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Principles for an Age of Acceleration

MIT Media Lab is a creative nerve center where great ideas like One Laptop per Child, LEGO Mindstorms, and Scratch programming language have emerged.

Its director, Joi Ito, has done a lot of thinking about how prevailing systems of thought will not be the ones to see us through the coming decades. In his book Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future, he notes that sometime late in the last century, technology began to outpace our ability to understand it.

We are blessed (or cursed) to live in interesting times, where high school students regularly use gene editing techniques to invent new life forms, and where advancements in artificial intelligence force policymakers to contemplate widespread, permanent unemployment. Small wonder our old habits of mind—forged in an era of coal, steel, and easy prosperity—fall short. The strong no longer necessarily survive; not all risk needs to be mitigated; and the firm is no longer the optimum organizational unit for our scarce resources.

Ito’s ideas are not specific to our moment in history, but adaptive responses to a world with certain characteristics:

1. Asymmetry
In our era, effects are no longer proportional to the size of their source. The biggest change-makers of the future are the small players: “start-ups and rogues, breakaways and indie labs.”

2. Complexity
The level of complexity is shaped by four inputs, all of which are extraordinarily high in today’s world: heterogeneity, interconnection, interdependency and adaptation.

3. Uncertainty
Not knowing is okay. In fact, we’ve entered an age where the admission of ignorance offers strategic advantages over expending resources–subcommittees and think tanks and sales forecasts—toward the increasingly futile goal of forecasting future events.”

When these three conditions are in place, certain guiding principles serve us best. In his book, Ito shares some of the maxims that organize his “anti-disciplinary” Media Lab in a complex and uncertain world.

Emergence over Authority

Complex systems show properties that their individual parts don’t possess, and we call this process “emergence”. For example, life is an emergent property of chemistry. Groups of people also produce a wondrous variety of emergent behaviors—languages, economies, scientific revolutions—when each intellect contributes to a whole that is beyond the abilities of any one person.

Some organizational structures encourage this kind of creativity more than others. Authoritarian systems only allow for incremental changes, whereas nonlinear innovation emerges from decentralized networks with a low barrier to entry. As Stephen Johnson describes in Emergence, when you plug more minds into the system, “isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals.”

Synthetic biology best exemplifies the type of new field that can arise from emergence. Not to be confused with genetic engineering, which modifies existing organisms, synthetic biology aims to create entirely new forms of life.

Having emerged in the era of open-source software, synthetic biology is becoming an exercise in radical collaboration between students, professors, and a legion of citizen scientists who call themselves biohackers. Emergence has made its way into the lab.

As a result, the cost of sequencing DNA is plummeting at six times the rate of Moore’s Law, and a large Registry of Standard Biological Parts, or BioBricks, now offers genetic components that perform well-understood functions in whatever organism is being created, like a block of Lego.

There is still a place for leaders in an organization that fosters emergence, but the role may feel unfamiliar to a manager from a traditional hierarchy. The new leader spends less time leading and more time “gardening”—pruning the hedges, watering the flowers, and otherwise getting out of the way. (As biologist Lewis Thomas puts it, a great leader must get the air right.)

Pull over Push

“Push” strategies involve directing resources from a central source to sites where, in the leader’s estimation, they are likely to be needed or useful. In contrast, projects that use “pull” strategies attract intellectual, financial and physical resources to themselves just as they are needed, rather than stockpiling them.

Ito is a proponent of the sharing economy, through which a startup might tap into the global community of freelancers and volunteers for a custom-made task force instead of hiring permanent teams of designers, programmers or engineers.

Here’s a great example:

When the Fukushima nuclear meltdown happened, Ito was living just outside of Tokyo. The Japanese government took a command-and-control (“push”) approach to the disaster, in which information would slowly climb up the hierarchy, and decisions would then be passed down stepwise to the ground-level workers.

It soon became clear that the government was not equipped to assess or communicate the radioactivity levels of each neighborhood, so Ito and his friends took the problem into their own hands. Pulling in expertise and money from far-flung scientists and entrepreneurs, they formed a citizen science group called Safecast, which built its own GPS-equipped Geiger counters and strapped them to cars for faster monitoring. They launched a website that continues to share data – more than 50 million data points so far – about local environments.

To benefit from these kinds of “pull” strategies, it pays to foster an environment that is rich with weak ties – a wide network of acquaintances from which to draw just-in-time knowledge and resources, as Ito did with Safecast.

Compasses over Maps

Detailed maps can be more misleading than useful in a fast-changing world, where a compass is the tool of choice. In the same way, organizations that plan exhaustively will be outpaced in an accelerating world by ones that are guided by a more encompassing mission.

A map implies a straightforward knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a far more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her own path.

One advantage to the compass approach is that when a roadblock inevitably crops up, there is no need to go back to the beginning to form another plan or draw up multiple plans for each contingency. You simply navigate around the obstacle and continue in your chosen direction.

It is impossible, in any case, to make detailed plans for a complex and creative organization. The way to set a compass direction for a company is by creating a culture—or set of mythologies—that animates the parts in a common worldview.

In the case of the MIT Media Lab, that compass heading is described in three values: “Uniqueness, Impact, and Magic”. Uniqueness means that if someone is working on a similar project elsewhere, the lab moves on.

Rather than working to discover knowledge for its own sake, the lab works in the service of Impact, through start-ups and physical creations. It was expressed in the lab’s motto “Deploy or die”, but Barack Obama suggested they work on their messaging, and Ito shortened it to “Deploy.”

The Magic element, though hard to define, speaks to the delight that playful originality so often awakens.

Both students and faculty at the lab are there to learn, but not necessarily to be “educated”. Learning is something you pursue for yourself, after all, whereas education is something that’s done to you. The result is “agile, scrappy, permissionless innovation”.

The new job landscape requires more creativity from everybody. The people who will be most successful in this environment will be the ones who ask questions, trust their instincts, and refuse to follow the rules when the rules get in their way.

Other principles discussed in Whiplash include Risk over Safety, Disobedience over Compliance, Practice over Theory, Diversity over Ability, Resilience over Strength, and Systems over Objects.