By David Rowan
Joi Ito, 46-year-old director of MIT's Media Lab since last September, has just selected the faculty's newest outpost: the troubled streets of downtown Detroit. "I was in a rough neighbourhood there yesterday, where there are miles and miles of bombed out buildings, and it just blows your mind to see a bunch of kids building urban farms," he says back in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "They have no streetlights. If you connect a streetlight to the grid, it gets controlled by the city and regulated. So they're thinking, how can we create solar-powered low-cost streetlights, as that will lower crime? They have a maker space in a church, a place where the kids can learn how to build a computer, a bike shop where they can learn how to do repairs. The kid who runs this place, Jeff Sturges, is awesome.We're sending a bunch of Media Lab people to Detroit to work with local innovators already doing stuff on the ground."
Welcome to Ito's vision for opening up the 27-year-old Media Lab, one in which -- for example -- urban agriculture might be researched in Detroit; the arts in Chicago; coding in London; and in which any bright talent anywhere, academically qualified or not, can be part of the world's leading "antidisciplinary" research lab. "Opening up the lab is more about expanding our reach and creating our network," explains Ito, appointed director in April 2011. His prior career spans venture capital and angel investing, Creative Commons and the Mozilla Foundation, nightclub DJing and cofounding the first Japanese internet service provider -- but he never actually earned an academic degree. Although, as Ito sees it, the formal channels of academia today inhibit progress. "In the old days, being relevant was writing academic papers. Today, if people can't find you on the internet, if they're not talking about you in Rwanda, you're irrelevant. That's the worst thing in the world for any researcher. The people inventing things might be in Kenya, and they go to the internet and search. Funders do the same thing. The old, traditional academic channel is not a good channel for attracting attention, funding, people, or preventing other people from competing with you.
"Being open, you're much less likely to have someone competitive emerge and you're also much more likely to find somebody who wants to come to work with you. Innovation is happening everywhere -- not just in the Ivy League schools. And that's why we're working with you guys [at Wired] too -- in the old days, academics didn't want to be in popular magazines. Openness is a survival trait."
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