April 2011 Archives

I'm happy and honored to announce that I've been named the new executive director of the MIT Media Lab.

In November of last year, I was attending Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, a very cool event where a bunch of folks from Silicon Valley go to Oxford to hang out with entrepreneurs, students and others. As often is the case with conferences like this, it was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends.

Megan Smith, one of the coolest people I know, was there and we were talking about everything, which often happens when I see Megan. Suddenly, Megan said, "Would you be interested in being the Director of the MIT Media Lab? I'm talking to Nicholas Negroponte on email about that right now." I answered, "Umm. Yeah, of course!" Megan smiled and immediately started tapping into her phone.

A few weeks later, I was in Catalina Island off of Los Angeles trying to complete my Search and Recovery training in a kelp forest with terrible visibility. Between dives, wearing my drysuit, I took a call with Nicholas to talk about the position. The connection was terrible and we could barely get a sentence completed before our calls dropped - a kind of ironic failure in technology. I was able to express my interest and we agreed to try to meet and talk face to face.

Several months later, I found myself at the front entrance of MIT Building E14. It's an amazing building designed by Maki and Associates. Together with the existing Wiesner Building (designed by MIT alumnus I. M. Pei), the two buildings make up the MIT Media Lab.

As I walked into the building, I felt like a pilgrim from the Middle Ages entering a cathedral. I was in awe and a bit of shock wondering if I would fit into an "institution" like the Media Lab and MIT.

After a day of non-stop meetings with a bunch of the faculty and students, I realized that I'd found my tribe. Everyone was super-smart, driven, working on very cool stuff. They weren't afraid to try anything. There was extreme diversity but also a common DNA. I felt a sense of mission that seemed driven by the physical proximity created by the space and the empowering brand and legacy of the Media Lab. It created a power to think long-term with agility that I'd never seen anywhere else.

People talked matter-of-factly about getting sensors from this lab, maybe we need a tissue scientist, and robots from that lab, and visualization from this lab to take this research in this other direction.

It was a firehouse of interconnections and creativity - I was completely energized and felt totally in my element.

While a huge believer in the risk-taking and agility of Silicon Valley venture backed startups, I'd been exceedingly frustrated by the tradeoffs in long-term impact that we often have to make because of the nature of venture capital and the public markets.

Government and large company research labs can be longer-term, but are increasingly unable to move quickly enough or be flexible enough to tackle the high speed and complex problems facing us today.

I had created a life for myself that was scattered across non-profits, venture startups, relationships with large research institutions and networks of people all over the world in my search for long-term yet agile solutions.

John Seely Brown often talks about "The Power of Pull" - how instead of stocking assets and resources, we should pull them, as we need them. Instead of pushing intelligence, orders and "stuff" from the center, one should create a context where we can pull them from our networks. Instead of planning every detail, one could embrace serendipity and chart a general trajectory, pulling the things together in a highly contextual and agile way.

The Media Lab seemed like it had all of the right elements to tackle this problem and attract all of those people like us who thrive in the chaos and complexity that scares most people away. In addition to the people and the mandate to think creatively, the Media Lab had relationships and the ability to have even more relationships so that the impact and the outcomes could be realized in academia, the public sector, in venture startups, in large companies, in the arts, in journalism or in social entrepreneurship and non-profits.

I decided that if I was lucky enough to be offered the job, I would take it. I was, and I did.

In the press release announcing my appointment, Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and chairman emeritus says, "In the past 25 years, the Lab helped to create a digital revolution -- a revolution that is now over. We are a digital culture. Today, the 'media' in Media Lab include the widest range of innovations, from brain sciences to the arts. Their impact will be global, social, economic and political -- Joi's world."

I really felt at home for the first time in many ways. It felt like a place where I could focus - focus on everything - but still have a tremendous ability to work with the team as well as my network and broader extended network to execute and impact the world in a substantial and positive way.

One of my missions will be to integrate my network with the Media Lab so I urge all of my friends to get to know The Lab and its work through the LabCast videos ( http://labcast.media.mit.edu/) , the research areas on the website ( http://www.media.mit.edu/research ), but better, to come visit the Media Lab. Many of your companies are already sponsors of the lab, but I really want to make sure that we're spending enough time together so that our visions become one and the magic happens.

For those of you who aren't sponsors of the Lab, I urge you to come visit and hang out and consider joining the team. I sincerely think that the Media Lab has an essential role in providing context and innovation for the future and the first step is to make sure all of you are at the table and part of the conversation.

In any case, I'll be writing and talking about everything I'm doing at and with the Media Lab and I look forward to interacting with everyone at every level.

John Markoff posted on his blog, The New York Times, before I did! Thanks for the encouraging article John.

The Media Lab has a press release.

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