How Joi Ito Can Help MIT Media Lab Win Back the Future

Joi Ito, CC licensed by Joi ItoThe announcement that entrepreneur and investor Joi Ito will be taking over as the head of MIT’s venerable Media Lab was notable for several reasons. He’s a notable political activist; he’s Japanese; and, as John Markoff pointed out in the New York Times (s nyt), he didn’t even graduate college — let alone come from the world of academic tenure.

But the news is important for another reason: It’s a chance for the Lab to start shaping the future once again.

When he takes up the role after the summer, Ito will be only the fourth person to have led the Media Lab in its 26-year history. The lab’s story is dominated by founding director Nicholas Negroponte (an architect), who was then succeeded by Walter Bender (who left to join Negroponte as head of software for the One Laptop Per Child project). In 2006, outgoing head Frank Moss, who made his reputation largely in and around IBM (s ibm), took over and tried to guide it through tricky financial waters.

Now the Lab seems stable, with more than 60 corporate sponsors, but it faces another challenge: remaining relevant. During the early days of the digital revolution, just as the web started to gain traction, the Media Lab represented the pinnacle of a certain sort of creative approach to technology: happy to explore ideas at the fringe of our experience and turn them into practical systems. Negroponte was a spokesman for the digerati; he was the first investor in Wired, and a columnist for many years. As a result, the Lab has been massively influential in developing technologies such as electronic ink, affordable computing — as well as being an incubator for creative technologists who want to change the world, not just make piles of cash.

Today the Lab continues under the slogan “inventing a better future,” but in recent years, it has felt as if it has ceded that future to corporate technology companies. The momentum of the Lab under Negroponte’s guidance has faded; our sense of tomorrow replaced — in many cases — by the deep pockets of Google, (s goog) Apple (s aapl) and others. What we perceive as innovation is often merely a minor product iteration or the obvious march of progress. Things get faster, smaller, more connected, but they don’t often change the way the world works.

None of this is to say the work being done at the Lab isn’t fantastic. I’ve visited once or twice, and some of the projects I’ve seen have been truly astounding. Reading the research pages is always exciting. But it feels as if somehow the message has been lost as the playground of the web has been taken over by those who can profit from it.

The mythology and grandeur of free-thinking invention has been overtaken by the demands of venture capital and the public markets. Judging by Ito’s announcement, he feels something similar. He describes his early meetings with MIT faculty and staff, and there’s a sense of dynamism that needs to be harnessed so that everyone can benefit.

Everyone was super-smart, driven, working on very cool stuff. They weren’t afraid to try anything. There was extreme diversity but also a common DNA. I felt a sense of mission that seemed driven by the physical proximity created by the space and the empowering brand and legacy of the Media Lab. It created a power to think long-term with agility that I’d never seen anywhere else.

People talked matter-of-factly about getting sensors from this lab, maybe we need a tissue scientist, and robots from that lab, and visualization from this lab to take this research in this other direction.

It was a firehouse of interconnections and creativity — I was completely energized and felt totally in my element

Ito’s biggest task, perhaps, is to really take on Negroponte’s role and convince us we haven’t yet reached peak innovation — and that perhaps that wherever the future does lie, it might not come from where we expect it to.

Photograph by Dean Ornish used under CC license, courtesy of Joi Ito