Joi Ito: How Can We Harness Technology To Innovate From The Bottom Up?

Sep 29, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 1:02 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Citizen Science.

About Joi Ito's TED Talk: Part 2

Thanks to the internet, citizen science is easier than ever before. Joi Ito says now, we no longer need permission — or a degree — to try new things.

About Joi Ito

Joi Ito is a Japanese activist, entrepreneur, and venture capitalist. From his days kickstarting Internet culture in Japan at Digital Garage, his restless curiosity led him to be an early-stage investor in Twitter, Six Apart, Wikia, Flickr,, Kickstarter and other internet companies, and to serve on countless boards and advisory committees around digital culture and Internet freedom.

He now leads the MIT Media Lab.

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So earlier in the show, we met Joi Ito. He's the director of the MIT Media Lab and one of the founders of a website called Safecast. And after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and the subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Joi and other volunteers on the ground were able to collect and share information about radiation levels through that website, Safecast. And that was all pretty much done by not scientists or academics but by ordinary citizens looking to lend a hand.

JOI ITO: We've had thousands of people who have interacted with us in some way. And, you know, at the beginning, the government and some of the people were a little bit sketchy about us because, you know, we were questioning the government and so on. But after a while, they realized we were - first of all, that our data was good. Secondly, that we were doing it to help.

RAZ: But this sort of bottom-up approach wouldn't have been possible without the spread of technology. Joi Ito explains this idea from the TED stage.


ITO: Three years later, we have 16 million data points. We have designed our own Geiger counters that you can download the designs and plug it into the network. We have an app that shows you most of the radiation in Japan and other parts of the world. We are arguably one of the most successful citizen science projects in the world. And we have created the largest open data set of radiation measurements. And the interesting thing here is, how did...


ITO: Thank you. How did a bunch of amateurs who really didn't know what we were doing somehow come together and do what NGOs and the government were completely incapable of doing? And I would suggest that this has something to do with the Internet. It's not a fluke. It wasn't luck. And it wasn't because it was us. It helped that it was a event that pulled everybody together, but it was a new way of doing things that was enabled by the Internet and a lot of the other things that were going on. And I want to talk a little bit about what those new principles are. So remember before the Internet?


ITO: I call this BI. OK. So in BI, life was simple. Things were Euclidean, Newtonian, somewhat predictable. People actually tried to predict the future, even the economists. And then the Internet happened and the world became extremely complex, extremely low-cost, extremely fast. And those Newtonian laws that we so dearly cherished turned out to be just local ordinances. And what we found was that in this completely unpredictable world, that most of the people who were surviving were working with a sort of a different set of principles. And I want to talk a little bit about that.

Before the Internet, if you remember, when we tried to create services, what you would do is you'd create the hardware layer and the network layer and the software. And it would cost millions of dollars to do anything that was substantial. So when it costs millions of dollars to do something substantial, what you would do is you get an MBA who would write a plan and get the money from VCs or big companies. And then you'd hire the designers and the engineers and they build the thing. This is the sort of before internet, BI, innovation model.

What happened after the Internet was the cost of innovation went down so much because the cost of collaboration, the cost of distribution, the cost of communication and Moore's Law made it so that the cost of trying a new thing became nearly zero. And so you would have Google, Facebook, Yahoo students that didn't have permission - permissionless (ph) innovation - didn't have permission, didn't have PowerPoints. They just built the thing. Then they raised the money. And then they sort of figured out a business plan. And maybe later on, they hired some MBAs.

So the Internet caused innovation, at least in software and services, to go from an MBA-driven innovation model to a designer-engineer-driven innovation model. And it pushed innovation to the edges, to the dorm rooms, to the startups, away from the large institutions, the stodgy old institutions that had the power and the money and the authority.


RAZ: Where do you imagine citizen science or bottom-up science being useful and being innovative? And what fields and what areas do you think ordinary people could actually change or make a contribution toward?

