John Maeda on PopTech and VC Life: “Conferences Are the New College”

The 18th annual PopTech conference starts this Thursday in Camden, ME, and design luminary John Maeda is psyched.

Maeda organized this year’s gathering of innovators, artists, and scientists. He’s a technologist and recovering academic who recently dived into the world of venture capital.

Maeda joined VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers as “design partner” in January. He had been president of the Rhode Island School of Design for five years, and before that, a professor at the MIT Media Lab. Maeda is known for his research and ideas that span the fields of art, computing, and education.

The theme of PopTech 2014 is “rebellion.” Maeda says the conference is about creating a real-world experience that’s getting harder to find in the digital era—mixing people together from different disciplines and having real discussions, all under one roof, with few distractions.

“I think conferences are the new college,” he says. “People are looking for face-to-face community.” On the Web, he says, people have access to everyone, and “it’s all you can eat. But there’s nothing like being stuck together somewhere.”

The setting is a big part of what drew him to Maine this month. “I loved that the PopTech conference, by design, is way out in the boonies,” he says.

Speaking of way out, Maeda has been splitting his time between the Boston area and Silicon Valley in his new role with Kleiner Perkins. And the face-to-face experiences he’s been having on the West Coast have been eye-opening, to say the least.

“The world moves much faster than I ever thought it did. Especially in Silicon Valley,” he says. “I’m glad to be much more aware.”

“It’s taken living it to feel it,” he adds.

Maeda says there’s been a dramatic shift when it comes to comparing technologies in the real world with those in academia. “There was that time when research was ahead in universities—and they lost it,” he says. “Academia is becoming just very academic.”

That shift probably happened years ago. Maeda recalls the early 2000s at MIT, when freshmen started coming in with “better computers and better screens” than the university had. “We couldn’t get them to come to lab anymore,” he says.

And the gap has widened since then. “I’m catching up, taking what I know from the past,” he says. “Things that were happening in labs 20 years ago, now they’re happening at scale.”

Maeda’s job in venture capital includes advising his firm’s portfolio companies on design issues. And that means he gets to see a huge range of technologies out in the wild. “I’m a bridge between the design world and the technology world,” he says. “It’s kind of what I did before, but at scale and at speed.”

In addition to Maeda, some of the speakers at PopTech will be MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, Google vice president Regina Dugan, anthropologist and love researcher Helen Fisher, and startup CEOs Ayah Bdeir and Anil Dash.

Maeda’s main goal for the conference? That’s easy. “I hope that people make friends that will last a lifetime,” he says.

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