Less than 48 hours after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a commencement speech to newly minted New York University grads last Wednesday, Trudeau concluded his U.S. tour at another famed East Coast campus: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
On his Friday visit to the institution widely known for its scientific muscle, Nobel laureate alumni, and appearance in Good Will Hunting, Trudeau took the stage for a conversation about aligning technology in service to humanity. Sporting a blue-grey suit (sans jacket), a tie, and bright blue polka-dotted socks, Canada’s top official spoke to his excitement about being “where so many of the challenges of the future are not just being thought about—they’re being solved.”
“Canada is not some magical place where everything works and everyone’s nice all the time. Although we will say sorry if you bump into us.” – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
A vocal champion of Canada’s investments in technological innovation like AI, Trudeau was headlining Solve at MIT (an aptly named annual meeting bringing social entrepreneurs together with leaders in tech, government, academia, business, and philanthropy to crowdsource solutions to pressing global challenges). And he was indeed an innovative company; the three-day conference celebrated a class of social entrepreneurs including Emma Yang, who created an AI-powered app to help Alzheimer’s patients, and engineer Roya Mahboob, whose nonprofit Digital Citizen Fund teaches coding, blockchain, and robotics to Afghan girls. Other speakers included: Mozilla chairwoman Mitchell Baker, former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, social impact execs from Starbucks and Patagonia, former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
The appearance marked Trudeau’s first trip to Cambridge since becoming prime minister in 2015, though MIT President L. Rafael Reif insisted that the head of state ought to feel right at home.
To introduce Trudeau, Reif rattled off a rather extensive list of commonalities between MIT and Canada. Among them:
“Canada and MIT are both known for having a long, friendly rivalry with a slightly more famous neighbor.”
“Canada and MIT both chose leaders who are bilingual.”
“Canada and MIT are actually represented by the same symbolic animal: The Beaver. It’s true that MIT chose the beaver because it is nature’s engineer, and Canada chose the beaver because it was nature’s best source of fur to make fancy Victorian hats. But still, I feel there’s a kinship.”
“Canada and MIT are both home to a lot of brilliant Canadians. In our case, 261 students, 154 staff and 29 faculty members.”
“Canada and MIT are both famous for their winter sports: You have hockey. We have math.”
And, of course, said Reif, “both Canada and MIT are exceptionally diverse and welcoming communities focused on the future.”
A few highlights from the ensuing Q&A between Trudeau and Dr. Danielle Wood (a professor who leads the MIT Media Lab’s space-enabled research group and, fun fact, holds four MIT degrees):
On not being a mathlete:
“I’ve always been fascinated by physics and math… I even did two years of engineering, which I absolutely loved. But it was not for me. Matrix math is just a little further than I wanted to go… What I loved the most about it was that sense of problem-solving.”
On 21st century management:
“Leadership used to be very tribal. If you were the leader, it was because you were considered the best, or the strongest… representative of your tribe, whatever that tribe is… But we now have such diversity and such difference that leadership has to be much more about pulling together people who are different from each other—and therefore different from you—around a common purpose… How we create organizations and governments that actually do a better job—of not just recognizing and understanding the scope and scale of the challenges we’re facing, but convince their citizens that we do have to do something about this far-off problem that doesn’t seem tangible to you—is the challenge.”
“We tend to fall into this trap of, ‘Oh, the world’s terrible, and it’s getting worse.’ We see all this violence. I highly recommend a book by one of my favorite authors [Harvard psychology professor] Steven Pinker who wrote Enlightenment Now… It’s about how we understand that yes, the world is getting better, but we should not be complacent about it. And we should not be so down on ourselves and so prone to thinking the worst… We should be clear-eyed about… how we can use science and knowledge.”
“Canada is not some magical place where everything works and everyone’s nice all the time. Although we will say sorry if you bump into us.”
On the future:
“The pace of change has never been so fast, yet it will never be this slow again… Now we have to use our science, our knowledge, our brain—as opposed to our spinal column and instincts—to change our instincts, our approaches to solving problems… There are going to be tremendous shifts. And the choice we’ve made collectively as a country is to be part of it.”
Katie Sanders is a freelance features writer and editor. You can read her work in outlets such as Fast Company, Forbes, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, and Refinery29 and follow her on Twitter.