ITO: So we at the Media Lab, Reid Hoffman funded a $250,000 prize for disobedience. And we gave it to the doctor and the researcher who did the whistleblowing in Flint for the water - the lead in the water. But when we talked to them, they said that, you know, it's actually local citizen scientists in Michigan who alerted them that something was weird.

And if it weren't for the citizen scientists, they would never have known to - or not known as quickly to start looking at things and noticing things were weird and then amplify that out and bring all the academic rigor around it and so on and so forth. But it was really the citizen scientists in these local communities that were saying, wait, the water tastes weird. What's going on? You know. And so citizen science, first of all, can be everywhere. And anyone can do it. And it's important. I think the environmental things are kind of the obvious ones. I think, you know, air quality is something that actually Safecast is very interested in. We've just created a standalone solar-powered, you know, just drop and play air quality and radiation monitoring system called Solarcast.

And we're starting to deploy these in the United States. And we're hoping to cover vast areas.

RAZ: I mean, the term citizen scientist is still, you know, it's - I think many people kind of imagine, like, kids in a school laboratory or something, right? But is it a - I mean, do you think we're at a sort of an inflection point where, you know, in 10 years from now, we're going to start to wonder how people ever didn't take this seriously?

ITO: Yeah. I think it's going to start in different fields in different ways. So I think in amateur astronomy now, you're starting to find things being discovered by amateur astronomists (ph) a lot more. And they're definitely, you know, whether you're talking about NASA or everybody else, they somehow engage the amateurs. You know, we have - one of our fellows and affiliates used to have this thing called the novelist where they - it was a ship and they would have this tethered robot that would go undersea and they would broadcast the video onto the Internet.

And they would go and explore wrecks and things like that. And you'd have people watching and sending them chat messages and things like that. And often, things were identified by people on the Internet. So they go to some place on the map and they say, wow, what's this weird shipwreck? And some person who's obsessed with that particular period in history in that particular region will be able to identify things that no one - none of the experts there could do.

And Wikipedia is actually an interesting piece of this because if you look at Wikipedia, some of the pages are being managed by these complete amateurs who are totally obsessed with knowing everything about a particular thing. And they've scoured the books, they've scoured the Internet. And they are way up there, if not past the academics in those fields.

And so the network - the Internet allows these communities to find each other and create a kind of emergent peer review.

RAZ: Joi, when you think about the pace of technology and the kind of access to data and information and knowledge that it's given to virtually anybody, has it kind of leveled the playing field for ordinary people, for non-credentialed people to make a real contribution to science?

ITO: I think so. I think it's so easy to get access to the tools, the data, the academic papers, although it should be easier than it is. And citizen scientists and people who are outside of academia are much more focused on the specific outcome that they're looking for. So a lot of academics will ask - will say, well, you know, that sounds interesting, but I don't think that will help my academic career.

RAZ: Yeah.

ITO: Whereas a citizen scientist is saying, how can I help this community? And they're going to pull all the tools together that they need. And so in many ways more than academics, the citizen scientist is going to be able to deploy. And you can have bad citizen science. So it's important to say that not all citizen science is good.

But if you have people who are just as committed to finding the truth and as committed to the integrity of the design and the data as the academics, and there are plenty of people like that, then you will create a culture that's a lot like the academic culture peer review, except a lot more agile because they don't have all of the clunky things like waiting for years before things are published or worrying about tenure and so on and so forth.

So I think that citizen science well-executed for many fast-moving areas is going to outpace academic research.

RAZ: Joi Ito, he directs the Media Lab at MIT. You can see his full talk at


ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: (Singing) Let me hear you say, whoa. Whoa. Say, yeah. Yeah. Say, whoa. Whoa. Yeah. Yeah. Whoa. Yeah. Whoa. Yeah. Whoa. Yeah. Whoa. Yeah. I am everyday people.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show Citizen Science this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, you can go to You can also see hundreds more TED talks at or on the TED app. And you can hear this show anytime by subscribing to our podcast. Do it now on Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah and Rachel Faulkner, with help from Daniel Shukin and Tony Liu. Our intern is Benjamin Klempay. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a review.

You can also write directly to us. That's You can also tweet us. It's @TEDRadioHour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.