Joi Ito Says to Innovate Become a “now-ist” instead of a Futurist


Online connections
On March 10, 2011, I was en route to Austin, TX where I was planning to speak at two events — Ignite Austin on the topic of technology and humanism, and SxSWi for a solo talk on influence (an updated version of that talk.)

That night, at midnight, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit off of the Pacific coast of Japan. My cousin, his wife and three daughters live there. Like Joi Ito, I was:

… looking at the news streams and listening to the press conferences of the government officials and the Tokyo Power Company, and hearing about this explosion at the nuclear reactors and this cloud of fallout that was headed towards our house which was only about 200 kilometers away. And the people on TV weren’t telling us anything that we wanted to hear. I wanted to know what was going on with the reactor, what was going on with the radiation, whether my family was in danger.

Like Ito, I went online to try and figure out what was going on.


While I learned my cousin and his family were fine through his Facebook posts — the quickest way for him to get the word out to the whole family — I did not go as far as creating “one of of the most successful citizen science projects in the world, and we have created the largest open dataset of radiation measurements.”

<How did a bunch of amateurs who really didn’t know what we were doing somehow come together and do what NGOs and the government were completely incapable of doing? And I would suggest that this has something to do with the Internet. It’s not a fluke. It wasn’t luck, and it wasn’t because it was us.

It helped that it was an event that pulled everybody together, but it was a new way of doing things that was enabled by the Internet and a lot of the other things that were going on, and I want to talk a little bit about what those new principles are.

Before the Internet people were trying to predict the future. Many have not stopped, including the economists Ito mentions. But there is a notable difference between those times and now:

after the Internet was the cost of innovation went down so much because the cost of collaboration, the cost of distribution, the cost of communication, and Moore’s Law made it so that the cost of trying a new thing became nearly zero, and so you would have Google, Facebook, Yahoo, students that didn’t have permission — permissionless innovation — didn’t have permission, didn’t have PowerPoints, they just built the thing, then they raised the money, and then they sort of figured out a business plan and maybe later on they hired some MBAs.

So the Internet caused innovation, at least in software and services…

What happened with us at SxSWi, for example, was that people self-organized and took action to raise funds for the families right there and then.

After seeing what had happened through first person accounts by checking the stream online, people quickly did something about it. Watching and doing in real time. It did not cost anything substantial to get a web site up and all kinds of people with skills were on hand and we were in the biggest digital stage at the time — media presence included.

Sxsw cares

So, as Ito says, it’s not just happening with tech. At the Media Lab, Ito and colleagues do biology and hardware and:

… today, with the ability to deploy things into the real world at such low cost, I’m changing the motto now [from “Demo or die”] I’m changing the motto now, and this is the official public statement. I’m officially saying, “Deploy or die.”

You have to get the stuff into the real world for it to really count, and sometimes it will be large companies, and Nicholas [Negroponte] can talk about satellites. But we should be getting out there ourselves and not depending on large institutions to do it for us.

So manufacturing, the cost of innovation, the cost of prototyping, distribution, manufacturing, hardware, is getting so low that innovation is being pushed to the edges and students and startups are being able to build it. This is a recent thing, but this will happen and this will change just like it did with software.

We need to make an important distinction between learning and education. Learning should be a lifelong pursuit, and it happens any time, anywhere, particularly in the course of doing something. Testing, prototyping, making small experiments are all aspects of learning by doing. As Ito says,“learning is what you do to yourself,” “you need to learn is how to learn,” “compass over maps.”<

One of my favorite principles is the power of pull, which is the idea of pulling resources from the network as you need them rather than stocking them in the center and controlling everything.

The idea of just-in-time learning is about making the connection between resources for the problem at hand. We have access to a lot of information right in our pocket. 

… it’s happening in software and in hardware and bioengineering, and so this is a fundamental new way of thinking about innovation. It’s a bottom-up innovation, it’s democratic, it’s chaotic, it’s hard to control.

It’s not bad, but it’s very different, and I think that the traditional rules that we have for institutions don’t work anymore, and most of us here operate with a different set of principles.

In short:

  1. Pull vs old push. Get resources when we need them, instead of planning in advance and stacking them.
  2. Learning vs education. Education is what people do to us and learning is what we do for ourselves.
  3. Compass vs maps. Maps and plans are no longer useful because everything is changing very quickly. We need a compass, which tells us what to do next. We can’t plan everything in advance. We have core principles, our idea, and vision — they are our compass.

Though the world is extremely complex, what we need to do is simple. “Being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super presentwins over stocking everything and being prepared.

Technology-enabled networks and marketplaces are getting better at deploying talent than traditional companies. Organizations are still not harnessing the full power of pull. When it comes to finding people they filter out non linear profiles, for example. A big gap exists between hiring practices and how technology is transforming the career market.

Watch the full talk below.


Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni