“Education is what people do to you; learning is what you do to yourself.” These are the wise words of Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab. In a recent TED Talk, Ito reveals a revolutionary style of innovation that he and his colleagues discovered during a time when they had to take learning into their own hands.
It all started with the magnitude nine earthquake that hit the Pacific coast of Japan in March 2011. Ito was at a meeting in Cambridge at the MIT Media Lab, but his wife and family were in Japan.
As the news started to come in, Ito panicked. A cloud of fallout from the explosion at a nuclear reactor was heading straight towards his family’s home, only 200 kilometres away, and no one–not the government, not the Tokyo Power Company–seemed to know what was going to happen.
“The people on TV weren’t telling us anything that we wanted to hear,” Ito says. “I wanted to know what was going on with the reactor, what was going on with the radiation, whether my family was in danger.”
So Ito took matters into his own hands, and consulted the one resource that would help him find a solution quickly and effectively: the Internet.
Right away, he found there were a lot of other people trying to figure out what was going on, and together they formed a group and called Safecast, whose aim was to try to measure the radiation and distribute the data to interested parties. “It was clear that the government wasn’t going to be doing this for us.”
Three years later, Safecast has 16 million data points, and has designed an app that shows users most of the radiation in Japan and other parts of the world. They are arguably one of the most successful citizen science projects in the world, and 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?” Ito asks. “I would suggest that it has something to do with the Internet.”
The urgency of the situation certainly helped to bring people together, Ito says, but it was more than that. It was a new way of doing things, enabled by the Internet, which emphasized productivity over planning.
The Ability to Act Now
Before the Internet (or, as Ito jokes, “B.I.”) life was simple. Things were Euclidian, Newtonian, and somewhat predictable. People tried to predict the future. Then, once the Internet was introduced, the world became extremely complex and extremely low-cost–at an extremely fast rate.
“Those Newtonian laws that we so dearly cherished turned out to be just local ordinances, and what we found was that in this completely unpredictable world, most of the people who were surviving were working with a different set of principles.”
If you wanted to create a new product, for example, you’d engineer the hardware layer, the network layer, and the software, and it would cost millions of dollars to do anything that was substantial. You’d hire an MBA who would write a plan and raise money, and then you’d hire the designers and the engineers to actually build the product. What happened after the Internet, Ito says, was that the cost of innovation plummeted.
“It 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 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.”
The Internet caused innovation, at least in software and services, to go from an MBA-driven innovation model to a designer-engineer-driven innovation model, and pushed innovation “to the edges,” toward dorm rooms and startups and away from the large institutions.
And as it turns out, Ito says, this shift is happening not only in software and services but in a wide variety of fields and industries.
Last year, Media Lab sent a group of students to Shenzhen, China. The group toured a wide range of factories and parts markets in the city, from traditional electronics manufacturing venues to a diaper and feminine napkin plant. Here, the students discovered, now-ism is the rule, not the exception.
“What was happening there was you would have these manufacturing devices, and they weren’t making prototypes or PowerPoints,” Ito explains. “They were fiddling with the manufacturing equipment and innovating right on the manufacturing equipment. The factory was in the designer, and the designer was literally in the factory.”
The planning and the process were one. At a cell phone manufacturing plant, for instance, engineers would make a cell phone, go down to a market stall, sell a few, examine other manufacturers’ products, go up to the plant, make a couple thousand more, and return to the stalls.
“They make new cell phones like kids in Palo Alto make websites,” Ito says. It’s what he calls “pushing innovation to the edges,” and it’s happening all over the globe.
For example, a bioengineering product called Sorona uses a genetically engineered microbe to turn corn sugar into polyester. It’s 30 percent more efficient than the fossil fuel method, and it’s much better for the environment. The problem is, Sorona costs about 400 million dollars and took seven years to build. However, since the cost of innovation in bioengineering is going down, we can now use desktop gene sequencers to do the same thing at a significantly lower cost.
“It used to cost millions and millions of dollars to sequence genes. Now you can do it on a desktop like this, and kids can do this in dorm rooms. In this lab, we will have the world’s capacity of gene printing within a year, 200 million base pairs a year.”
In other words, bioengineering will be pushed to the edges, into the hands of dorm rooms and startup companies. The cost of innovation, manufacturing, and distribution is dipping so low that the institutions are no longer leading the pack.
