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Still Taking Risks

Some insiders express fear that once the faculty starts thinking so much about the money that could come out of their ideas, they will hesitate to share their best thinking. “The change in trust and openness could rip us apart,” says Negroponte. “As soon as one person at the table isn’t open, it becomes an epidemic. We keep looking for ways to fight it.” Worries Pentland, “How do you manage that process without going down the slippery slope to hell?”

And what about the original mission to promulgate a novel style of academic environment? Largely ignored for years both inside and outside the lab, it is now moving to the forefront, as more and more senior faculty members start to question whether their enterprise has achieved the sort of pervasive, world-changing impact they once envisioned. The result is a plan to spread the model farther and wider by founding spinoff facilities. “This is a methodology,” says Bender. “We should be able to replicate it.”

The first such venture will be opening next year inside a former Guinness Brewery in the heart of Dublin. In affiliation with several as-yet-unnamed European universities-in Ireland and on the continent-the new MediaLabEurope will focus on the performing arts and media content. Latin America and Asia are being considered for a second spinoff. Besides extending the Media Lab’s reach, one benefit to these offspring is they can serve as relief valves for intellectual property conflicts at the mother ship, since their sponsorship models allow for easier migration of technology to startups.

It may seem a little foolhardy to tackle these sorts of spinoffs just as the lab finds itself grappling with its ambitious headquarters expansion and associated internal conflicts. On the other hand, says Negroponte, “We’ve always had a license to take risks.” So why put off safely for tomorrow what can be done dangerously today?

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