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.
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: http://iht.com/bin/print_ipub.php?file=/articles/2005/01/17/yourmoney/medialab.html