SUTD Class of 2016 Commencement Speech by Professor Thomas L Magnanti, President, SUTD

10 Sep 2016

Understand the world as it is, imagine what it could be.
Understand yourself as you are, imagine what you could be.

Class of 2016, as you can imagine, it gives me enormous pleasure to join you today as we celebrate your graduation from SUTD and the journey of learning, personal growth, fun and enjoyment that you have experienced over the past few years.  As I am sure you would agree, your journey is one that you won’t forget, not quite like a vacation in Bali (now, that is quite a different type of journey), but one that was filled with adventure, surprises, new friendships, fulfillment and, perhaps, even a wee bit of stress. But nevertheless, here you are having successfully completed a rigorous curriculum and on your way to new experiences that hopefully will also be filled with adventure, surprises, new friendships-perhaps with some occasional stresses, but hopefully with much fulfillment.
There is much that I could say today and much of that has been said over and over again in thousands and thousands of graduation speeches around the world. Go change the world, be true to yourself, enjoy life, and so on and so on. All good, relevant advice that I won’t repeat today, or perhaps more accurately, I will say in a different way.
I entitle my remarks:

Understand the world as it is, imagine what it could be.
Understand yourself as you are, imagine what you could be.

Perhaps there is no better example than Lee Kuan Yew who saw Singapore as it was, and imagined the development of a nation state like no other.  I need not tell anyone in Singapore about what remarkable imagination, foresight, persistence, and courage it took for Mr. Lee to create the Singapore that we know, and so much admire, today.
In the social arena, other iconic leaders have imagined new worlds. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw social injustice and successfully pressed for change.
In business, Alfred P Sloan, Henry Ford, and more recently such luminaries as Michael Dell and Jeff Bezos saw commerce in new light, creating the multidivisional firm, the assembly line, and online delivery of goods and services.
In technology, Thomas Edison saw a world illuminated by candles and kerosene and Alexander Graham Bell saw a world of limited long-range communication and they changed it forever.  More recently, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Jobs saw a world of centralized mainframe computers, and imagined desktop computing and computing in the hands of the masses.
And, of course, for the young people before me examples would include entire new ways for people to connect with each other, visionaries who created a new world of communications and social networks-smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and I’m sure many other examples that are far beyond my old eyes and old ears.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that every one of you graduating today could or should be the next Jack Ma or Mark Zuckerberg.  Of course, it would be great if you were. However, with your deep understanding of science and technology and your broad exposure to humanities, arts, and social sciences you have the wherewithal to understand the world as it is as well, I believe, as the graduates of any university in the world. Moreover, you have an expertise in design that permits you to imagine new worlds like no others.

  • You are able to understand products that are available today and might say to yourself, I can design them better or can imagine something quite different in their place.
  • You are able to understand business practices and processes, and have the wherewithal to conceive of new approaches. 
  • You are able to understand healthcare, financial, transportation and national defense systems and create innovations that will improve them.
  • You are able to understand the scientific, technological, and social underpinnings of the world and design innovations that will address some of society’s most pressing challenges-for a more sustainable environment, for smart cities, for security, for the betterment of individuals who are in need and underserved.

If you are at all like me, you see the world differently today that you did when you entered SUTD.  You not only have learned approaches and methodologies for design, but you are imbued with design thinking. Ever since my own involvement with SUTD, I now see the world differently. I look around me, and I ask myself, why is this product or that product designed the way it is?  Why is my home designed the way it is and why is it so difficult to change it?
You have already used your acquired knowledge in technology and design to identify human needs and develop innovative solution.  As examples:

  • In the area of urban mobility, two of you, Jaron Lee and Brandon Chen, have designed a clever foldable device, the so-called Freedom Electric Vehicle, which is a combined bicycle-hoverboard and has the potential to significantly impact personalized urban transportation. Also a group of nine of you has started a community-based smart bicycle sharing system, called ZaiBike, that aims to make last mile commutes easy and efficient. Both on these teams are on their way to creating companies.
  • Three of you, Lee Jun Xiang, Tee May Ying, and Jaron Lee again have developed an innovative Home Intelligent System.  In 2015, it won the Merit Award at the World Engineers’ Summit organised by the Institution of Engineers and Science Centre Singapore.
  • Nineteen of you have lit up Chinatown developing yet another SUTD designed CNY Light-up, that has warmed the hearts of the Singapore community.
  • In the area of social innovation, five of you designed a dementia ward in Ren Ci @ Bukit Batok to enhance the quality of the environment for residents and staff - making the ward homey, improving its operational efficiency, and ultimately increasing users’ happiness.

These are but a few examples and I wish I could acknowledge each of your accomplishments today.  Through these and many other innovative, award winning projects, you have shown how design thinking can create a better world.

Build upon these experiences and what you have learned. Bring design thinking into your everyday lives and bring it into the world. By doing so, you will have the opportunity to imagine a new world and make a difference, either large or small, but a difference nevertheless.
The first part of the title of my talk “Understand the world as it is, imagine what it could be” is a twist on a famous quote of George Bernard Shaw that John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Robert Kennedy often used in a political context, namely,

Some people see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not?

There is a related quote that is sometimes attributed to the Babylonian Talmud, but whose true source seems unknown:

We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are.

