Joi Ito is a people person. Although he goes by many titles – entrepreneur, visionary, adventure capitalist, tech guru, and Director of that Willy Wonka’s factory of technology, the MIT Media Lab – his real genius lies in translating the science-fiction breakthroughs of tomorrow into the mainstream today. This task involves a keen eye, a bit of luck, and the willingness to look for innovation in the dark corners that everyone else has written off.
“If you think about Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, the key thing about these new innovations is that they weren’t started in heavily resourced labs but out on the fringes,” says Ito. “The reason that happened was because the internet is an open-sourced way of information sharing. It lowered the cost of innovation to nearly zero – just ramen and sweat. It pushed innovation from big innovators to the edges: student start-ups, etc. The whole explosion of the internet was led by small groups of people, which in turn meant that the whole nature of innovation changed as costs went down.”
Hardware as the New Software
Ito identifies four key trends that he will be watching this year, beginning with the rise of the hardware start-up. “What’s new this year is that supply chain provider companies are making the cost of manufacturing and risk really, really small,” he explains. “So hardware start-ups are looking like the software start-ups of the previous digital age.”
He name checks three companies that started life as Media Lab projects: LittleBits, Formlabs, and Twine. All of them artfully conjoin the internet and the real world, but their playful packaging masks seriously disruptive intentions. LittleBits, for instance, is an opensource library of electronic modules that snap together with tiny magnets for prototyping and play. It aims to do for electrical engineering what LEGO did for construction. Kickstarter darling Formlabs is at the forefront of the 3D printing revolution that’s set to reshape the parameters of manufacturing. While Twine is an ingenious little cube that hooks up (some) everyday objects to the internet and allows them to communicate with you. If the start-up has its way, your AC unit will soon have its own Twitter account.
Hardware is still more difficult to produce than software, of course, but as it gets easier, it’s opening entirely new worlds. “We’re seeing old hardware companies like HP getting out of the market because the world is too fast for them,” Ito says. “The whole ecosystem around hardware has increased in viability.”
Another trend to watch is in biotech, where Ito is expecting major advances in our ability to print genes. “In biology, we have sequenced a lot of genes but when we try to actually print them we tend to get errors,” he explains. At some gene-printing factories in China, for instance, the error rate is one in every 100 base pairs. But now, Media Lab boffins like Joe Jacobson are bio-fabricating genes using something called a ‘CMOS’ chip, which basically allows him to print genes using machines instead of people, bringing the error rate down to one in every 10,000 base pairs. “This means that gene fabrication capacity is going to go up tremendously, which will unleash the ability to design and innovate biological devices.”
Pressed on what kind of biological devices, Ito lets his imagination run riot – we could plant seeds that grow houses, he says, or create cells with memories. This is Ito the sci-fi enthusiast, excitedly peering into the future. But he’s a pragmatist, too, adding almost apologetically, “It’s important to remember that all this is very tricky.”
I’m calling myself a ‘nowist,’ and I’m trying to figure out how to build up the ability to react to anything.
Ito’s success rate as the Lab’s director – an ability to separate the wheat from the chaff largely driven by self-education and trial and error – has given him a critical perspective on formal education systems; another area he sees as ripe for disruption in 2013.
“It has always been my opinion that ‘education’ is something people do to you, whereas ‘learning’ is something you do for yourself,” he says. “Consequently, the only thing I learned in school was typing. In the old days, people like me who don’t have college degrees had a hard time thriving in society. But today, the ability to learn on your own or from your peers has become really easy. I think this change is leading to a fundamental disruption in education. Independent and lifelong learning are really starting to peak – there is an inflection point coming around how people learn.”
Although he can’t say for sure what form this ‘inflection point’ might take, Ito believes that the only way to innovate is to cultivate a certain flexibility in the approach to developing technology.
Survival of the Quickest
“I don’t believe in futurists that much anymore – they are usually wrong,” he says, responding to a label that is often applied to him. “I’m calling myself a ‘nowist,’ and I’m trying to figure out how to build up the ability to react to anything. In other words, I want to create a certain agility. The biggest liability for companies now is having too many assets; you need to learn how to be fluid and agile.
‘It’s kind of a spiritual thing,” he continues. “You want to have your peripherals wide open and adapt as quickly as you can. I think that will be an important survival trait of people and companies in the future.”
There’s that word again. No matter how much Ito claims to ground himself in the present, his foot is firmly on the pedal, his gaze fundamentally forward-looking. “I’m searching for a process that is essentially about erecting a giant antenna so I don’t miss whatever is on the horizon,” he says. “This goes back to our policy for the Media Lab – we require faculty members to be anti-disciplinary. If you can do what you want to do in any field that already exists you don’t belong at the Lab. What I’m searching for are people and things that don’t fit anywhere: The misfits of society.”
Written by Tetsuhiko Endo