“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 operate with a different set of principles.”
Acting Now in Education
In a way, this sentiment resonates with the increasingly popular call to self-educate, to take advantage of all the free resources available to connected individuals. The cost of a formal education has become so outrageously high that it no longer makes sense to rely solely on “large institutions.”
“It feels like they’re trying to make you memorize the whole encyclopaedia before they let you go out and play,” Ito says, “and to me, I’ve got Wikipedia on my cell phone, and it feels like they assume you’re going to be on top of some mountain all by yourself with a number 2 pencil trying to figure out what to do, when the fact is, you’re always going to be connected, you’re always going to have friends, and you can pull Wikipedia up whenever you need it, and what you need to learn is how to learn.”
In the same way Ito would argue that Safecast knows more than any other organization about how to collect data and publish data, one might argue that a student with practical experience knows more about his or her field than a student preoccupied with theory.
Enstitute, an apprenticeship program that matches young go-getters with high-powered mentors, is using the now-ism technique to transform student education.
“In K-12, we’ve identified many different ways with which young kids learn,” says Shaila Ittycheria, co-founder of Enstitute. “But somehow, when everyone turns 18, we say OK, college is the one pathway.”
At Enstitute, apprentices are thrown directly into the deep end of the professional pool, suddenly immersed in the culture and real-life responsibilities of the working world. Mentor and mentee are paired throughout a rigorous screening process – sticking with each other for at least a year so that apprentices learn how to walk, talk, act, and think like a successful person in their field.
“Ninety percent of our original cohort either work for the companies where they apprenticed or have started their own companies,” Ittycheria says.
A generation of college students is graduating into a lifetime of crushing debt and a job market that all too often treats a four-year bachelor’s degree like an expired fishing license. Topping that off with more school, or an unpaid internship has made the traditional path to professional life a frustrating, uphill slog for many students. “We think that learning by doing, especially when it comes to careers and jobs, in this 21st century world, is one of the most important things you go through to figure out where you need to be,” Ittycheria says.
Even large, government-operated institutions are starting to turn to now-ism. For instance, NASA has introduced a new initiative meant to provide incentives for multi-disciplinary, leap-ahead research that is designed to bring technologies from other sectors into aviation and rapidly demonstrate the feasibility of new ideas.
“We will ask big questions–such as can we enable small unmanned aircraft to fly in populated areas– and create new commercial opportunities, seek multi-disciplinary solutions, and demonstrate their feasibility in 18-36 months,” says Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for aeronautics. A successful demonstration could help bring a promising concept into NASA’s mainstream research programs or, perhaps, have it selected by an entrepreneurial company, he says.
“The goal of the program is to achieve a rapid turnover in feasibility demonstrations, and to give researchers a chance to ‘fail early’ and gain experience” he explains, adding: “As long as we learn valuable lessons and advance our knowledge, even if it does not work it is not a failure.”
Most importantly, Shin says, NASA must guard against falling into a groove, with no chance to get out.
“We want to set up an environment to prevent that happening . . . [with] a high turnover rate [in demos] so that we do not settle on a particular idea.”
Giving yourself permission to fail is important not only in the sciences but in the arts as well. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott discusses the challenges faced in writing. She says that an essential aspect of getting work done is allowing yourself to write a “really shitty first draft.” You write a terrible first draft so that you can have a somewhat better second draft, and an even better third draft. As she says, “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it.” It is only sitting down and stringing together some words–despite not knowing what you want to write or where your narrative will go–that puts you into the place where the story can begin to unfold.
The lesson here is that quantity is, in many cases, the fastest route to quality. Needless to say, this principle works wonders in an educational setting.
Successful people (and effective learners) take action as quickly as possible, even if they may perform poorly
In the book Art and Fear, artists Ted Orland and David Waylon share a story about a ceramics teacher who tried an experiment with his class.
The teacher divided the students into two groups. Those sitting on the left side of the studio were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work, while those on the right, solely on the quality. The instructor informed the students in the quantity group that a simple rule would be applied to evaluate their grades: those who produced fifty pounds of pots would get an A, those who produced forty pounds a B, and so on.
For the quality group, the instructor told the students that he would assign a course grade based on the single best piece produced over the duration of the course. So if a student created a first-rate pot on day one of the course and did nothing else for the term, he would still get an A.
