The Bank of America Deal: MIT Media Lab Opens Doors to More Sponsor Involvement in Research Direction

The Center for Future Banking announced yesterday by the MIT Media Lab and Bank of America is the trailblazing computer lab’s biggest corporate funding win in years—perhaps its biggest ever. But it also represents a new type of industry-academic collaboration for the Media Lab, one in which the company footing the bill will have more say over the questions researchers are studying than previous Media Lab sponsors have been afforded.

That’s the word from Media Lab director Frank Moss and MIT professor Deb Roy, the center’s founding director and principal investigator. I spoke with Moss and Roy yesterday, shortly after MIT released the news that Bank of America will commit at least $15 million, and possibly up to $25 million, over the next five years for research on the future of the banking industry—particularly the ways technology is changing consumers’ experiences of banking and their behavior around saving, spending, risk, and planning. Projects funded through the new center will involve areas as disparate as architect William Mitchell’s studies of the changing ways people interact inside network- and sensor-saturated public buildings and cognitive psychologist (and best-selling author) Dan Ariely’s work on why we often spend money unwisely and other forms of “predictably irrational” behavior. But in a break with past practices with sponsors, Bank of America will help choose the specific questions the researchers consider, and will send visiting fellows to participate directly in the research, according to Moss.

The center’s overall mission is to help the banking industry (and Bank of America in particular) look beyond innovations such as online banking and prepare for the field’s long-term future. “If you look at the big picture of banking for the past decade or 15 years, they have been in the process of re-architecting from the back office on out, with a new focus on consumer banking and consumer services,” Moss says. “They’ve done a great job at Bank of America and other banks of providing self-service access to back-office things that were previously only in the realm of people inside the bank. But the whole world that their customers are in is changing—and what those customers are doing is dramatically changing, as they change their social habits and engage in social networks, and communicate in different ways—and they are asking the question, ‘What is the next step beyond giving customers access to information?’ How can banks be a new factor in the lives of customers?”

These are exactly the kinds of question the Media Lab is used to asking about other industries, such as the news business, robotics, education, and entertainment. But beginning with the Bank of America partnership, it may be investigating these questions with a slightly more practical bent.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, under the leadership of co-founder Nicholas Negroponte (now director of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation), the Media Lab attracted a flood of industry research dollars—all in spite of a tradition of “open IP” that bars sponsors from having exclusive access to the work produced. But after Negroponte gave up executive leadership of the organization in 2000—and especially after the dot-com bust brought the days of abundant funding to an end—it appeared to many outsiders that the Media Lab was without a single strong leader who could sway contributors to loosen their purse-strings unconditionally.

When Moss was appointed director in February 2006, he said it was time to apply a business leader’s sensibility to solving the lab’s financial problems, and to better accommodate the needs of the lab’s sponsors. “What has changed over the past seven or eight years is that simply coming here and rubbing shoulders with very smart, creative people is often not enough for our sponsors,” Moss told MIT’s Technology Review magazine shortly after his appointment. “They need us to help them make a connection between … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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