Nicholas Negroponte: Where Do Ideas Come From?

By Shlomo  Maital    



MIT Media Lab

   MIT Prof. Nicholas Negroponte was the featured speaker at the 20th anniversary event of the MIT Enterprise Forum of Israel, an organization I helped found in 1994,  and now run by Ayla Matalon.  Negroponte spoke about how and why he started the Media Lab, together with MIT President Jerome Wiesner.  His plan was to create a place for outsiders, for those whose radical innovative ideas would never be accepted in conventional MIT faculties.   For 30 years the Media Lab has been a fountain of radically new ideas built on strong research foundations, with corporations lining up to pay fortunes just to gain access to those ideas.  

     “Where do new ideas come from?”  Negroponte asked the audience, rhetorically.   In one word:  “From differences.”  From people who think differently. 

     I think this explains why so few really new ideas emerge from universities, places where creativity is supposed to live but never does,  and from big corporations, which pay lip service to innovation but do everything to stamp it out.

     Universities reproduce ideas, by having students do research that in tiny incremental steps extends the research of their advisors, and generally affirms it.  Imagine a thesis that disproved the central theories of the advisor!   Tenure is gained fastest and easiest by publishing mainstream research that irritates no-one and ruffles the fewest feathers.   

    Businesses grow to global scale by operational discipline, in which people are well paid to do the same thing, again and again, with excellence and discipline.  Imagine a manager who tells his CEO that the company’s most profitable product line is becoming commoditized and should be sold or closed. 

    Neither universities nor large multinationals want their people to think differently. Nor do they hire people who are different.   This, despite the well-known finding that it is the most diverse teams that are the most innovative, and the rule that you should include a non-expert in every team, to ask the ‘dumb’ questions.

    I strongly urge my students to respond to job interviews with their own interviews. Interview the interviewer.  Find out if they really do want your creative ideas.  Find out if they celebrate failure, and welcome diversity.  Do this BEFORE you get put into the corporate blender and emerge as bland conventional porridge, instead of remaining a spicy jalapena pepper.