If you are looking for “scenius”–a scene that produces genius–check out MIT’s Media Lab. Since it opened its doors in 1986, the Media Lab has pushed the boundaries of the possible by creating an interdisciplinary space in which scientists, technologists, artists, and other bright lights can bounce off each other to envision and create the future.
This week the Media Lab was again in the news–announcing the appointment of a new director, Joi Ito. Ito is an unusual choice to run a prestigious lab at a major university. He’s never finished college (found Tufts’ computer science and the U. of Chicago’s physics a bit pedestrian). But Ito has made his mark as a venture capitalist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has shaped the internet and how we use it in large and small ways.
Ito’s first encounter with the Media Lab speaks to the conditions for scenius that they have carefully created–beginning with the gorgeous, open building (see inset photo) designed for collaboration:
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. …
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.
A mandate to think creatively, super bright individuals working at their edge, surprising juxtapositions, diversity yet commonality of purpose. These all seem to be important elements of scenius.