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Joi Ito, Director of the Media Lab, speaks about the creation of the Director’s Fellows program.
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What does the co-creator of Lost and director of the next Star Wars film have to do with an international chess grandmaster? A successful fashion designer? The author of a New York Times bestseller? All are members of the MIT Media Lab’s first group of Director’s Fellows, announced last month in a Media Lab blog post.

Joichi Ito, Director of the Media Lab, created the program to foster innovation and expand the outreach of the Media Lab’s network. During their year-long relationship with the Lab, the Fellows are expected to interact with MIT students and faculty by collaborating on projects or giving talks.

According to the Director’s Fellows website, the list of Fellows includes Emmy Award-winning director J.J. Abrams, chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, fashion designer Christopher Bevans, Nairobi-based technologists and activists David Kobia and Juliana Rotich, open education activist Philipp Schmidt, Detroit community activist Shaka Senghor, maker movement advocate Jeff Sturges, and author and comedian Baratunde Thurston.

“The Director’s Fellows Program is kind of an initial shot at my going out and trying to find an interesting group of people who would inspire and challenge our students and faculty to think in different ways, who are also doing really interesting things in their local communities as well as their respective fields,” explained Ito in an interview with The Tech. “Each of them has a tremendous amount of potential or is already quite accomplished in whatever they do.”

The type of work each Fellow does varies immensely ­— diversity that Ito hand-picked. Open education activist Philipp Schmidt first met Ito when Ito sat on the board of Creative Commons. At the time, Schmidt was trying to persuade more universities to make their course material public by adopting Creative Commons licenses.

“I think about ways the Media Lab could do online learning. And then I build prototypes and experiment with new tools and approaches, to try it out,” Schmidt said of his current work. “We just launched the first one at http://learn.media.mit.edu (an online course called Learning Creative Learning) — which is a collaboration with Mitch Resnick and his group Lifelong Kindergarten.”

Schmidt continued, “I will definitely be here through the summer, and I am already hatching plans to stay longer. Building on the experience with Learning Creative Learning, I plan to build a range of online courses as well as some learning opportunities that look nothing like courses.”

Fellow Chris Bevans is a fashion designer whose clientele includes celebrities such as Jay-Z, Kanye West, and John Legend.

“As 1 of 9 of the Director’s Fellows, it’s truly an honor to have a fellowship with the Media Lab. My specialty is fashion design and textiles,” wrote Bevans in an email to The Tech. “So, my goal is to work with some of the PhD students that are innovating in the field, create and collaborate with them, and share our ideas with the world of fashion. I’ve already started working with a few students on a very exciting project around sound reactive materials.”

Fellow J.J. Abrams is similarly no stranger to celebrities, although his work consists of designing films rather than clothing. His next movie, Star Trek Into the Darkness, is slated to come out in May. Ito had initially offered Abrams a position on the Media Lab’s Advisory Board, but he turned it down to be a Director’s Fellow. Ito took this as a positive sign that Abrams intends to do serious work at the Media Lab, although the two are still in the midst of syncing timing.

Ito explained, “He’s, as you can imagine, really busy, so the scheduling part is going to be tricky, but we’re working on trying to figure out the period that he’ll be here.” According to Ito, the idea is for Abrams to spend about three weeks in the area when he comes up to the East Coast for family trips.

“When he came [to the Media Lab], he got super excited, and the thing that was interesting is that it wasn’t that he got excited about ideas for his next movie,” said Ito. “He got excited about the idea of actually doing stuff here.”

Although Ito became director of the Media Lab only a little more than a year ago, in November 2011, he said that he had been thinking about the fellowship program for a while. “I had the idea very early on, even before I started officially. I started bringing people through the Lab as speakers and as visitors. But many of them felt like they could have an ongoing relationship with the Lab, so I started informally bringing people in,” Ito said. “From a communications perspective, a fundraising perspective and sort of a program perspective, it runs better if you formalize it a little bit and create some structure, so we did that.”

Ito admits that the Fellows Program is currently a work in progress, but hopes to formalize the process of selecting Fellows in the future.

“All the initial fellows are people who I’ve gotten to know through my travels, so I know their personalities relatively well,” said Ito. He currently also sits on the board of directors of the MacArthur Foundation, the same group that awards the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowships. From his experience there, Ito hopes to find inspiration in selecting the next Fellows.

“They are very good at finding people who no one knows, who are extremely interesting, who are extremely diverse,” Ito pointed out. “There’s a possibility that I may steal some pages out of the MacArthur Fellows playbook.”

He already has a list of people being considered for next year’s fellowship. However, regardless of whom he selects, Ito hopes to reach out to involve more of the MIT community in the program.

“They’re Media Lab Fellows, but it’s MIT Media Lab, and I’d love to try to figure out ways to have our Fellows interact with more of the rest of MIT,” said Ito.