MIT hosts China Summit, additional gatherings in Beijing

Earlier this month, MIT President L. Rafael Reif traveled to China with MIT faculty, senior leadership, and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation — the Institute’s board of trustees — in order to host a marquee one-day summit; a gathering of MIT alumni in China; and smaller, satellite events led by MIT faculty. The gatherings attracted some of China’s most influential and innovative business leaders, investors, entrepreneurs, government leaders, and academics to discuss some of the most exciting topics at the frontiers of science and technology and the role of research and education in shaping tomorrow’s world.

The MIT China Summit, which took place in Beijing on Nov. 13, and which was hosted in partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, highlighted the longstanding relationship between MIT and China. Since the enrollment of the first MIT student from China 140 years ago, students, faculty, alumni, staff, and MIT’s many friends in China have built a strong foundation of familiarity and collaboration.

The summit centered on subjects of mutual interest to MIT and China. A mix of speakers from MIT and from institutions in China discussed the frontiers of science in both countries; the current state of artificial intelligence; global challenges that can benefit from the multinational collaboration; the effects of financial innovation on society; and new ideas for educational innovation. Additionally, the audience heard from young Chinese scientists and business leaders noted by MIT Technology Review for their cutting-edge work.

“In a way, it is surprising that this is the first MIT China Summit, because the ties between MIT and China have been longstanding,” said President Reif in opening remarks. “These connections between MIT and China have been in place for so long that we could simply have allowed them to continue to flourish, unattended. But,” he continued, “we saw this summit as a powerful way to respond to an emerging reality.” According to Reif, as a global university focused on solving humanity’s great global challenges, MIT is naturally drawn to work with others around the world, including in China, who share those aspirations.

The idea for the summit stemmed from “A Global Strategy for MIT,” a report published last year in order to identify core principles to guide MIT’s future international engagement, said Richard Lester, associate provost for international activities. One of the report’s recommendations was for the Institute to convene periodic summits in different regions of the world to demonstrate MIT’s interest in working in and learning from partners in these regions. The goal of these summits is to present MIT as a leader, innovator, and convener on major global challenges involving science and technology, including economic and social aspects, to increase regional knowledge of how MIT works and what it stands for, and to provide a focus for exploring new strategic opportunities for MIT in the region. This was the first such summit. 

China is advancing rapidly in critical fields of science and technology. In areas such as quantum computing, 5G technology, and facial and spoken-language recognition, China is playing a leading role. The Chinese are also making bold national investments in key areas of research such as biotechnology and space, and directly supporting startups and recruiting talent from around the world. Chinese researchers are increasingly present at the frontiers of science and technology.

“Given our respect for China’s enormous strengths,” Reif said in his remarks, “we come to you eager to imagine how we can best make progress, together, on the serious problems of the world. We see our own strength as rooted in a national culture of openness, opportunity, and entrepreneurship. It is inspired by an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and supported by the rule of law. And, most importantly, we know that we reach new heights of creativity by uniting brilliant talent from every sector of society and every corner of the world.”

Attending MIT faculty included: Gang Chen, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; Eric Grimson, chancellor for academic advancement; Yasheng Huang, professor of international management; Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab; Dina Katabi, professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Retsef Levi, professor in the Sloan School of Management; Nergis Mavalvala, professor in the Department of Physics; Robert C. Merton, Nobel laureate and distinguished professor of finance; Melissa Nobles, dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab; Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Sanjay Sarma, vice president for open learning; Martin Schmidt, MIT provost; Siqi Zheng, director of the China Future City Lab; and Maria Zuber, MIT vice president for research.

In the summit’s closing remarks, Lester said, “A hundred years ago, Chinese students were doing important things on the MIT campus. Today, more MIT faculty and students come from China than from any nation except the U.S. A hundred years from now, we expect MIT’s relationship with China to be even more important. There will be ups and downs along the way. Just as there have been before. And just as there are today. But in the long term, we know that real human progress comes from working together.” 

