The Startup Man: A Conversation With Joi Ito

After a wide-ranging career in business and as a leading public intellectual on the topics of innovation and technology, Joi Ito takes the helm this fall as the new director of the MIT Media Lab. As an investor, Ito has had his hands in more than 40 startups including Flickr and Twitter. In 2008, he was named by BusinessWeek as one of the "25 Most Influential People on the Web." He recently spoke with Gregory Mone about the Media Lab's inter-disciplinary layout, its corporate partnerships, and the importance of creative art.

How much do you think the layout of the Lab matters, in terms of where groups are located?
I think it's tremendously important. That's part of what managing the Lab is going to be about: trying to make that space perfect. Because the way it's laid out, the way things are connected, and how people run into each other and stumble on new things, a lot of that is affected by the layout. I don't think everybody gets how important that is.

Why does the Lab emphasize multi-disciplinary collaborations?

Multi-disciplinary is a really key missing part of society, whether you're talking about science or the economy or any of these things. We've gotten so good at getting deep and being more and more specialized about a smaller and smaller thing that now we've got so many people who are really, really smart but don't know how to talk, let alone build anything together.

How do you get specialized thinkers to work together effectively?

A physicist and a chemist and an architect are only going to work together really well when they're building something. You can have them sit around a table and argue but they'll really only be talking across each other. The minute you try and build something together it becomes rigorous.

So it's better to have people down on the Lab floor than chatting in the café?

Right. Or stuck in their office writing a paper.

The Media Lab is called a media arts and science group. How do the arts fit in?

Pulling together the arts with the science is critical. There is very little art on Wall Street. There's very little art in most tech companies. It's those tech companies that are able to synthesize art and technology, like some of the successful companies around us, such as Apple, that are key.

Speaking of companies, the Lab is supported by a number of corporate sponsors, but I've heard that you're thinking of calling these supporters members. Why the proposed switch?
You can set up for failure just through little things like what you call each other. All the companies involved in the Media Lab have a tremendous amount to contribute besides their money. They create pathways to impact for us. They've got great ideas, great people. I want them to feel like they're part of the team and they're supposed to help us and work with us.

And the term sponsor wouldn't work, in that sense? 

Sponsor is fine when all you are is a sponsor. But in the case of the Media Lab I want these people not just to be giving their money but to feel like they're part of the team, and for our team to feel like they're part of the team. It's not just a cosmetic thing. I'm trying to get the member companies to participate much more actively. They should be coming to get inspired, coming to inspire us.

Will you be looking for them to bring ideas from the media lab back out into the world or into their own organizations?

Absolutely. My perfect member company is a company that's at the Media Lab to take our DNA. If I can see like an innovation center that looks a lot like the Media Lab in every company we work with, that would be amazing.

On the academic side, will you be bringing in any new research leaders or expanding into new areas?

In the last couple of years we've lost a lot of our arts people, so more arts stuff is important. There are a lot of domains that we could augment like games, privacy. There are tons of areas.

Could you describe your ideal new faculty member?

You could almost fit anyone in as long as they have the right DNA. And they have to be part of a build culture. Anything that the Media Lab doesn't already have that you could imagine connecting in some sort of tangential way is a space we're interested in.

Finally, the projects in the Lab stretch from products that could be sold tomorrow to ideas that might not be possible for a century. Do you see yourself placing any boundaries on timescale?

It's important to have that mix. The timescale shouldn't be limited in any way. Nor the size or scale. Everyone should be allowed to think with as few boundaries as possible.