What I Learned During My “Sabbatical” at the MIT Media Lab (Part One)

Two months ago I stepped down as director of the MIT Media Lab. This five-year episode in my career was essentially a lengthy sabbatical, but not the usual type.  A sabbatical is typically taken by academics to gain fresh perspectives on their fields, or write a book, or maybe spend some time experiencing what it’s like in the “real world.”

My sabbatical went in the opposite direction. I took a leave from my career in the “real world,” after 25 years as a technology entrepreneur, to experience the academic world. Of course, anyone familiar with the Media Lab knows that it is in no way a typical academic place, so my move was not really quite as radical as it may first appear.

Also, like an academic, I wrote a book during my sabbatical. The book is about the highly unorthodox research and researchers at the Lab, titled “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform our Lives”.

My sabbatical now concluded, I have returned to my “comfort zone” as a high tech entrepreneur. This is a very exciting time to start high-tech companies, so my timing for re-entry is good.  But I came away from my sabbatical having learned a very important lesson.

Before I went to the Media Lab, I thought I knew a lot about innovation. After all, during college I had interned at NASA at the height of the Apollo moon project, started my career in the prestigious research labs of IBM, and from there went on to create a number of innovative high-tech startup companies.

But I was wrong, I had a lot to learn from the Media Lab about innovation.  Let me illustrate this by sharing one of the several dozen stories I told in my book.

CityCar Concepts. Photo by Will Lark

If you have visited the Media Lab in the last several years, you may have seen a curious, egg-shaped vehicle careening around the lobby.  That vehicle is a half-scale model of the CityCar, a networked, digitally controlled, stackable, foldable two-passenger electric vehicle that will make our urban areas much more livable, safe and sustainable.

Working on CityCar. Photo by Andy Ryan

Even more curiously, the CityCar was conceived and built by an eclectic group of researchers, practically none of whom had any formal training in automotive design.  The team included architects, computer scientists, a lawyer, a neuroscientist, a social scientist, visual artists, urban planners and many others of diverse backgrounds.  In classic MIT Media Lab fashion, they set aside from the outset any pre-conceived notions of what a “car” should be and instead posed the following question:

What if you imagined the kind of city in which you’d like to live, and then designed  a car for this ideal place?

This was the opposite of how cars had been designed for over a hundred years:  to fit into cities as they are, not as we wished they were.  The researchers went through  a decade-long process of idea creation – building, testing, re-building, re-testing, tinkering..  Along the way, they invented a new form of robotic wheel, a foldable RoboScooter, and a revolutionary, award-winning approach to managing urban transportation systems called. Mobility-on-Demand.

This was all possible because the MIT Media Lab is essentially an innovation on innovation. Thanks to a unique collaboration between the Media Lab and its industrial sponsors, its researchers enjoy a degree of creative freedom that has become exceptionally rare among research institutions.

At the Lab, not taking risks is the biggest risk of all. Crazy and wild-eyed ideas and inventions emerge from what appears to be chaos. Some of these seeds survive and grow into innovations that can improve our everyday lives, disrupt industries and  even transform society.

MIT MediaLab. Photo by Andy Ryan

A radical concept like the CityCar would have been difficult, if not impossible, to create and pursue anywhere but the MIT Media Lab. Simply put, I believe that the innovation ecosystem in the United States is tragically broken. The 60-year old arrangement between academia, government and industry that propelled  the waves of innovation in the second half of the 20th century no longer works.  We’ve lost our momentum.

Here’s my point. Just as the CityCar can serve as a starting point for designing the future of urban transportation, I believe that the Media Lab’s highly unorthodox research model, which made this and many other radical innovations possible, can serve as a starting point for designing the future of innovation—for innovating on innovation.

In the coming months, I will be writing about innovating on innovation in this blog. Among other things, I will talk about:

  • Why the innovation ecosystem in the United States is broken
  • The dire implications for our country and the world
  • Why the next few years is actually the perfect (and perhaps last) window of opportunity to reverse course
  • The Media Lab and other promising emerging models
  • A game plan for innovating on innovation

I hope that you will stop by or subscribe to my blog, tell me what you are thinking, argue with me, and challenge me with your questions.  By working together, we can generate some powerful new ideas to innovate on innovation.

Time is short. Let’s get going.

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