As the country faces continued economic stagnation and long-term unemployment, private sector innovation remains a ray of hope in an oftentimes bleak landscape. The MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., and founded by the architect Nicholas Negroponte nearly 25 years ago, is famous for being a hotbed of radical innovation and futuristic vision. The lab's body of 150 masters and doctoral students works across disciplines -- from engineering to music -- to develop cutting-edge products ranging from robotic chandeliers to foldable cars.
While some of this is the stuff of movies (Media Lab alum John Underkoffler went on to consult for the film "Minority Report"), companies including Samsung, LG, Motorola and Toshiba (among others) have found the work at the labs compelling -- and potentially profitable -- enough to become corporate sponsors, a role with a price tag that begins at $200,000 and goes well into the millions. The companies share the aim of gaining access to the lab's forward-thinking talent and product development.
And while much of the work at the lab is focused on a society of the future, in many cases, that future isn't so far away.
"Ten years ago, the Media Lab was doing something very far out there," said Andrew Aftelak, director of Motorola's Applied Research Center. "They were talking about a lot of stuff that -- to a radio company -- was almost beyond anybody's horizon."
Aftelak continued, "But the way technology has developed, specifically through the Internet and web services, now you can see a route to market. Rather than some big strategic vision about 'This is the way the world will work,' the future is only one or two years away.”
In May, MIT named entrepreneur, innovator and investor Joichi Ito as the new director of the Media Lab. Ito is scheduled to begin his tenure in September -- a job he described as being similar to going swimming with sharks.
"Diving into the Media Lab seemed kind of daunting and scary," Ito said. "I don't have a college degree, I was worried about what the administration [would] think of me. There are parallels with diving with sharks."
As it turns out, shark diving is not actually all that scary, according to Ito -- who knows firsthand from time spent feeding sharks in the Bahamas. In the end, "the fear is baseless," he said. But the comparison is a testimonial to the daunting task facing him as he attempts to take the country's most forward-thinking institution into the future.
With Ito, MIT has made a very specific choice -- one suited to its cross-disciplinary curricula and relentless focus on innovation. Though he does not possess a college degree (Ito attended Tufts, the University of Chicago and took classes at the New School), he is an avid learner. In addition to shark diving, Ito has undergone a host of odd and otherwise unusual challenges, including moving to Dubai to "better understand the Middle East" and training in undersea search and rescue operations.
These activities are all part of Ito's desire to "keep pushing the edge" in a bid to keep his mind fertile and connections fresh. Thus far, the strategy has served him quite well: Now 44, Ito is one of the most influential denizens of the digital age. Attracted to the Internet while still in his teens, Ito set up the first Internet server in Japan, and developed the nation's first search engine.
He recently served as the Chair and CEO of Creative Commons, a leading non-profit focused on preserving access to information across the Internet, and has sat on the boards of the Mozilla Foundation, the Firefox offshoot promoting openness and innovation online, ICANN, dedicated to keeping the Internet "Secure, stable and interoperable," and the Open Source Initiative, which promotes open source software development.
"Half of my life has been spent keeping the Internet safe and open," Ito said. "And half of my life has been spent trying to build in layers." As a venture capitalist, Ito made early investments in companies including Last.fm, Twitter, Kickstarter and Flickr. He is also a "guild master" in the World of Warcraft game.
Ito makes a distinction between "education" and "learning," and said he aims to emphasize -- and preserve -- the spirit of the latter during his tenure at the Media Lab. "At a lot of other schools, the happiest day of a student's life is when they get out," he said. "That's what I find very interesting about the degree and accreditation system: there almost seems to be more of a focus on getting out of school than learning while you're there.”
In contrast, he noted, "Most of people at the Media Lab are almost sad when they leave. They're here and they're happy."
Among his top priorities, Ito said that he intends to put a greater focus on the "media" part of the lab, by "producing output, [holding] conferences, and inviting people together." One of the more significant changes he envisioned making was in the relationship between corporate sponsors and the school: "I will probably stop calling them 'sponsors' and start calling them 'members.' I want them to help us think about the future of media." Ito imagined bringing companies to the lab along with outside experts, to convene in a hybrid "Foo Camp-Davos- TED"-style forum, but one, he said, where "we actually build stuff."
Ito also values connectivity and is highly -- almost inhumanely -- connected. James Chan, the investment manager for Ito's venture capital company, Neoteny Labs, explained, ""The commitment he puts into being any and everywhere is insane."
Given his background in everything from gaming to finance to music (Ito, also a DJ, once ran a nightclub in Japan) Ito has a formidable Rolodex, which will presumably be put into use when he takes the helm of the Media Lab.
Ito cautioned that, "Whatever I pull in here will only get traction insofar as the students and faculty want to do it. I can’t order people to do stuff." But, he continued, "Just about every single thing that I’m interested in -- World of Warcraft, diving, Creative Commons, open source -- there’s always someone here who’s interested in it, or doing something with it. I can provide value by connecting them to someone on the outside."
In many ways, the Media Lab is a real-world iteration of Ito's wildly divergent interests. It is perhaps why he says, "It’s the closest thing to having all of the things I’ve done in one place." The advantage for Ito is that in the Media Lab he has found a built-in infrastructure to execute his vision. "In my past, that was the hardest thing. I’d have all these people and ideas, but without a central institution that can do something about it, you’d have to create the institution, create the non-profit, do the fundraising."
"Here," he said, "I just spin up a project, and then once it gets to a certain level, I can get funding. We have the luxury of core support that lets us to go off and experiment."
While Ito acknowledged that Silicon Valley is another place where innovative products would seem to benefit from significant resources, he cautioned that this is not always the case. Excepting top venture capital funds, he posited that many of the smaller investors "can't take real risks" because of concerns about profit and returns.
In years past, institutions like the Bell Labs served as hotbeds for innovation -- where far-fetched ideas were given the support and resources to develop into new technology. "But they’re gone," said Ito. "I’d be challenged to name any other institution that can do as much risky, fundamental research in this broadly-defined media space, as we do. That, I think, is our contribution."