In conjunction with the summit, the Institute hosted Better World (Beijing), an alumni community event that marked MIT’s largest-ever gathering on record of MIT graduates in Greater China. Held Nov. 12 at the Bulgari Hotel in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, the evening included a reception and program featuring a sit-down conversation with President Reif, who shared his reflections on MIT’s recent milestone moments, including the creation of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing and the opening of the MIT.nano building, and who encouraged the more than 250 alumni and guests to stay engaged with the Institute and with one another. Later, event attendees had the opportunity to connect with several members of the faculty visiting Beijing for the summit and learn firsthand how their work is furthering MIT’s leadership in education, research, and innovation.

“The feeling in the room was electric,” said Alumni Association CEO Whitney Espich. “MIT alumni in China were highly engaged with each other and gave a very warm welcome to those who had traveled to Beijing. It was a memorable night for MIT.”

On the morning of Nov. 12, Reif and the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation met with China’s vice president, Wang Qishan, to discuss relations between China and the United States and the role of scientific collaboration.

Upon returning from China, Reif said, “On behalf of MIT, I wish to thank Vice President Wang for welcoming MIT leadership to China, and for taking the time to meet with us. It was an honor. I am also deeply grateful to Chunli Bai, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who helped us to host a very special summit. MIT departed from Beijing with an improved understanding of China, and with great excitement about the many goals we share in common. To all who helped make us feel so very welcome, I offer the Institute’s profound gratitude.”

The day before the summit featured several activities and events hosted by MIT around Beijing. One, the MIT China New City Forum, was hosted by the MIT China Future City Lab and co-organized by the China Development Planning Institute of Tsinghua University. Scholars, policymakers from China and the U.S., and industry leaders of China’s new city development gathered to discuss urbanization in China and around the globe. The dialogue offered new perspectives on China’s urbanization. The event attracted more than 150 people from academia, government, industry, and media.

The student-led MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum hosted a pitch event in Soho 3Q. Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering at MIT and Charles Sodini, the LeBel Professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT, discussed the transformative paths that bridge academic discovery and its application in the market. MIT-affiliated startups pitched an audience of venture capitalists and MIT alumni. The teams — ISEE, Vthree.AI, DGene, XtalPi, OppenFuture, Labby and Woobo — provided solutions in artificial intelligence for self-driving cars, energy-saving technology, drug discovery and development, virtual reality, 3-D light fields, nutritional monitoring, and smart education.

MIT Sloan Global Programs (GP) held its inaugural International Faculty Fellows Conference at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management. The conference focused on China’s management education and covered various topics, including the IFFs’ experience at MIT Sloan and its current research in AI, globalization, entrepreneurship, and business and society. The audience included International Faculty Fellows, deans, and staff from GP’s partner schools in the region: Tsinghua, Fudan, Lingnan, and Yunnan. Participants heard from MIT Sloan School of Management Distinguished Professor of Finance and Nobel laureate Robert Merton about financial science and retirement planning. During the deans’ panel, MIT Sloan Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Master’s Programs Jacob Cohen discussed the future of the MBA. The deans spoke about the value of the IFF Program and expressed their goal of ensuring it is part of future partnership agreements. They also agreed to continue to host this conference on a rotating basis.

During MIT Professional Education’s inaugural “Leading Innovation” workshop, Professor Sanjay Sarma argued that technology is an enabler of today’s innovation, but it is not innovation itself. Markets, he said, need to examine the end-user experience and develop technologies to improve it. Teaching alongside Sarma, Senior Lecturer David Nino provided insights on the development of effective teams. This two-hour interactive workshop was attended by more than 50 MIT alumni, corporate members, and academic leaders. Executive Director of MIT Professional Education Bhaskar Pant emphasized the importance of lifelong learning journeys for those in the position to make practical impact in today’s globalized society.