Meteoric Business Innovation at MIT

Many (or most) of my mechanical engineering learning experiences at MIT, bored me to tears. One exception was an undergraduate course called “Creativity,” which possibly influenced my entrepreneurial future.

The experience was clearly designed to push our class beyond the framework of standard thinking, and it likely influenced my future thinking processes. On day one of this course, our professor handed out a 150-page manual, which he had written to describe a planet called Arcturus IV. We immediately assumed that this planet was fictitious, because it possessed different characteristics than Earth, for example gravitational pull, soil and atmospheric characteristics, weirdly conceived inhabitants, and so forth.

Our class task during the semester was to design clothing, furniture, farm implements, playgrounds and more, for the Arcturians. Obviously we had to study and consider the fresh set of physical laws which were detailed in the course manual. Creating our designs was lots of fun, especially when compared with the drudgery of our other courses.

Years later, the writer Lisa McGurrin interviewed me and wrote an article called “A Wild Duck Who Doesn’t Follow the Leader.” One sentence said, “creativity took precedence over accepted beliefs, and going out on a limb was invariably more attractive than security.” Others have also commented on the need to add creativity to curriculums. For example, “This must have been a brilliant course… even if nine out of 10 classes at MIT aren’t that clever, I think part of what makes it an extraordinary place is that you get that one jewel… and many schools have none!”

Of course, MIT has another monster jewel: its Media Lab. Among virtually all its 150 or so students, ideas run rampant, presumably goaded by the lab’s professors. The Financial Times recently wrote an articleentitled, “Unlikely Leader Finds Creativity in Chaos” that profiled the new director of the laboratory, Joi Ito. Ito cleverly characterized the Media Lab, saying “they’re [students] encouraged to do anything!” That statement may sound stupid because anything can mean nothing. But once one walks through the lab’s two huge modern buildings, the spectrum of all the experimentation and development which seems to be underway is virtually mind boggling, if not confusing. The titles of the various rooms seem weird, for example: “Viral Spaces,” “Mediated Matter” and “Opera of the Future.” But many commercial products were originally born at this lab, including the E-Ink used in the Kindle; contributions to the medical field; advances in areas such as digital lifestyles and digital convergence; and so forth.

Joi Ito seems to have a freewheeling approach, which he actually calls “wild and unintended innovation.” Mr. Ito certainly lived such a life prior to his MIT appointment. He recognizes that whenever he gets into a comfort zone, his learning starts to diminish. And just when he moves into a mode where he’s producing, he moves on, and he did in fact move on, again and again. He pointedly collaborates with people, specifically in order to learn. He says he is delighted at the extraordinary growth in social networks, and frankly, I have very mixed feelings about how these networks will affect our future. But his arguments seem to have merit, for example, he recognizes that geeks who never used to be social, have figured out how to exploit it in their networking. He apparently abhors senior executives who have little or no experience doing the dirty work at lower company levels; why? Because as Ito says, “intuition is vital in management, and you get your intuition from the field,” and “you won’t succeed unless you understand the content of your business.” The FT concludes that “for him, now, the content is the Media Lab and all of its tantalizing potential.”

Even today, many years after my graduation, I admire MIT’s stress on creativity and innovation. Quite apart from courses like “Creativity” and its Media Lab, MIT’s broad entrepreneurship program led by Ed Roberts is outstanding. If only it could influence our country’s governance processes!


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