|Icono clash. Via Fast Company.|
Juliet Hindell reports form Japan Society's November 10 event Innovation in an Open Network with MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito. Watch the full video here.
Joichi Ito is the ultimate iconoclast – a college dropout who now heads an academic institution, the MIT Media Lab. He is also the Chair of Creative Commons, the open network organization, and founder of Tokyo-based Digital Garage.
And he recently became involved in Geiger counter production. Six months after partial nuclear meltdowns at three Tokyo Electric Power reactors, skeptical Japanese took nuclear measurement literally into their own hands. And Ito was there, doing what he does best – finding opportunity in chance.
Home-monitoring of radiation is just the latest venture of one of Japan’s foremost entrepreneurs. Ito is most famous for helping usher Japan into the Internet age by cultivating and connecting a generation of angel investors and hungry young Internet entrepreneurs eager to replicate the energy and success of Silicon Valley.
Ito didn’t plan much of this; in fact planning is something he thinks is overrated.
His own Internet career began when he realized that nobody really achieved anything in Japan before the age of 45. In the new virtual world, he discovered it was better to be young. There were no rules and things moved fast and fluidly.
“If you plan everything you can’t be lucky and you need a lot of luck,” he said at a recent talk at the Japan Society. Ito was describing how many great Internet ideas started through chance connexions.
“Nearly every internet company starts out as what sounds like a stupid idea,” Ito said. But a willingness to try things out has resulted in companies like YouTube, which began as a dating site and morphed to become the biggest video site on the Internet. Chance over planning is a foreign concept in Japan. He recalled proposing an idea to a Japanese company, which he estimated would have cost about $100,000 to implement. But the company embarked on a feasibility study at a cost of $3million. “So they spent $3miillion dollars trying to decide to eventually not do something that would have cost $100,000.”
Today with the Internet’s Open Software protocols, anyone can start a company quickly and easily, a process he sums up with the word “agile”. But it’s not a process that lends itself to too much planning. While he thinks the Japanese talent for such business strategies as just in time delivery should sit well with this open architecture, he also warns that when the process is institutionalized, it gets bogged down in over-planning. “You have what I would call a compass, but how exactly you get there you figure out as you go,” Ito said.
Figuring things out is where open networks and hacker spaces have a crucial role to play according to Ito. He believes they are at the forefront of the democratization of knowledge.
An example of crowd sourcing in action that Ito is very proud to be a part of are the detailed maps of radiation readings surrounding the Fukushima nuclear reactors, damaged during the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. The maps were put together with a little help from Ito and his hyper-connected world including the world expert on Geiger counters and clever engineers at Tokyo Hacker Space. No governments or institutions were involved. It was the fruit of collaboration between loose groups of diverse experts helping each other. This kind of collaboration is how Ito believes we will be able to solve the world’s problems, “This started from nothing and was able to move very quickly, and we now have the best people to build the best Geiger counters to measure radiation in real time. That’s what the net is capable of.”
This kind of serendipitous line of inquiry is what he wants to foster at Media Lab. He thinks the best developments in information technology are made by people who will be the end users– in other words get the end users to work with coders to make the tools they need to do their jobs whether in journalism or medicine.
Ito also wants to bring the freedom of open networks to education. He believes that open networks could represent a direct challenge to the “artificial scarcity of academia”.
“I’m completely self educated, I educated myself through the Internet.” he said. He is now aiming to make much of the work done at the Media Lab available in an open network of knowledge. “I want everyone to be able to learn from us,” he said. “At the Media Lab we’ve figured out that important stuff can happen if you bring a bunch of misfits together and give them the freedom to try things.” Leave the plan at the door.
Juliet was BBC Tokyo bureau chief and Daily Telegraph Tokyo correspondent and is now based in New York. Read her reports from the Japan Society talks Why Japan May Surprise the World: Rebirth after the Tohoku Quake and Lawson's Business Strategy and Response to the Quake.