Challenging the I-Lab

The President’s Challenge distracts from real issues

“Fix the world.” This seems to be the gist of the task assigned to Harvard students in the so-called President’s Challenge, an initiative unveiled last week at Harvard’s Innovation Lab by University President Drew G. Faust. Her challenge asked Harvard affiliates from both the College and the graduate schools to come up with an innovative, social entrepreneurial solution to address problems including clean air and water, education, and global health. Harvard is offering a $100,000 prize to be shared by the three top student groups that produce the best work in answer to these pressing issues. Bold and ambitious to say the least, Harvard’s I-Lab seems to be the place that our administration believes can cure the world’s ills.

Clearly, Harvard is home to an intelligent population of young minds. We are, however, by no means home to the only concentration of bright individuals devoting themselves to addressing humanity’s greatest challenges. Many have in fact devoted their entire lives, not simply extracurricular time at college to these pursuits. The notion that ad hoc coalitions of young adults can succeed in endeavors in which so many others have yet to break through seems at once idealistic and a bit presumptuous.

While Harvard should not be faulted for teaching students to be idealistic, other recent programs and initiatives have similarly strayed too close to serving as nothing more than high profile photo-ops. Such photo-ops are themselves not inherently detrimental. Harvard occupies an elevated place on the world stage, so it is allowed to show off its talent pool from time to time. But these events become problematic when they distract from legitimate functions and goals that Harvard should be striving for. While it would be great if students could come up with solutions for clean water problems, not to mention global hunger while they’re at it, Harvard ought not to let such pursuits distract from its real mission—education. By focusing rather on classroom instruction on these problems instead of collaborative group work, Harvard graduates would be prepared with more than just their brains and a designated space across the river to combat the world’s worst crises.

A fundamental purpose of the President’s Challenge seems in fact to assign purpose to the newly built I-Lab. A $20 million building near the Harvard Business School in Allston, the I-Lab was constructed after the administration shelved the construction of the new Science Complex development on its extensive Allston property. The motive behind the I-Lab is no doubt a well-intentioned one, to connect ambitious, entrepreneurial students with other like-minded peers, but at present its actual function seems nebulous at best. In its most useful capacity, the I-Lab would provide space for post-graduates to work in start-ups, but instead it has become the nexus of distracting mixers and eye-catching but ambiguous administration initiatives. If the President’s Challenge is to become a main feature of the I-Lab, it remains to be seen what will happen to this space after the top three student groups have received their $100,000.

The I-Lab has been heralded as a way to promote social entrepreneurship that will give back to the Allston community, but a serious question mark remains as to how much the lab and the President’s Challenge can actually benefit the local population.  While the entire world would certainly benefit from clean air, clean water, education, global health, and personal health—the Challenge’s stated target areas—none of this is likely to address the fundamental needs of a local population that has been badly served by Harvard’s ambitious and unfulfilled building projects. If the I-Lab is merely the latest effort to make reparations to a yet-uncompensated community and show the rest of the world that Harvard does care about Allston, then the University can frankly still do much better. Allston’s residents might get more out of the mini golf course Harvard initially installed to mitigate their anger.  Encouraging innovation is one thing, but cleaning up the mess in Allston is quite another.