Tuesday, June 10, 2014

MIT Media Lab Trip

This post is by CED Director of Entrepreneurship Jay Bigelow and also appeared in “On the Go with Jay Bigelow” on ExitEvent.com

One of the reasons we are still a second-tier entrepreneurial region is lack of density. Please don't misinterpret that to mean I don't love living here— I am bullish on our prospects for further growth. But the facts don't lie, we are not (yet) in the big leagues of Boston and Silicon Valley and one of the key reasons is that we lack density.

 What I mean by density is the sheer depth and volume of disruptive innovations being developed, times the cross-pollination of really smart people working on other disruptive innovations. A major driver of this in Boston is the MIT Media Lab.  

I made a return visit to the MIT Media Lab last month as a part of MIT—Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) Global User Group meetings (CED has been a practitioner of VMS for more than three years). The Lab is purposefully designed to stimulate collaboration and collisions: “Actively promoting a unique, antidisciplinary culture, the MIT Media Lab goes beyond known boundaries and disciplines, encouraging the most unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.”

So how does this create density? And how might we create density into the big leagues?

The MIT Media Lab is unlike any university setting I have ever been in. By design, the Lab is not “inside” any college within the university. “Anti-disciplinary culture” means that the 27 labs inside the structure are not organized by academic department or discipline(i.e. material science or chemistry), but by area of interest (i.e. cognitive machines, fluid interfaces, human dynamics, responsive environments, even Opera of the Future.) Each of these labs may have five or 25 separate projects, so the full list is nearly 400 projects long (density). 

The first floor of the Lab is both a showcase of work as well as a fully-equipped fabrication space for prototyping. Models, like the various biomechanical feet pictured right, are made and on display here.

You notice the collaboration happening as you wander the Media Lab's two interconnected buildings with six stories of glass-enclosed spaces (one building is the design of the famous Chinese architect I.M. Pei). The various labs exist inside rooms and in hallways and have interactive displays that explain a project within that lab. Visitors can also interact with the working prototypes. One of my favorites was the half-scale city car pictured above. Designed in 2009 by a team led by William Mitchell, the famed former head of the lab's Smart Cities group and dean of MIT's architecture and planning, it can be folded up when parked.

It's also cool that the labs are sponsored by corporations (even LEGO), allowing corporate partners a first look at the innovations underway at the Lab and encouraging real world feedback and input to the researchers. (More density!)

Can we envision what an RTP Media Lab might look like? A massive sprawl in the RTP where the “best and the brightest” forward thinkers of NC State, Duke, UNC, NC Central and beyond are all in one place, colliding and collaborating.

What would make it unique? How would we define ourselves differently? What lab definitions would we have?  

The RTP Foundation and Bob Geolas are planning the future of RTP, as we speak.  How about it, Bob?

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