MARK JANNOT: Let’s start with the Media Lab itself. I read in your blog about your first visit to Media Lab and how you “found your tribe.” Can you expand on what defines that tribe and its mission?
JOI ITO: It’s the freedom to be interested in anything. And it’s the intuition to just build it, just go ahead and build it. It’s a risk-taking, extremely creative, build-oriented, multi-disciplinary place where there isn’t a single thing that we would ever say we would never do. There isn’t a field or an area that is off-limits for us.
MJ: Within that broad of a purview, how do you actually define down what you and your students and your professors are going to focus on?
JI: We don’t do things that other people are already doing or could do better, so that’s one constraint. The other constraint is we don’t do things that are completely theoretical, where you sit around and talk about stuff. We do things that can be rendered into some software or some thing; it has to be something that we can at least build some prototype or pre-prototype of. There are so many places that are very good at being very good at a very narrow thing. That’s kind of what specialization has done—the Industrial Revolution and the nature of the firm and all the different efforts to be more efficient have led us to become very deep and very specialized. The generalists that connect these parts together, the Thomas Jeffersons—those sorts of people don’t have a home right now. It’s very difficult to be a generalist that can actually get stuff done. And I think the Media Lab is unique in its ability to be multi-disciplinary but execution-oriented.
What’s really neat about having a strong interdisciplinary group like this is you’ll see the designer and the computer scientist and the education specialist and the civil activist getting together and working on a project where you’re not sitting around writing proposals and specifications, you’re all watching a screen together brainstorming, just building the thing together. There’s a certain amount of rigor that comes out of building stuff. When you build something, there really is no way to misunderstand what this does.
MJ: I recall you saying around the time of your appointment, “The thing about world-changing innovation is that it’s totally unpredictable.” Given that, how do you foster innovation, and then how do you pick the winners?
JI: Well, I don’t think that you want to tell anybody that they can’t do anything. You try to seize those serendipitous moments. If you happen to be in a room and you all come up with an idea, the trick is to not sit around and spend a lot of time figuring out if you should do it—you should just do it. And then if it is a failure, learn from it, and if it’s not, continue working on it. Most open-source projects are failures; 99 percent of them have almost no downloads. But then you get Firefox and Linux and Wikipedia. If you look at Linus’s first post on Usenet, it’s like, “Oh yeah, I’m working on a kernel, it may or may not be a big project, but if anybody wants to join, send an e-mail.” And you could never have picked that as a winner.
MJ: But even if you fail quickly, doesn’t an ethic of do, do, do end up racking up heavy costs?
JI: Well, if you were working at Popular Science and someone come up to you and said, “Give me $100,000, I’m going to make a website that anybody can edit and it’s going to become bigger than Encyclopedia Britannica,” you probably wouldn’t have given the guy 100,000 bucks. But if it didn’t cost anything for them to start, you would’ve said, “OK, why not.” So part of what drives innovation today has to do with the tremendous decrease in the cost of production, distribution and collaboration, because it allows us to try things out without spending a lot of money. It actually becomes cheaper to do it than to sit around and talk about it.
MJ: OK, I can see that with software, but what about when you’re actually building stuff?
JI: We’ve got Fab Lab downstairs. We can build little micro-size robots, we can build cars. The fact that we can go to the Fab Lab and just build things suddenly does to hardware what open source did to software.
MJ: Won’t there still be a significantly greater barrier to creating it physically than there is virtually?
JI: Today maybe, but it will continue to improve with open-source hardware, where you can download files and modify them and you don’t need to design every piece of what you’re doing. And then, with 3-D printers becoming cheaper and higher-quality, you’ll very quickly be able to print your prototype.
MJ: How do you find people who can embrace this “just do it” mentality?
JI: You have to pick people who are inclined to think big and to be risk-takers but also tend to be very collaborative and open. And they really have to be self-learners, self-motivated, and people who question authority and think for themselves. Because a lot of people want to be told what to do and like to feel like they’re being productive by doing repetitive tasks.
MJ: Your investment fund is named Neoteny. What does that mean?
JI: “Neoteny” is the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood. As a child you learn, you have wonder, you’re curious, and every day’s a new day. But at some point you become an adult. And as an adult you focus on producing, reproducing, protecting. In the old days, the world didn’t change very much, so once you became a plumber, you didn’t really need to learn that much more about plumbing. Today you have to keep learning, and learning is somewhat of a childlike behavior. We want the Media Lab to be more like kindergarten and less like a lumber mill.
MJ: This acceleration of change in which we have to be lifelong learners to survive is presumably going to continue. This doesn’t slow down, does it?
JI: I don’t know for sure that it’s not going to get crazy or worse or that we’re not all go- ing to go insane. But I think the speed and chaos is only scary when you are trying to be in control. You need to give up the idea of control and be confident in your ability to pull things together as you go. There’s so much information now that you can’t get any more information overload. Drowning in 10 feet of water isn’t any different than drowning in a million feet. And if you can swim, it doesn’t matter how deep the ocean is. At some level, once you realize you’re in water that’s too deep to stand, you have to have a very different approach, which is basically: Plans don’t work, mapping doesn’t work. You need a compass and a trajectory and some values to figure it out as you go along.
MJ: Final thoughts on what drives innovation?
JI: Well, the idea that enlightened self-interest is how the world goes around, I think, is an old idea. When people talk about innovation as if it were a government or corporate or academic thing, I think they’re missing a huge reason why people do innovative things. In fact, a lot of us do things for the love of it.