MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito on Digital Innovation and Disruption


The MIT Media Lab encourages the unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas. Today, faculty members, research staff, and students at the Lab work in 24 research groups on more than 350 projects that range from digital approaches for treating neurological disorders, to advanced imaging technologies that can “see around a corner,” to the world’s first “smart” ankle-foot prosthesis. The Lab is supported by more than 80 members—including some of the world’s leading corporations—representing such diverse fields as electronics, entertainment, fashion, health care, and telecommunications.

Joichi "Joi" Ito, the Lab's director since 2011, has been recognized for his work as an activist, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and advocate of emergent democracy, privacy, and Internet freedom. He is currently exploring how radical new approaches to science and technology can transform society in substantial and positive ways. Soon after coming to MIT, Ito introduced mindfulness meditation training to the Media Lab. Together with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, the founding director of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, Ito is promoting the importance of awareness and focus to the creativity process.

Recently, Ito sat down with Alison Sander, the director of BCG's Center for Sensing and Mining the Future. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow. 

Joi, thank you so much for taking the time to join us and for sharing your insights today.

It's a real pleasure to be here, and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

I'd like to start with your concept of "permissionless innovation," which, as I understand it, is moving innovation from large institutions to the edges—to the streets, kitchens, garages, and dorm rooms. What does it mean to you to live in a world of permissionless innovation, and what are the implications for all of us?

I think the main driver of permissionless innovation is that the cost of innovation is going down—because of the Internet, Moore's Law, and even the new advances in manufacturing technology, prototyping technology, and life sciences. The reason you usually need permission (other than regulatory issues) is that you need money.

Google, Yahoo, and Facebook all created their products before they raised any money. By the time they came around, all you needed was a PC, open-source free software, and the Internet to launch a company. So, what I mean by permissionless innovation is that those companies didn't need to ask anybody for permission to launch something.

You've cited Nicholas Negroponte's quote that "biology is the next digital." I'd love to hear more about that shift and where you think that disruption will take us.

Biology and medicine as disciplines have been fairly siloed. I think what we realize now—as we start to have new tools and understand how genes, molecules, and the microbiome work, and we begin to unlock these new things that we didn't know about and to understand more and more about these systems—is that it's fascinating the way things are evolving, but it's not like we've solved it all. Now that we see all these other layers, we're able to bring in other tools from other disciplines, things like machine learning, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, electronics, circuits to connect to the brain, and new ways of doing drug discovery.

We've also started to see a blurring between what we think is artificial and what we think is natural. There are influences going both ways, so you see engineering influencing, trying to manage, pushing into nature, but you also see nature aesthetics being pushed into science. The metaphorical reason is similar to digital. If you remember 30 years ago, a lot of people thought digital was something that the IT department did. The CEO of a company didn't need to have an Internet strategy for the longest time. Now every single company—even those that thought they could survive without doing anything on the Internet—has to do something on the Internet, whether you're a coal mine or a fishery. Similarly, everybody in the world will have to have some sort of biological literacy, because it's going to be involved in everything.

In a permissionless innovation world, where we can change gene structure and genetics, what kind of guardrails can we or should we put up?

There's a category of design that is often called "participant" or "participatory" design. Instead of me, the designer, designing for you, the customer, it's me the designer designing for me as a participant in the system. Then you get a sense of responsibility and understanding. So, if you're a scientist, does your intervention affect any systems—the education system, the ecology, the health system, the aesthetics? You have to own all of it because you live in this system.

I'll give one example. In the early days of the Internet, I knew dozens of people who could destroy it. They could have shut down the Internet. Even today, I'm sure there are a few. Why don't they do that? Because the people who could shut down the Internet are the ones who use it the most and live in it. If the kids who have the tools feel like participants in the system, feel responsible for the system, and realize that they can screw it up but they could also make it better, then it's a very different thing than designing something for somebody else.

It's almost counter to what we're used to doing, which is trying to control and shut people out.

That's right. I think that's a very generalizable principle. So if you're a company with a top-down, command-and-control structure, it's no longer the case that a small number of smart people can understand everything. Opening up your borders and pulling things from the edges and from the bottom up is important.

As the Media Lab enters its fourth decade, how do you see its unique essence evolving, and what would you like to see in the next decade?

What's interesting about the Media Lab is that the core DNA that Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner planted 30 years ago is consistent and relevant today. A key component of that is what we call "antidisciplinary." "Interdisciplinary" is when the biologists and the engineer talk to each other. Antidisciplinary is all the space that's none of the above. In the past, it was when media and digital were converging. Then we saw it happening in social networks and big data, and now it's happening in biology. The need for antidisciplinary thought is increasing in importance and moving into the hard sciences in addition to the traditional things like human-interface design.

I would consider myself traditional-education disabled. There's a certain set of people who are very good at learning through a traditional structure, and the system is well designed for them, mostly. But there's a set of us—we call them "interest-driven learners"—who are just not able to sit through and learn things unless we know how we're going to use them. Interest-driven learners need a purpose, a project, and in pursuit of that project, they'll learn everything they need to learn in order to get it done. The Media Lab's learning model is really around learning through doing and learning through pulling things as you need them to learn the process.

I think that model works really well in the current world because our kids know more than the adults, so it's very difficult to tell kids exactly what they should know, because the technology's moving way too fast. What you want is to coach the kids and empower them to learn as they need it. And not just kids, but the people in your company. They're touching so many different things and so many different networks that the strategic planners or the CEO can't understand every possible adjacent opportunity. By empowering people to think and pull the resources as they need them, you gain this ability to search and discover in ways that you couldn't before. That's in the Media Lab's DNA, so all the companies and students that come here share that.

As a self-proclaimed non-traditionalist in a fairly traditional but very complex environment, what mix do you have of traditional leadership functions and innovative networked ones?

I try to use all the tools that work well. We do 360s, and I really focus on making sure the accounting system works. The metaphor I often use—it's not the perfect one—is being a gardener. I want to make sure that the irrigation and fences are working, that the compost is alive, and that the plants are in roughly the right place, but I don't tell the plants how to grow. I watch how the garden's evolving. I may move things around, and I may prune here and there. But it's not under my control.

I used to be a disc jockey in a nightclub, and the work is very similar. You get a sense of the room, and you decide which path to take. You can increase or decrease the energy in the room. By changing the music you're playing, you can get people to sweat so they go to the bar. That's kind of what I have here. I can play the background music, but I can't tell people what to do. As you get better at managing it, you get better at roughly predicting the trajectory that it will take when you play a song.

The key is, when I introduce a faculty member, I never say, "He works for me" or "She works for me." And I'm not an academic, so I don't have a horse in the race and I have an implicit neutrality that I don't have in my own group. To me, the Media Lab itself is my research rather than one particular thing. I'm interested in everything, which is very important. I have favorites, but I don't have fundamental biases, or I try to eliminate them.

Thank you for joining us. We really appreciate your insights, and the Media Lab's an amazing place to visit. Thank you.

Thank you.

About Joi Ito