MIT Media Lab’s Joi Ito on the Future of Design, Learning & Science

Xconomy Boston — 

Joi Ito was named director of the famous MIT Media Lab in 2011. He was not your run of the mill choice.

Largely self-taught computer scientist. Former chairman of Creative Commons and a strong open source advocate. Disc jockey, nightclub entrepreneur, tech investor (Kickstarter and Twitter are among the deals he took part in). Two-time college dropout (although he participated in the first course for college credit online offered by the New School in 1987—and later got an honorary degree from that institution). He’s even a godson of Timothy Leary.

In short, it is hard to sum him up. It is also hard in many ways to imagine him lasting four years in a university setting with committees, protocols, and the like. But not only is he lasting, he seems to be thriving.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Ito for a short, but wide-ranging conversation that looked at what he has tried to do so far during his tenure—as well as his plans for the future.

We spoke about cryptocurrency, and his ambition to offer MIT as a neutral home for some of the research and standards work around bitcoins, which I covered previously, a few days ahead of the official announcement of what’s called the Media Lab’s digital currency initiative. But we also talked about design thinking, creative learning, integrating biology more completely with computer science, and the need for more disobedience—all daunting challenges, which may be why Ito says his real work is just beginning.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: It will be four years this fall, officially, that you have been director of the Media Lab. Describe what you think the impact has been, and what you’re still trying to do.

Joi Ito: I was new to academia, so a lot of this has been a learning curve of how to fit inside of a container that’s different than anything I have been involved in. I’m learning new things every day. I was just, today, trying to understand more about how the undergraduate program works [Editor’s note: The Media Lab’s main academic program is for graduate students—the Program in Media Arts and Sciences]. I didn’t have to know as much about it before. We have about 200 undergraduate researchers here. But they don’t show up on the radar as much because they’re not part of our academic program—but they’re here and it turns out they’re a huge impact on the community. I jokingly call them my microbiome, because the recent articles are always, “Well, it turns out there’s three pounds of gut biome and you have more bacteria in your body than human cells, but little did we know, they affect your personality.” Well, it’s the same thing with these undergraduates– but what’s fascinating is every day I uncover things that are a fundamental part of the lab, that I haven’t been paying attention to.

The first thing I did when I got here was I paid attention to the [graduate] students, because everybody told me the students were the engine. And then I started paying attention to the staff and trying to get this system to work in the way that I like systems to work. More recently, I’ve started to really understand more about faculty and academic and research dynamics. And then most recently I’ve become quite a bit more aware of how the Institute itself works.

So tweaking different pieces of the operational elements of the lab, including community dynamics, has been what I’ve been focusing on—fixing a lot of stuff that I thought could be improved, like accounting. I think our finances are much better now. We have more members, our communications are better. Trying to become an excellent institution from the perspective of impact and output and research, that’s harder because that’s different from fixing things.

I think the main thing, both exciting and challenging right now, is that all the stuff that was obvious to me about things I wanted to fiddle with are done. And also the honeymoon period is over. The institute no longer asks me, ‘Are you enjoying it?’ They don’t care anymore whether I’m enjoying it. I’m on my own. So now I think is when the real work starts. Which is figuring out what the research agenda is; trying to get the institute to change some of its policies; really thinking about where we go from here. But the good news is that we’ve got some great faculty and students, and the somewhat chaotic environment around us gives us a lot of opportunities for things to work on.

X: Maybe we can talk about some of those things.

JI: Right now, the three areas I’d say we are primarily working on … Next Page »

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