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The MIT Media Lab Europe is Dead, Long Live the Media Lab

Media Lab Europe (MLE) which was a joint venture between the Irish government and MIT is closing down as it can’t get any more money.

This leaves a bit of a mess for the government, which has sunk at least EUR 35m into it, without much in return. At least EUR 10m of that went directly into MIT’s coffers.

But what was the government really expecting to get for its money, and was there ever a realistic chance in succeeding?

First: the government wanted to hold the European ‘franchise’ of a successful US venture, the Media Lab. This was supposed to reflect glory on Ireland as a location for knowledge-intensive high tech industries.

Second: the government wanted an ‘anchor tenant’ to secure its ‘digital hub’ initiative in the Liberties area of Dublin.

Third: the government wanted to establish something that would put us on the map as an academic centre for new technology. The truth is that the existing universities weren’t really cutting it. They were for the most part followers, not leaders. Having leaders was critical if we wanted to get the international companies to establish research and development centres in Ireland. This was essential to secure the big tech companies like Intel and Microsoft in this country for the long-haul.

So how did it work out? Well, the government appeared to have overestimated the value of the Media Lab franchise at the start. The talk at the time was that the only reason Media Lab Europe ended up in Ireland was because nobody else in Europe was willing to pay as much to MIT for it.

The Media Lab concept may well have appeared much stronger than it actually was, at least in academic terms. Very few, if any successfully commercialized ideas ever emerged from the Masachusetts lab. Other MIT departments (such as the AI department) and other US universities (notably Stanford) appear to have had much more successful spinoffs. That’s not to say that there wasn’t interesting research being done; but it wasn’t coming to a strong commercial conclusion. The MIT Media Lab succeeded in bringing in the funds its needed because it could depend on the strength of major US firms which have a tradition of funding long-term research, and because of the undoubted nous and influence of its founder and chairman, Nicholas Negroponte.

The MLE didn’t do much to establish the Digital Hub as a high-tech area for small companies. MLE was basically inward-looking and wasn’t really that interested in working on commercial ideas with startups. It had close to no influence on the local area. Any sharing that was done had to be done with the large companies that were sponsoring the research.

The MLE didn’t succeed academically. The perception was that researchers were either ‘imported’ from the US Media Lab, or were already somehow connected with another Irish academic institution (which was just as well, because MLE wasn’t accredited to grant degrees).

There are probably many reasons why the enterprise didn’t take off. One of them was certainly the problems of culture clash and personality clash. The Media Lab academic ethos was certainly very different from the Irish one. By some accounts there were personality issues which made things more difficult. There were also tensions with the rest of the academic community. There was some division over the strategy, with the MLE wanting to focus on research, and the government wanting to tie in with local industry as quickly as possible. Most of all, it turned out to be difficult to difficult to develop a world-class academic institution from scratch under such a pressurized timeframe.

It is easy to make fun of the research that went on at Media Lab. Weird and wonderful descriptions abound on the website: ‘The Liminal Devices group aims to create experiences and technologies that examine the threshold between virtual and physical reality and between our inner and outer states of awareness. ‘ ‘An immersive environment where a person is taught various skills controlled via biometric input.’

But just because things read a little strange, or seem a bit detached from day-to-day work or went a bit awry in MLE shouldn’t put us off the whole idea. As I read about this research, I think it is basically worthwhile and interesting, both as an end in itself and as a means to immediately develop skills and knowledge about new technology. This is the sort of thing the Irish government should be involved in.

However, we have to find a way of doing it in our own style, to meet our own needs, rather than copying a model from abroad. We have to build it up largely with our own personnel, not because they are better than outsiders, but because they are what we have and they will be commited to the institution for the long-term. If we need a commercial focus, we need to deal with issues which are directly relevant to our situation. If we need money, we have to fit with the traditional ways of funding academic research through universities, national grants and european programs, rather than trying to fund it in a completely new way.

The biggest mistake the government made was that it wasn’t pragmatic about what could really be achieved for the money and in the time. Research is expensive, and we have to be clear about what we want out of it.

By all means, we should pick up the pieces and embark on another, similar research institute. But we have to learn the lessons. This time we need to be realistic about what we can achieve. Once we’re up and running again and we’ve dusted ourselves off, we should be ready to stick to it for the long haul.

Other people’s thoughts about Media Lab Europe (it is well worth reading some of the former MLE researchers’ comments): RTE news; David Reitter; Mauro Cherubini; Michael Cunningham

MLE Humour: Greenspun; The MeejaLab;

UPDATE: Quote from MIT on the failure of Lab:
“We certainly underestimated the time it would take to reach financial stability,” Walter Bender, executive director of the Media Lab at MIT, wrote in an e-mail interview. “More important, we underestimated the intangible cost of running a lab outside of the context of a university, where one can have ready access to students, who don’t yet know the meaning of the word impossible and provide a natural churn.” (from Brian Lavery’s article in the International Herald Tribune:

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  1. 1. The “happy-clappy rubbish” that was produced according to John McCormac could, surprisingly, be published in peer-review journals and conferences with a good name in the academic community. Strange, that!

