Innovation Junkies – One for Your “Bucket List” | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Posted On May 19, 2011

I have yet to talk with an executive in charge of maximizing value of an enterprise’s global services portfolio (whether largely in-house/shared services, outsourced, or an amalgamation of approaches) who did not have innovation among their top challenges or disappointments. Fostering innovation starts with creative processes aimed at articulating a problem and then defining different ways to solve that problem.  Cracking the code on innovation takes both hard work and the “spark.” I recently visited MIT Media Lab‘s new home and witnessed showers of “sparks” across a wide ranging variety of issues. For example:

What if a computer could predict how you will behave better than you can communicate your own feelings? What if you could marry biology, technology, physics, and engineering to take the “dis” out of disabled?

Believe it or not, these questions aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams. My visit to the MIT Media Lab left me absolutely invigorated. My time there was punctuated by discussions with some of the professors and students doing big brain research. And I came away thinking that it was all about technology, yet nothing about technology; it was inspiring and sobering – all at the same time.

One professor shared the work in his lab that is essentially advancing the frontier of making the “bionic man” a reality. Applying technology and (really) advanced mathematical modeling, projects are enabling amputees to achieve functional performance essentially equal to the sacrificed biological limbs. They have mind-blowing working prototypes that actually enable thoughts to drive mechanical tasks, e.g., sensors carefully positioned in a person’s brain that result in an artificial hand opening and closing when the person thinks “open my hand” and “close my hand.”

Another project demonstrated results in which sophisticated real-time image processing of facial expressions predicted what people were thinking more accurately than individuals’ own responses. Analysis of facial expression changes better predicted whether someone really liked a product better than focus groups, responses, interviews, etc. Imagine the power of such feedback from the market in a business setting (or about a discussion you just had with your children!).

Although I could go on and on about the pioneering scientists and artists (another project has created an opera in which machines are the performers and vice versa – I can’t even describe it right!) brought together in this creative crucible for innovation, here I’ll just whet your taste buds a bit. But I will say that prior to my visit, when I learned that the Media Lab is actually part of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, I hoped that the innovation spark produced by integrating multiple disciplines would live up to its promise – and I was not disappointed. Since my undergraduate degree and early career were in the design profession, I have a special appreciation for different problem-solving approaches with a special dose of creativity driving for breakthrough outcomes. If you care about innovation, put the MIT Media Lab on your bucket list – you won’t regret it.

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