How To See The Future

The following are excerpts of a conversation with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab, at CBM's recent Disruptive Tech Summit.

Sometime around 2007, Nicholas Negroponte, technology visionary and co-founder of the legendary MIT Media Lab, stumbled into what should probably go down as one of the all-time worst corporate board discussions in history.

It happened after he went to see his old friend, Apple CEO Steve Jobs. They’d known each other for years—since Jobs was about 20—swapping ideas, designs and insights, many of which would go on to revolutionize the computer industry. But nothing Jobs had ever shown Negroponte would rival the as-yet-unreleased device he was fidgeting with in his pocket that day. “He brought it out after about a half hour,” Negroponte recently recalled. “He said, ‘Nick, this is my life’s work.’ He brought out the iPhone.”

And while Negroponte was transfixed by the breakthrough technologies—the touch screen (which had its origins in the MIT Media Lab), the apps, the multi-touch interface, the camera, the music, what you could download—and what you could possibly download—he was also a bit uneasy. “I said, ‘Remember, Steve—I’m on the Motorola board. Can I tell my fellow members what I’ve seen?’”

Surprisingly, Jobs said yes. So the following Tuesday, Negroponte, who served on Motorola’s board for 15 years, asked the chair for 10 minutes and told his fellow directors what he’d seen. According to Negroponte, one of his fellow directors raised his hand. “‘Nick, you forget. We make 225 million handsets per year. This is a niche market. Nobody’s interested in this niche market.’ And he said, ‘I bet you he doesn’t sell a million in a year.’”

“Nobody was particularly impressed,” says Negroponte. “And, of course Apple ate their lunch.”

Since that experience, Negroponte, who was the keynote speaker at our recent Disruptive Tech Summit for directors at MIT, wondered what he could have done differently—how he could have helped that board understand what they were seeing? It’s a question he still wrestles with, despite his personal knack for seeing our technological future long before others do.

So CBM asked Negroponte to share a few tips on how individual directors can do a better job seeing the future, especially the one right in front of them.

On judging technology:

“In technology in general, if you can, you will. Many things are projected as way out in time. But more often than not, they come sooner rather than later and people are surprised. I dealt a lot with Kodak. They were a very generous supporter of the Media Lab. I was in my late 30s and I was saying to the then-CEO, “You know, film is… it’s just not going to be.” And they said, “No, son. You don’t understand. We’re going to be making film for many, many years.” And, of course, it disappeared.

“It’s so predictable. How can you miss that? But you had to be able to look at very low-resolution flat panel displays and project forward and realize that it will happen sooner rather than later. The concept of film, it’s just too expensive. It doesn’t make sense to capture something on film. It used to be the case it could hang on for a while with big sheets of film. You say, “You can’t do that on a display.” Well, you can’t do it on a display yet. That’s the key.”

On why people underestimate technology:

“It’s not so much fear. It’s almost annoyance. Even if I’m a director for another five years, maybe even 10, I’m not going to be around. There is a certain piece of all of this that says, “It’s not gonna evolve, and I’m not gonna be here when it all falls apart.” And at the corporate level, the fiduciary decision may be totally unrelated. In other words, you may find that you’re selling things that do damage because you’re paying a little less for fuel but you’re using coal. Then you get rewarded for that.”

On not getting blindsided:

“The most successful visits by corporate executives that we had over my lifetime at the Media Lab fell into two categories: One, which is obvious, we always told companies, “You know, if you want to have your board meeting here, we’ll give you a lovely room. Then for an hour and a half or two hours, break out, and we’ll give you a little dog and pony show.” So they’re seeing it as a group. They’re talking about it. They break for lunch. They spent an hour in the Lab, discuss what they saw and they go. That’s often very successful.

“The other is when they bring their kids. I’d say, “Come visit. And by the way, if you’re coming through Boston on a family vacation, bring your kids. Bring your spouse. We love that.” You then sort of see through the eyes of your own child. And that has been quite successful.

“They see things sometimes that are meaningful to their kid but not to them. So they pay a little bit more attention. It may not be as explicit as I’m describing. It may be through body language. It may be through all sorts of other ways. I found that it was wonderful. I love it when people would come with their kids.”

On making bets and thinking through tech decisions:

“It depends a little bit on the size of the company. If you’re big enough to take some wild bets, I would do it. It can be half of one percent of your spending.

“What I’m about to say is going to sound a little self-serving, but corporate funding of university research labs isn’t just helping the national treasure, but boy, does it give people a chance to get out of their corporations. The degree to which the average person in the average company is looking inward and worrying about exactly what’s happening there, barely goes to an industry conference, but when he or she does, they go to an industry conference about the industry they’re in. So it’s a very inward-looking engine that’s constantly running.

“But it’s hard for companies. It’s very hard. People work long hours. They start early. They work late. You know, there’s focus, focus, focus. A little defocus is pretty important.”

On fueling creativity:

“The only thing we know about creativity is it comes from differences. That’s where it comes from. If you have no differences, you’re not going to have a creative society. In fact, the societies that are the least creative are the most homogenous. The societies like this country that are overwhelmingly heterogeneous are where a lot of the new ideas come from. When the British were the leaders in science and technology, it was when 25 percent of the world was [part of the] British Empire. There were expressions like, “The sun’s always rising on some part of the British Empire.” It made for a very creative society.”