Directing an institution like the MIT Media Lab is an improbable-sounding job for a college dropout. But when Joichi “Joi” Ito traveled to Cambridge from his home in Japan last year to interview for it, he soon demonstrated why he’s suited to leading an institution that says it focuses on “human adaptability.” He’d been meeting with students and faculty for just a day when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off Japan’s coast, triggering a tsunami and the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl. The phones were down. Frantic for news about his family and the radiation risk, Ito hit the Internet.
Within several hours, he confirmed that his family was fine. But his quest for radiation information, which started with late-night e-mails and Twitter bursts, quickly grew into a global volunteer operation now known as Safecast. A nonprofit organization sprouted up, and in a matter of months it had designed, built, and fielded a global network of mobile Geiger counters, and then aggregated the data and produced Web maps of radiation readings. To date, Safecast’s volunteers have gathered and mapped more than three million readings.
“When you have these massive events, a lot of the networks you’ve created kick into action,” Ito says. “Within a week, we had experts in hardware and radiation and physiology and sensors and manufacturing.”
Ito’s experience facilitating this type of fast-moving, seat-of-the-pants innovation helped land him the job of Media Lab director. Founded in 1985, the Media Lab has always been a “just build it” kind of place, favoring practice over theory and construction over instruction in its quest to envision the impact of emerging technologies. Ito, the lab’s fourth director, brings an open, collaborative orientation that’s changing the way it educates would-be innovators, engages the companies that fund much of its research, and shares information about its projects with the outside world.
“Joi will move the lab away from objects to networks, away from self and to community,” says Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte. “He is perfect for the times.”
Ito, 46, grew up in Japan and the United States, the son of a chemist father and a mother who worked for a Japanese broadcasting company. Though he never finished college (he started twice, enrolling at Tufts for a BS in electrical engineering and at the University of Chicago for physics), his résumé is impressive; he helped launch the first commercial ISP in Japan and was an early investor in more than 40 companies, including Flickr, Kickstarter, and Twitter. He’s an outspoken supporter of digital freedom and is the former CEO and current chair of Creative Commons, which promotes digital sharing of photos, music, and other creative assets. He advocates for political freedom as well, sitting on the board of the human rights group Witness. He’s fascinated by communities, learning from versions both virtual, such as the one surrounding the game World of Warcraft (where he’s achieved guild master status), and physical, such as the one he observed coming together during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when he worked as a DJ in the Chicago nightclub scene. He’s a voracious independent learner, studying topics as diverse as scuba diving (which he’s done in shark-infested waters) and the teachings of the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. (“Anyone can learn to meditate in the monastery,” Ito says, paraphrasing Hanh. “It’s learning to meditate while you’re in the real world that’s the challenge.”) “I learn a lot by interacting with people, more than by reading and listening to lectures,” he says.
One might think it would be a bit intimidating to arrive at MIT without standard academic credentials, or even an undergraduate degree. But many people see it as a badge of honor for Ito. Negroponte is one of them. “The fact that his own learning was interest-driven is a feature, not a bug,” he says. And there’s a practical benefit to Ito’s sidestepping of traditional academic channels: “It helps me focus a lot more on the Institute if I don’t have to worry about my credentials,” Ito says with a laugh. “And by not having any, it’s really easy not to have to focus on that.”
Instead, Ito is focused on changing the way the Media Lab interacts with the more than 80 “sponsors”—mostly hardware companies and big corporations—that provide some 85 percent of its funding. Ito says the lab offers the kind of peripheral vision that can’t be found in corporate labs. “We give sponsors a glimpse into disruptive spaces,” he says. “Our main output is ideas, not pieces of code … [Sponsors] will make multibillion-dollar decisions differently because of what they saw at the Media Lab.”
A semantic shift—calling corporate funders “members” rather than “sponsors”—signals this change in orientation. The old Media Lab was like a “container”—a repository for information—and Ito wants to make it more like a platform for innovation, by organizing more meetings among members and by inviting nonprofits and foundations to become members as well. “I want a lot of our value to be interactions between the members, instead of just hub-and-spoke relationships with us,” he says.