This leads me to the second half of my title “Understand yourself as you are, imagine what you could be.“        
The world as we see it can be explained in part because of science and technology in part because of its social, political, or economic context. But it is also affected by your own experiences, perceptions, and biases.
You have yours, and I have mine.

As a result, as you try to understand and change the world, try to understand how your own perceptions and biases might affect matters. Might they lead you to a good or a poorly conceived design or innovation?  Might they lead to good or poor relationships with family, friends, and loved ones?

I don’t feel that I have especially good advice on these matters, nor will I try to suggest how design thinking might be of an assistance in this regard.   That would make for interesting course or seminar, wouldn‘t it?

However, I do believe that each of you is a different person leaving SUTD than you were entering. I would encourage you to reflect upon that. Clearly, you have acquired much knowledge. But, how else have you changed as a person? You have been exposed to a diverse community of fellow students, faculty, and staff. Has that affected how you think, or your worldviews? You have, I imagine, experienced challenges in your courses and project work and had moments of stress. How has that affected you? You have likely learned new study habits, new ways to interact with fellow students in teams, in the hostiles, or generally in and out of the classroom.  Are you different as a result?

The social sciences have much to say about how “we see things as we are.“  The noted sociologist Robert Merton tells us about self-fulfilling prophecies, the psychologists Jacquelynne Eccles and Allan Wigfield about self-efficacy, and the developmental psychologists Lisa Flook, Rena Repetti, and Jodie Ullman the important role of self-concept:  “if my self-concept comprises being good at mathematics, I am more likely to be good at mathematics.”   There is much to learn from these and other scholars in the social sciences, but there is also much to learn from your own experiences.

Each of you will have your own story. How your education has affected or changes you.

Let me share just a few experiences from your fellow graduating students, each in their own words.

Justin Lau from EPD
Up till junior college, life seemed pretty ‘prescribed’ with a set route.
I enrolled into SUTD’s programme as I believed it was close to my childhood passion, building things. However, like many people, I enrolled without a clue of what engineering was. Was it under Physics? Chemistry? Or maybe even Biology? Its definition was like an enigma that I cannot seem to put my mind on it.
After national service, my first year at SUTD began and boy, was it difficult. Sticking to my formula of doing my best in the various subjects made me very miserable and exhausted because of the unnecessary self-inflicted pressure that I had on myself. Fortunately, it was through my first summer at MIT that made me realise that the end results do not really matter that much and it is more about the process of progressing towards a goal that is key. I learnt this particularly through the electric vehicle (EV) challenge.  Even though we suffered many drawbacks (e.g. failing to meet the final deadline as our electronics failed unexpectedly), I still enjoyed the process of making it as I knew that we did our best and I can still clearly remember the many funny and memorable moments that we had.
With this new insight of focusing on the journey, I started my next year fresh and held on to this even till now as I pen down this post.  This realisation made my time in SUTD more enjoyable and it also led me to many opportunities. Through these experiences, I finally know what engineering means to me and that is to give one’s all to make the best of the situation at hand while keeping the ideal one in mind.
Terry Ching from the EPD
My journey of self-discovery was definitely not straightforward. I came from an aeronautical engineering background from my polytechnic days. When I came to SUTD, I thought that ESD was the pillar for me. But, the multidisciplinary nature of our Freshmore year exposed me to a whole new world of knowledge and skills that changed my perception of the world, and also myself.
I found my place in Biomedical Engineering. … It has given me purpose and meaning that drives my passion

Jezamine Chua from ASD
Albeit fruitful and fulfilling, an internship before SUTD starkly narrowed my world view of what architecture was.  I entered SUTD aspiring to become an architect, and no one other than that. I was biased and blinded by a pursuit for an architecture that was as rigid and narrow as a tight rope, one that never truly spoke to me deep down. I thought I knew what architecture was all about, until I stepped into SUTD.
What is unique is that projects in SUTD never failed to revolve around people.
Beyond the classroom, life-changing moments, namely as GLP and local engagement in UROP (Ho Chi Minh Community design) were when I started to discover my vision - what architecture truly was to me, and my love for people - for inspiring, for engaging and for empowering others. Architecture to me was no longer solely the design of buildings and objects in the skyline; architecture presented a world of possibilities I never fathomed.
Just as how SUTD has greatly impacted and empowered me, I dream of making a difference as well.

These are powerful statements. Justin, Terry and Jezamine have been greatly impacted by their SUTD education. In their time here, they have managed to understand themselves better, take the initiative to hone their skills and accumulate relevant experiences to work toward their aspirations.  And, they share the same vision as SUTD – to make a difference and better the world.

I very much hope that each of you feels the same way.

As you have progressed and learned at SUTD, so have I. Today I take another step forward.   I have essentially no experience and knowledge of something that comes so naturally to all of you--social networking.  No Facebook, no Twittering, no WhatsApp!  However, I would like to share a parting congratulations in a form that is perhaps more comfortable to you than this lenghty speech. However, I would like to share a parting congratulations in a form that is perhaps more comfortable to you than this lengthy speech. My first ever use of social networking. I am taking out my phone and using Instagram stories to document and share today’s proceedings.

Thank you for my education.