms of communication -- no longer permit any one set of institutions or country or region to have a nearly exclusive monopoly on knowledge. Research universities require collaborators if they plan to be successful. Let’s face it, the globe’s most daunting challenges in health, energy, the environment, mega-urbanization, food security and the like are found all over our planet; and today the solutions to these challenges are most likely going to be found wherever hubs of innovation exist; MIT rightly believes that Singapore, with its increasingly dynamic knowledge economy, is one of those hubs of innovation.


So to conclude, on behalf of MIT President Susan Hockfield and my colleagues back at MIT, I want to offer our heartiest congratulations to SUTD’s and MIT’s leaders --- especially President Tom Magnanti and his team, and also our MIT collaboration director Professor Sanjay Sarma and his team --- for figuring out how to make our “partnership” function in all the right ways, and for getting us to the point of this marvelous Inauguration. 

MIT is deeply committed to working with SUTD to achieve its long-term mission of being recognized as “the best in the world for design education and research.” Of course, it’s the remarkable faculty and the remarkable students who are attracted to SUTD who, more than anyone, will help to ensure that SUTD fulfills its long-term mission. I wish for them too the greatest of success.

Thank you.