Pierre-Alexandre Balland is Professor & Innovation Strategy Advisor at Utrecht University and visiting professor at MIT Media Lab, a renowned interdisciplinary research lab, founded in 1985 by Nicholas Negroponte, that encourages the unconventional mixing and matching of seemingly disparate research areas.
Pierre-Alexandre research is about the art of innovation, and he advises companies, cities, and policymakers on innovation strategy.
The combination of the MIT Media Lab brand name with the intriguing ‘art of innovation’ was a powerful trigger to ask Pierre-Alexandre a few questions.
1) Hi Pierre-Alexandre, what is the purpose of the MIT Media Lab, and how does it manage to embed technology, media, science, art, and design in its research programs and faculty projects?
PA: The Media Lab is a unique initiative that aims at inventing the future and defines itself as “antidisciplinary”, a word that is not known by my spell checker. Antidisciplinary is not about bringing different academic disciplines together but creating entirely new spaces. If I work in an Econ department, I am supposed to publish in journals that are defined as Econ journals. I have to follow the established rules. I might have to publish academic papers and not tools. The Media Lab is much more open to novelty in that respect. In particular, it brings together science, engineering, design, and art. If you build cars that only engineers know how to drive you won’t make much of an impact. Bring designers and artists in the mix, and you can change the world. What is also fascinating is that the Media Lab is that it is fully funded by corporate members and most faculty members are entrepreneurs. It brings science and industry together in a way that most European institutions can only dream of, and injects an incredible amount of novelty to the market. This novelty gives a unique comparative advantage to companies.
2) Could you share a few examples of the research programs in the fields targeted by the Media Lab: neurobiology, biologically inspired fabrication, socially engaging robots, emotive computing, bionics, and hyperinstruments?
PA: This is all a bit far from my field so I am not the best person to talk about these fantastic projects. But I am always very impressed by Hugh Herr’s Biomechatronics group who creates bionic limbs inspired by nature that emulates the function of natural limbs. Check his 2014 Ted Talk with dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, and you’ll have a tasted of the future too!
3) How did your journey bring you to the MIT Media Lab? How does your teaching the art of innovation cross the academic program of the Media Lab? Are you also involved in research programs?
PA: I joined the Collective Learning group directed by César Hidalgo in 2018 as a visiting professor. César has pioneered a new way to think about the economy as a network. It appears that the current structure of this network contains hidden information about the future of the economy. César has mainly worked on countries and products, and I have mainly worked on cities and technologies. Today we join forces and have published multiple papers on the growth of cities, what are the future tech hubs, and why inequality can emerge in our society as a function of economic evolution. We are now writing a book and producing tools to automate decision-making processes of governments.
4) What does ‘the art of innovation’ include? What are the founding blocks of your teaching/research? It seems to take various shapes, such as a regional map of innovation skills
PA: The art of innovation is first about understanding that wealth creation comes from what we are making, not how hard we work, or how well an organization is managed. It does not matter how good of a surfer you are if there are no waves. Technological change creates these wavers, opens opportunities and the art of innovation is first about identifying these new waves rather than resisting them. For cities and governments I build recommendation systems (like Netflix!) that allow them to identify industries or technologies on which they should invest. I have started building these systems for private investors, and started B2B projects to assess how AI, network science and blockchain can solve big business problems.
5) In your TEDx Talk on ‘Knowledge and the city: the digital age paradox’, you show that cities are the knowledge incubators of modern societies, and why you need proximity and face-to-face interactions to generate the next big idea. How does it reflect your research?
PA: In my research I have found that innovation is increasingly concentrated in space. This is counter-intuitive because we have emails, and Skype type of tools but face-to-face is increasingly important. This is because knowledge is becoming more and more complex, leading to the formation of giant networks that need to coordinate. So far the best coordination tool is to meet in person.
Companies haven’t fully realized that, and keep setting-up branches and labs randomly (or because of historical trajectories). Companies need to map where the knowledge they need is, and plan their location choices accordingly. The reason why companies move to the Silicon Valley or around MIT is not cheap rent. It’s unique knowledge that gives temporary monopoly. This knowledge is complex and does not travel well across oceans.
6) What are your next challenges?
PA: Our recommendations systems have proven to be very useful for cities and governments to automate complex policy-making decisions. It looks very bright for business and investors too. But the biggest challenge is to use these amazing tools for much more complex challenges such as using AI and big data to mitigate climate change, fight economic inequality and deal with other SDGs. I am working on these projects with a few Ph.D. and master students – but these are definitely the most challenging ones!