    2. What was going on from the very beginning at MLE was that government and some other, let’s say, nationalists, pushed to prefer people of certain nationality when hiring researchers. That’s not only illegal, it’s also against the spirit of a European lab. And in a truly European lab, you wouldn’t expect to see more than a small percentage of Irish researchers. But it was a fact that more than just a few Irish and British people worked there. So it’s not just been an important lab – quite a few researchers were locals. If we want Europe to grow together and to have pan-European institutions, we have to accept that these institutions will follow a European spirit, and not the one present locally. And it was Media Lab EUROPE, and not Media Lab Ireland. That’s something most of the Irish people I have talked to failed to acknowledge.

    3. The cost-benefit ratio of Negropontes concept of blue-sky- and rarely well-evaluated research seems appallingly bad. That was one of the reasons why MLE failed.

  2. John: I don’t think the commercialization of results was supposed to provide income. It was always intended as an academic research setup, not a commercial product development lab. Again and again, the MLE stressed that it wasn’t interested in commercializing the technology. Sometimes there is the impression that the government expected it to be more commercial, but that was the government’s failure to listen, rather than MLE’s failure to tell them.

    The model, as I understand it was that corporate sponsors would provide the income. The sponsors in return would be allowed full access to the research that was produced.

    I don’t think it’s fair to just slag off all the work that was done. There were problems with it, but if everybody knew the best way to do this stuff, well then we wouldn’t need research, would we?

  3. Getting some happy-clappy rubbish into some peer-reviewed journals and hosting, academically, well respected conferences (though you could probably find a correlation between the number of bottles of expensive wine consumed and the respect factor) is still a hell of a waste of approximately 55 Million.

    Most academics seem to live in a kind of Never-never land and MLE seemed to be some kind of Happy Hunting Ground for them. In technology, the academics are almost always years behind the state of the art. The reason for this is typically that the research of the industry is always directed. For example during the piracy of the satellite tv channels in the 1990s when all those secure smartcards were being broken, the academic community was still publishing papers on secure systems and some of them seemed to think that the models and systems that were being broken were still secure. There was a famous Intellectual Property/Copyright court case in Dublin where they had to get some expert witnesses who had not seen the pirate source code/program for defeating one of those systems – where did they find them? Why they dug up some people with excellent academic qualifications. But even at that stage, the code that was at the centre of the case was about two years old – a life time in terms of technology.

    As regards MLE being Media Lab Europe, well I guess that the well intentioned people in the Irish government of the time were the only Europeans stupid enough to pay for it. They saw it as the bait for bigger and more efficient operations that would employ thousands. And in a way it worked.

    If MLE had been a good operation, which it was not, then it would have been necessary to hire the best people regardless of nationality.

    There is a good phrase to describe Negroponte et al – “Cargo Cult Science”. It is not blue-sky research at all. The process of invention is a highly Darwinian one and what does not work, or does not succeed, gets dropped. When I read of all this happy-clappy “rethinking” rubbish, it is not hard to think that these people understood neither invention or technology. They were just being “creative”. It was as if MLE was trying to turn back the evolution of technology.

    It was as if the nasty meme of Political Correctness had been applied to science and technology and the final test of whether something worked replaced with some imprecise value of how “creative” it appeared to others of that ilk. I still wonder if Swift had seen the future of the area near where he lived. The Grand Academy of Lagado is such a good satire of the MLE and it even had Negroponte too.


  4. John, there are two things at play here, and you are treating them as though they were one and the same. One thing is the way MLE was run, the other is the value of the research undertaken there. You are starting with the premise that just because MLE wasn’t run the way you would like to see it run, it wasn’t doing the type of research that you think it should have been doing and it ran out funds that therefore every piece of research that was done there was a complete waste of time.

    Having a rant about academia adds very little to the discussion. Whatever else can be said about it, MLE was certainly not run like a typical academic institution.

    It’s quite easy to knock, but it’s harder to come up with a better idea for how to get things done.

  5. As an ex-MLE’er, perhaps I can add something here. MLE was not a academic institution and never tried to be. Some of the researcher were also undertaking academic studies (MSc/PhD, mostly at TCD) but the lab itself was never thought of like a university lab. Additionally, it never had a strong enough commercial focus (and neither does MIT ML). This is probably one reason why it became hard to justify corporate sponsorship.

    I’ve written (well, brain-dumped) more about it on my blog:


  • Blood Pressure January 18, 2005

    normal blood pressure