As part of this shift, the lab has become a Creative Commons licenser and started streaming all its talks and research updates, which used to be given only to its sponsors in private. Ito is also blogging about the goings-on at the lab. “These days, if you’re not searchable on the Internet, you’re not very relevant,” he says. “The best way to find people who are interested in what we’re doing now … is to be open.”
Some sponsors have expressed concern about these changes, Ito says, thinking that “open” means giving everything away. He stresses that this is not the case; some types of intellectual property, such as medical research, may need to be protected. Instead, he says, his approach parallels that of online education efforts such as the MITx initiative, which has begun offering MIT courses free over the Internet (see “Is MIT Giving Away the Farm?”) . Putting lectures online does not devalue the MIT educational experience for students on campus, he says; it means that MIT students can watch the lectures at home and then spend time in the classroom talking to professors and other students and building things in the lab. “The scarcest resource today is relationships,” Ito says. “The minute that you start thinking the output of the Media Lab is a bunch of papers, that’s broken from an Internet perspective.”
The Media Lab’s 26 research groups and 350 research projects are loosely united by a common theme of how emerging technologies can fundamentally transform everyday life. At the synthetic-neurobiology lab, for example, researchers are developing tools for analyzing, controlling, and engineering neural circuits; the fluid interfaces group, meanwhile, explores novel ways to integrate digital information into human life through technologies such as Cornucopia, a 3-D printer for food.
One thing the Media Lab lacks, though, is what Ito calls a “grand challenge”—a set of initiatives “that affect billions of lives, that are completely unique and kind of magical,” and that will help the lab tell its story to funders and the world. Ito has begun brainstorming with faculty about what such initiatives could look like. He cites as a model the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, a challenge aimed at developing a real-life equivalent to the fictional device, familiar to Star Trek fans, that offers instant medical diagnoses through rapid, noninvasive body scans. That “grabs your imagination in a very different way than saying ‘We are interested in hospital biometrics,’” he says.
The future of innovation and education
The cost of trying out new technologies has gone down substantially, Ito says, thanks to the Internet, open software, and open hardware such as the Arduino board, an open-source platform for prototyping electronic devices (David Mellis, a Media Lab graduate student, is the lead software developer for Arduino). Safecast is a perfect example, Ito says, of this fast-moving style of innovation—and also of “the power of pull,” to use a phrase coined by former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown that’s become part of his lexicon. It refers to a more flexible model for individuals, companies, and even educational institutions that must move faster than they did in the past. Traditionally, companies would spend a lot of time amassing knowledge and crafting careful plans before venturing into a new market, and they’d raise money before building a product. Today, though, “learning a bunch of stuff because you may use it later is a pretty risky bet in a world where things are changing very quickly,” Ito says. The power of pull inverts that approach: “You come up with an idea, you pull the resources and learn what you need, and then you build it, and then you raise the money.”
The best way to prepare students to thrive in this new environment, says Ito, is to emphasize project-oriented and interest-driven learning over the traditional academic approach of accumulating knowledge that one may (or may not) use later: “It’s ‘I want to do this. What do I need to learn in order to do that?’ rather than ‘I’ve just learned this. What do I do now?’” He sees the Media Lab as a prototype for such a shift and thinks degrees should be a by-product of education, not the focus.
Unsurprisingly, one of Ito’s priorities is to see the Media Lab do a better job of supporting students with entrepreneurial aims—and keeping ties to them after graduation, through channels such as a more formal Media Lab alumni group. Students interested in going the startup route often have a lot of anxiety as they scramble to work on a demo or line up funding, he says: “I want to get rid of that anxiety so they can focus on their academics while they’re in school.”
Ito has a vision for changing the way the lab interacts with the rest of MIT as well. Historically, he says, the Media Lab has been a place “where the misfits went to hang out”—its researchers and ideas did not fit in easily at the Institute.
“A long-term goal is to see us being more involved in helping plot the future of MIT, rather than just being the release valve,” he says. “And hopefully, if I don’t get fired, I’m here for the long haul.”