Joi Ito Will Put MIT Media Lab Back on World Stage, Says Maes-Watch for Hiring Binge

4/26/11Follow @wroush

The overnight consensus from the twittersphere is that Joichi Ito—a globetrotting Internet entrepreneur, investor, activist, and blogger with few academic credentials—was a daring and unconventional choice to lead the 26-year-old MIT Media Lab. And that, says search committee leader Pattie Maes, is exactly the effect the lab wanted to achieve.

The Media Lab “has always been a place that likes to do things differently,” says Maes, who directs the lab’s Fluid Interfaces group. “So almost everybody I talked to during the selection process found that [Ito's lack of college or graduate degrees] was a feature rather than a bug. The universal answer was ‘Yeah, let’s show them! We are still bold, we can do things differently.’ We are not going to pick somebody based on titles, but instead we will look at what they have accomplished.”

And Ito has accomplished a lot. He helped to start Japan’s first ISP and its first commercial search engine in the 1990s. He’s backed a roster of influential startups such as Twitter (where his handle is simply @Joi). And he’s won fame as one of the technology world’s most-traveled, best-connected people; in fact, he blogged back in 2003 that he was getting invitations every day to parties all over the world, “‘Just in case you’re in the neighborhood.’…The funny thing is, sometimes I am in the neighborhood.”

Those invitations and connections will come in handy as Ito begins to follow through on what Maes called the search committee’s number-one priority: building a more active profile for the Media Lab in the global community.

“We felt that the lab, while doing excellent work right now, has not done a good enough job being present on the world stage, talking about what we do,” Maes says. “Our story has been a little big vague and not front-and-center. So we decided that we needed somebody who would be very much an externally facing director, who is very much a global player with many connections.”

That’s certainly Ito. And he’ll have plenty to talk about: the Media Lab is not the place many outsiders may remember from Stewart Brand’s 1988 book or the dot-com era, Maes asserts. It now employs neuroscientists, artists, economists, and others who are using a variety of tools “to come up with the next generation of technologies that we think will really bring about revolutions,” she says. “The overall vision is still very much the same, in that the lab is about empowering people with technology, but we have evolved away from just looking at digital technologies.”

Fortunately for the lab, “Joi has always been a visionary, somebody who really lives in the future rather than just talking about it,” Maes says. “He really believes strongly that technology can unleash the creativity in people and give them more freedom to take their lives into their own hands.”

High on Ito’s to-do list, judging from what Maes told me, will be orchestrating a hiring binge at the lab. She says Ito turned the tables on the search committee during their interviews, quizzing them about how hiring works at MIT and whether he’d have free reign to staff up. “One of the conditions—one of the things he wanted to know–was whether he could have an impact specifically by hiring more people,” Maes says. “He’s not going to be a status-quo type of person.”

The committee’s answer to Ito’s question, Maes says, was yes. But how many people Ito gets to hire “will very much depend on how successful he, and of course the faculty, are in raising more money,” she says. (The Media Lab currently subsists on a budget of about $35 million a year, mostly in the form of industry sponsorships.) “But he is not afraid of that,” says Maes. “He’s always been a natural fundraiser, and if he believes in something he has been very good at articulating to potential funding sources why something should be funded.”

Ito, 44, was one of 250 candidates considered by the Media Lab, its founding director Nicholas Negroponte told the New York Times, which broke the story of the appointment last night. Negroponte, a professor in the lab, served with Maes on the search committee, as did faculty members Cynthia Breazeal and Mitchel Resnick. Bill Freeman, associate director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and historian Philip Khoury, MIT’s associate provost, were also on the committee.

Though the committee had been working toward its decision for nine months, it got taken by surprise in the end. MIT had planned to release the news of It’s appointment this morning, but the Times left the blocks early with its story—which meant Maes was up late talking to this reporter.

She told me that while Ito “definitely thinks very much like us”—meaning the Media Lab faculty—there are also likely to be some changes under his leadership. “I think he will really want to put his stamp on things,” Maes says. “He’ll want to grow the lab and make it more globally and socially and economically relevant. We have plenty of faculty who think about academic relevance, but his role will be to think about the relevance to the rest of the world. That is what we want—-I think we’re ready to be shaken up a little bit.”

Ito’s sparse academic background—he studied at Tufts, the University of Chicago, and the New School of Social Research, but didn’t finish a degree at any of them—”was definitely not an issue” during the selection process, Maes says. Just the same, she expects some negative reaction from outside the lab. “But I feel like we have enough grownups at the lab now that maybe we are almost erring too much on the side of being acceptable and conventional,” she says. “We have incredible academic successes with most of our faculty, but I think it’s good to have somebody who isn’t necessarily blinded by that, and to hire somebody who ultimately looks at how this work is going to make a difference in the world.”

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

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