Olin College Commencement Speech

John Seely Brown:

Good afternoon. Today is a very special day for those of you graduating and your parents but it is also a special day for the world.

Here at Olin you have had a unique kind of educational experience – one that I wish more graduating seniors had had from our colleges and universities across the globe and certainly one that I personally wish I had had.

Yes, I went to Brown University – also a great school – but I was trained to be just a technical geek – worshiping technical problems that could be solved with mathematics, physics and computation.

Problems were like clocks; we viewed them as mechanisms that we could take apart, analyze, and solve through aggregating partial solutions. All problems were seen as technical in nature, isolated from the contexts that made them messier to work on.

But you are different – you have learned that many significant problems are, at their root, socio-technical. And that the problem, as stated, is almost never the real problem. You have learned how to unpack the problem as it is integrally associated with the context in which it is embedded.

You see the problem from many angles – the social, the cultural and the institutional as well as just the technical.

In design parlance you have learned to unpack and extend the brief – a talent you will find critical for all things as you venture forth from here today.

I did not have the luxury of your education but experiences quickly taught me the importance of looking beyond the problem as stated – to follow the problem out into its situated context and let it take you to its roots.