James Utterback, MIT professor: "Working with students gave me the greatest satisfaction"
In a world dominated by social media, MIT professor James Utterback calls attention to the physical world. "That's where the real challenges for the future lay. But I have confidence in the young generation. They will surprise us with their creativity."
"I am no stranger to Leuven," says James Utterback (70) on the phone from Cambridge in the US. "I have given lectures and seminars there, but this honorary doctorate was still a complete surprise. I think it's wonderful, and it's great to see how the university brings together different perspectives."
Utterback's perspective comes from the vantage point of engineering and management. He helped found the MIT Industrial Liaison Program at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which promotes cooperation between the university and industry. He is an authority on innovation and spin-offs, and is Professor of Management and Innovation and Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT.
"I've been fascinated my whole life by how things are made and how to make them better. As a child I collected minerals and built a telescope. It was unthinkable then that you could observe hundreds of planets around very distant stars. That we can do this today is very significant. Our understanding of nature is becoming increasingly profound and that knowledge can be used in design."
Utterback has shifted his emphasis in the course of his long career from materials to manufacturing and design. His most recent research addresses how products and processes evolve together. "I am particularly fascinated by how new and old technologies compete with each other. That tension is absolutely fascinating. In the midst of this recession, it's interesting to note that established industry accounts for 90% of all economic activity, while the new businesses and the internet companies we hear so much about provide only 10% of total jobs. Still, we cannot just retrench; we must keep investing in research and education."
"At MIT, we ask ourselves what we should teach students and what projects we should encourage in the lab. Students will face very different challenges in thirty years than we face today. At MIT, we published a list of eight key challenges for the future. Water, energy, environment, food and healthcare are included. The difficulty is that these challenges are deeply related to one another."
"That is why I find my most recent research so exciting. We look at start-ups at the intersection of nanotechnology and biotechnology. When new fields such as these come together, very challenging interactions and opportunities arise. Some might contribute to producing the energy miracle we need. Often creativity comes from diverse sources of knowledge that are combined in surprising and new ways."
But his greatest satisfaction comes from working with students, says Utterback. "Of course, there are the grades, the books and the papers, but often I write them together with students. It is sometimes quite shocking when someone tells me that I've changed their lives simply by saying that he or she has done some fine research and might enjoy being a professor. I always say such things honestly and with the best intentions. Benjamin Franklin said, "speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody."
"Young people often surprise us with their creativity, but we cannot forget the elderly. If I could add one challenge to MIT's list, it would be the demographic shift linked to equality and social justice. In the next twenty to thirty years, the population in many countries will age dramatically and perhaps decline. This demographic shift will hit earliest and hardest in Europe and Japan."
"Here at MIT, we think about this a lot. We even have an 'age lab' in my department that focuses on designing for people with limited vision, mobility, strength or even cognition, in the case of dementia. How can you design a car, for example, that can still be driven safely? It is the task of the engineers to rethink a great many things."
"You know, I listen to the buzz and it's all about social media. I don’t want to be unappreciative about that, but there is also a real world out there that affects everyone. We shouldn't forget that."