What is the untapped capital of a city? Participants in this year’s Ideas City Festival in New York looked for answers to this question and discovered a great variety of approaches, among them handling garbage, adopting ad hoc strategies and taking advantage of the unused potential of young people. Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge (Massachusetts), found further untapped capital: the Internet. At the start of the Festival he made a powerful plea for using the opportunities of the Internet, but also for more willingness to take risks and take the initiative in order to push innovations forward.
Joi Ito is a creative all-round talent. He studied physics and is the founder and managing director of the venture capital company Neoteny Co., Ltd., which mainly invests in new Internet technologies. Ito is also a board member of several innovative companies, writes a regular blog and even looks good as a DJ. It is simply fun to listen to this entrepreneur with a lively mind, because in spite of many years of experience he has not lost the ability to get excited about new things, to remain curious and to tackle his tasks with lots of optimism. His enthusiasm and openness are genuinely infectious and inspiring – just what people imagine a true mentor to be like. Those who work and research under his leadership at MIT Media Lab, a leading university for technology and communication, can consider themselves fortunate.
© Martin Lewicki
His address to the Ideas City Festival was primarily about the untapped capital of the Internet. But along the way he could not resist making repeated calls for more courage and willingness to take risks, because these are two fundamental characteristics of making innovations and finding creative solutions for difficult tasks.
Before Internet – After Internet
He divides the Internet timeline into two distinct parts: BI (Before Internet) and AI (After Internet). Many people will agree with his description of life before Internet as relatively simple and manageable. Life before the WWW was based on clear rules and structures that people could rely on. In the phase after the Internet, many rules and structures were broken up: Life became more unpredictable, and too complex and fast-paced for some. The Internet was also responsible for flat hierarchies, which permit more scope for creativity and the ability to react faster on the one hand, but require that everyone takes on more responsibility and acquires additional capabilities.
© Martin Lewicki
In his talk Ito did not discuss in more detail the downside of AI, but for many the Internet means an increasing burden, something which has meanwhile been proved. Permanent availability, reading work emails in your free time and the flood of information, not least a consequence of social media, can be too much for some people. Recently companies have tried to protect their employees from excessive stress, and even recommend them not to read work emails in their leisure time. At Volkswagen, for example, emails are no longer forwarded to employees’ smartphones 30 minutes after the end of the working day.
Practice before theory
Joi Ito however focuses on a different phenomenon of the AI age: the change in behavior with regard to innovation. Today it is possible to develop innovations without great financial investment and to start up even before providers of capital are found. “First you do something, and you ask for money afterwards,” Ito explains. This is possible thanks to the reduction in innovation costs. “Practice before theory“ is his creed.
The costs of trying something out in the IT business are relatively low, for example if you want to develop a service like Twitter. To do that you only have to tap into your network and involve the world around you. Many people in the creative and IT sectors are willing to develop something motivated by their passion, without a financial reward. You only have to be well networked and share a passion for something.
© Martin Lewicki
Ito quickly comes to one of his main points: “Risk is important. You have to take risks.” We all know the example of the mother warning her child about the hot stove. Ito says that he was one of those inquisitive children who touched the hot stove despite the warning and risked getting burned. However, for him this was an important part of learning. You should not shelter people too much, because this deprives them of a large part of the learning process.
Agility is also extremely important in a constantly changing environment. People should liberate themselves from the idea of wanting to plan everything. Instead you have to incorporate happy coincidences into the planning and take advantage of them. In this way fast networks which arise spontaneously can generate great creative potential even without much planning and thus have a big effect. He calls this “the power of pull”.
Believe in reality, not theory
One outstanding example by Ito is the aid program Safecast that he set up after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011. Without having a plan, he networked with his friends in order to help people in Japan. One major problem at that time was measuring radioactivity on the spot, because not enough Geiger counters were available and there were consequently too few measuring points. His network therefore decided to help people through Geiger counters and freely available measurement data. Without specialist knowledge of the subject they succeeded within a very short time in developing simple Geiger counters that they could send to people in Japan. Within a few months the crowd-sourcing measurement network Safecast had over a million data points in Japan – many times more than what the Japanese government made available. The start-up capital for this brilliant idea, by the way, came from the crowdfunding portal Kickstarter.
Ito’s mind is extremely agile. He positively bubbles with ideas and examples for his theories. He encourages people to take charge of things themselves, to shape and design them. As quick as lightning he makes the connection between his theory and urban development. He thinks it makes no sense to try to solve structural urban problems from outside. The solutions have to come from within. People should be able to design their own residential area themselves, as they know their own needs best. For that reason creativity and passion have to be promoted and people encouraged to do what they like doing most. “I believe in reality, not theory,” is how Ito explains his approach to tackling things spontaneously without a plan.
As an example he cites Detroit, a city with major problems. He and his institute have tried to analyze and tackle the problems together. In doing so they quickly realized that people in the problem areas of Detroit are tired of hearing big promises from outside helpers. The residents want to get involved themselves and work on the solutions together.
One significant problem in Detroit has proved to be the lack of street lights. Ito and his team set out to find a way of making efficient solar lights, ideally with a do-it-yourself solution. This is a striking example of how important it is to seek individual solutions in cooperation with the people who are affected and to pay attention to people’s needs. Within a community the network is everything, as people can only achieve something by working together. Here too the Internet can help people to network better and come together.
Ito’s talk is full of idealism and optimism. He encourages his audience to take more initiative and risks themselves, to be agile and creative. The Internet seems to be the ideal medium for this, and its resources are far from having been fully exploited. It helps people to create networks in a flash, to implement decisions instantly, to put ideas into practice with low investment, while remaining constantly lean and mobile –it is an ideal instrument for making innovation happen. However, it is not easy to play this instrument, and only the best virtuosos succeed in creating true masterpieces. Joi Ito is undoubtedly one of them, and a great inspiration for all those who want to follow his lead. There is no doubt that the Internet provides a lot of untapped capital for creative treasure hunters.