New MIT Media Lab Head: His Credential is a Total Lack of Any

By Shlomo Maital

   Joichi Ito, new MIT Media Lab Head

  MIT Media Lab, the place that invents the future and combines academic research at the Ph.D. level with amazing gadgetry, has appointed a new head. Among other things, the MIT Media Lab invented Eink (used in Kindle), Aspen Movie Map,  a forerunner of Google Street View, and the $100 Laptop. 

    The new appointee is Joichi (Joi) Ito, and he dropped out of Tufts Univ. and Univ. of Chicago because of sheer boredom.  His formal credentials, therefore, are lacking – amazing, since the MIT professors, rector and President who make the appointment would normally seek someone with academic credentials. 

   Ito, as a VC, helped fund Flickr, and Twitter, helped establish Japan’s first Internet service in 1994, and is chair of Creative Commons, which seeks to promote sharing of digital information. He is a board member of Mozilla Foundation.

   This is a brilliant appointment, and closes a circle. When Nick Negroponte founded the Media Lab in 1985, he had a clear and simple vision.  He drew three circles: computing, entertainment, publishing. These circles will converge, he said, though today they are separate. MIT Media Lab will explore the future of this convergence. American firms did not get what he said. They refused him funding. But Japanese firms came through at once. They wrote a check for $10 m.  Negroponte was attacked for delivering American innovation to its Japanese competitors.  But, hey – put your money where your mouth is.  So Joi’s appointment is entirely appropriate, though he is as much American today as he is Japanese.  A recent Media Lab Associate head, John Maeda (“Laws of Simplicity”), who is Japanese-American, left recently to head RISD, Rhode Island School of Design.

   A slow stroll through building E15 on MIT’s campus, which is the Media Lab, is amazing.  You will see incredible gadgetry in kitchens, computers, toys, and music.  Yet all of this is supported by rigorous academic research that is done by doctoral candidates.  It is funded by subscriptions – companies subscribe, for about $100,000 a year, just for the first-refusal right to ‘harvest’ ideas and commercialize them.

    There were attempts to launch Media Labs in Ireland and Korea. I’m not sure how successful they are.  There is something about the MIT campus culture that is infectious and energizing. 

    Kudos ! to MIT for its unconventional appointment.  As I noted in my blog on April 19, titled “avoid innovation professors”,  the best most-qualified persons to lead real innovation efforts, and thinking about innovation, are innovators, not professors.  Joi will be a huge success.