When the end of the quarter arrived and it came to grading time, the instructor made an interesting discovery: the students who created the best work, as judged by technical and artistic sophistication, were the quantity group. While they were busy producing pot after pot, they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the clay, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.
In contrast, the students in the quality group carefully planned out each pot and tried to produce refined, flawless work, and so they only worked on a few pieces over the length of the course. Because of their limited practice, they showed little improvement.
This story nicely illustrates Ito’s point: successful people (and effective learners) take action as quickly as possible, even if they may perform poorly. Instead of trying to avoid making mistakes and failing, they actively seek opportunities where they can face the limits of their skills and knowledge so that they can learn quickly.
The Three Principles of Now-ism
1. Deploy or Die
Professor Nicholas Negroponte, who founded Media Lab, famously proposed the “demo or die” principle, as opposed to “publish or perish,” which had been the traditional academic way of thinking for decades. The demo only has to work once, he said, because the primary mode of impacting the world is demonstrating a new product and inspiring large companies, as in the case of Kindle and Lego Mindstorms.
But today, with the ability to deploy things into the real world at such low cost, Ito is changing the motto: “Deploy or die,” he likes to say.
“You have to get the stuff into the real world for it to really count,” he says. “We should be getting out there ourselves and not depending on large institutions to do it for us.”
In the context of learning, this means sharing and acting on ideas A) before we have perfected them and B) before a higher authority has accepted them. Sure, it’s always wise to do a little planning and preparation, and it never hurts to receive positive feedback, but the greatest yield of rewards is going to come from getting our ideas out there. The Internet has become a collaborative canvas, especially when you take social media into account, and the best way to learn is no longer in isolation.
2. Pull Over Push
One of Ito’s 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 centre and controlling everything.
In the case of the Safecast story, Ito didn’t know anything when the earthquake happened, but was able to find Sean, the hackerspace community organizer; Peter, the analog hardware hacker who made the company’s first Geiger counter; and Dan, who built the Three Mile Island monitoring system after the Three Mile Island meltdown. Ito says he wouldn’t have found this team if not for the urgency and productivity-oriented nature of the situation. He pulled resources from the network as he needed them, rather than pushing what he already had into uncharted territory.
In the context of learning, pull over push could mean the end of the brainiac, the know-it-all, the person who spends their academic career storing facts. Before the Internet, we depended on these people. Now we depend on the people who can “pull” the right resources at the right time, in the most creative and efficient manner. This is what we should be teaching our students today.
3. Compass Over Maps
Simply put, planning is overrated. It takes time, money, and energy, and oftentimes doesn’t pay off. Think of a compass as a way of guiding one’s efforts in the right direction while–not before–those efforts are in action. You correct yourself as you go, and you end up with far more to show at the end of the day. It’s a bit like forcing yourself to start achieving your goals rather than writing a full list of the goals and planning each step before you take action.
“The cost of writing a plan or mapping something is getting so expensive, and it’s not very accurate or useful,” Ito says. “In the Safecast story, we knew we needed to collect data, we knew we wanted to publish the data, and instead of trying to come up with the exact plan, we first said, oh, let’s get Geiger counters. Oh, they’ve run out. Let’s build them. There aren’t enough sensors. Okay, then we can make a mobile Geiger counter. We can drive around. We can get volunteers. We don’t have enough money. Let’s Kickstarter it. We could not have planned this whole thing, but by having a very strong compass, we eventually got to where we were going.”
Similarly, when you take learning into your own hands, you plan less and do more. You stop waiting around for professors to address your personal interests and pursue them yourself. You learn what you want, when you want. You dive right in, whether you think you are prepared or not, and teach yourself to swim. Theory takes a seat on the back burner, and practice reins supreme.
“The good news,” says Ito, “is that even though the world is extremely complex, what you need to do is very simple. It’s about stopping this notion that you need to plan everything, you need to stock everything, and you need to be so prepared, and focus on being connected, always learning, fully aware, and super present.”
Because the truth is, you can’t know what something is like, how you will feel about it, or what will result from it until you actually are doing it.
“I don’t like the word ‘futurist,’” Ito concludes, giving his audience a knowing smile. “I think we should be now-ists, like we are right now.”
previously posted on informED
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Saga has built her writing and editing career at Tin House Books, Night Owls Press, and Dancing Moon Press. Along the way, writing education and education reform have become two of her primary interests. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, OR. @sagamilena