“It came out of some esoteric backroom research that nobody thought had any huge practical implication whatsoever,” says the professor at MIT’s Media Lab. Game-changing technologies in transportation may arise the same way.
Question: Some say we don’t have the time or resources to fund R&D in so many technologies simultaneously. Should we focus on less?
Bill Mitchell: No. No. I think you have to distinguish between what I’ll call incremental R&D, which can be very focused. You could say, we need to improve the efficiency of the system, whatever it is by 10% or something, you can focus a bunch of resources on doing that and be with a fairly high probability of success, you know get that payoff. But the really big fundamental transformations are fundamentally unpredictable and that’s the very definition of a creative disruptive transformation in fact. And most things where the big payoff comes from, so the Internet for example came out of nowhere. And I’ve been around long enough and I was around at the beginning of the Internet that I know it personally. So I can attest to that. It came and nobody knew what to do with this. It came out of some esoteric backroom research that nobody thought had any huge practical implication whatsoever. Forty years later, it is about 40 years right now, it has transformed the world. It completely transformed the world.
So, I think the most effective economic thing that you can do, and it sounds sort of risky and uncertain, but you have to preserve the capacity for truly innovative and unpredictable undirected research. That’s just what you have to do if you want the really big payoff. This drives people crazy because they want predictability, but if you think about it, the fundamental contradiction between the idea and making a fundamental creative innovation and being totally predictable. If it was totally predictable then anybody can do it.
I think a placed like MIT and a think a place like the Media Lab, in particular is very much dedicated to that idea that we investigate all kinds of crazy things, and frankly, most of them fail, or at least in the sort term they don’t go anywhere, but every now and again, one of them pays off really big time and really transforms things. And I think you have to do that. There’s a way to look at it is like any other kind of investment. You know portfolios and investments, it isn’t about investment research and development money, you want to pursue some straightforward and sure things that need to get done, but you don’t want to neglect the big transformative things, that’s very, very shortsighted.
Question: What are some other game-changing ideas right now when it comes to the future of transportation?
Bill Mitchell: Transportation specifically, I think they have to do, I think mostly with various aspects of what we’ve already talked about. I think we are going to see some big breakthroughs in lightweight efficient electrical vehicles over the next few years. It’s very difficult to predict exactly how that’s going to go, but it’s, I think a very certain prediction that we are going to see a lot of development in that area. So, that’s one thing. I think we’re going to see some very surprising things in large scale, intelligent clean energy systems, and I’ve talked about some of those sorts of things that can maybe happen. And then I think rethinking the whole concept of mobility with things like Mobility on Demand systems is another big thing.
Here’s the way I’d look at it, if you look at the sustainability challenges that cities face over the 20 or 30 years, they’re formidable and everybody knows this. Incremental advances are not going to get us to where we need to be. I mean, incrementally improving the efficiency and cleanliness of the power trains of automobiles and all these sorts of things, they’re very worthwhile and we should stop pursuing them, but they’re not going to get us to where we need to be. So, we need in parallel to that have this imaginative search of the big transformative changes that are going to be really game changes and are going to redefine the whole thing. That’s what we’re looking for in the work that we’re doing here.
There’s an appropriate role for us. I mean, we’re not industry, we’re university research group. We have certain sorts of privileges and freedoms and we ought to take advantage of that to really go for what I think of as the big payoffs.
Recorded on January 21, 2010