The Media Lab and the nature of innovation

by Anne Pycha

If it weren’t for MIT’s Media Lab, you would still be reading books in print. (Right?). The Lab has become legendary for generating new ideas that take ordinary people several steps further into the future, like the digital ink used in Kindle and Nook e-readers. How do they do it? Standard wisdom claims that competition drives innovation. Each research group or company develops its own proprietary ideas, so the notion goes, and survival of the fittest determines which of these ideas lasts into the future.

Author Steven Johnson argues otherwise. He claims that innovation arises when we connect ideas, rather than protect them, and that’s the central maxim of his provocative book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2010). Johnson demonstrates how this maxim operates not just among groups of people, but at multiple levels of the natural world, from molecules (life proliferated on earth because carbon atoms formed bonds with so many other elements), to sea organisms (coral reefs host incredible biological diversity because of the multiple relationships that individual polyps form with their surroundings).

MIT’s Media Lab fits nicely into this analysis. Since 1985, the Media Lab has produced dozens of forward-thinking concepts and technologies, leading to the development not only of e-readers, but also Guitar Hero, LEGO Mindstorms, Scratch programming language, smart airbags, and many others. Like carbon atoms and coral reefs, Lab researchers take an explicitly connective approach, which they refer to as “anti-disciplinary”: anthropologists collaborate with computer scientists, for example, and psychologists work alongside electrical engineers. In a more typical academic setting, specialists from such diverse areas might never interact; at the Media Lab, as their website says, they check their disciplines at the door.

You can now take a guided tour of the Media Lab, even if you can’t visit Cambridge. Frank Moss, director of the Lab from 2006-2011, has just published an engaging book that introduces you to the people who work there, describes the problems they are trying to solve, and showcases their impressive and futuristic solutions. The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives (Crown Business, 2011) has an unfortunate title which suggests that the faculty and students who work at the Media Lab somehow possess magic that lies beyond the reach of ordinary people. That’s too bad, and it doesn’t fit with the spirit of the rest of the book. Moss actually does a great job of describing the Lab’s innovations in terms that are accessible and thought-provoking for a wide readership.

The CityCar is one such innovation. It’s a foldable car — yes, foldable — in which each wheel contains its own motor, steering, and suspension, allowing the elimination of the central engine and drivetrain. The car seats two, parks in less space than a SmartCar, and is expected to get 150 miles per gallon. The development of this new model began with an unusual question: What if you imagined the kind of city that you wanted to live in and then designed a car for this ideal place? Architects, urban planners, engineers, neuroscientists, artists and others collaborated on the answer, eventually developing CityCar, which will be pilot-tested in five urban areas in Europe over the next few years. “One of the things that you’ve got to do is ask the big stupid questions that would probably get you fired if you were working for an automaker,” professor William Mitchell told Moss. “Why does a car have to be made out of sheet metal? Why does a car have to have an engine?”

Moss’s book describes many other compelling compelling innovations. Connectivity between various researchers, of the type espoused by Stephen Johnson, does seem crucial to their development but if we read between the lines, other themes emerge as well. While technological advances remain important, social and behavioral insights play an enormous role in many of the Media Lab’s ideas, such as the iSet device which helps autistic children translate other people’s facial expresions (“smile”) into emotions (“happy”). Large datasets also play a key role. iSet, for example, was trained on a dataset created by a panel of people who watched 1,000 videos each and labelled the emotional states of actors in each scene.

Finally, the culture of “demo or die” seems crucial. As Moss repeatedly points out, researchers at Media Lab are never allowed to stay stuck in their thoughts for very long. If they think of an idea, they are encouraged to build a prototype immediately and demonstrate it to others, allowing them to rapidly solicit feedback and identify flaws in an iterative fashion. Now there’s an idea that even non-sorcerers can put to work.

Further exploring:
Steven Johnson’s blog and TED talk
Frank Moss’s website




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