In Wired for War, P. W. Singer makes a case for why DARPA has been able to innovate in a way that has built more than just war machines. The internet, cell phones, and other useful engines have come out of an environment constructed from a particular mandate: Think of what the world will look like 40 years from now, and make it that way now. Granted, the context for this prognostication was to give the US a tactical advantage in war, but when you think about it, what part of human life won’t give you a tactical advantage if you get there first? Health, infrastructure, communications—all of these aspects of life, if improved, give you an advantage in a war, so they all become a potential part of DARPA’s mandate. So, you get things like the internet and cellphones.
Also, they have a black budget.
So, you combine an unlimited budget with an unlimited mandate to dream and you can achieve great things. This is a grossly oversimplified explanation of DARPA (things can go very wrong)—and the lab model in general—but you get the point.
Lately, I’ve become very interested in how the lab model might apply to all of the problems/opportunities content is facing and has faced for the past 10 years or so. As I hinted at in my post about SOPA/PIPA, we’re eventually going to need to reckon with the fact that content, for the most part, is now digital. And the implications of that fact throughout the life cycle of content are a lot more than just, “Do we charge per download or via subscription?” We’re going to need to have a serious discussion about the repercussions and then adjust accordingly, but in a responsible way that doesn’t screw anyone over (or at least keeps that to a minimum). Put another way, we need to innovate our way into an uncertain future instead of trying to over-legislate or unfair business practice our way out.
After seeing some of the new approaches to funding, distributing, and paying for content that are emerging, and especially after reading this article, I begin to believe the time is right for a content lab.
A content lab would be, essentially, a DARPA for content. Unlimited (relatively speaking) funding that allows for a lot of different ventures to fail quickly without breaking the bank, coupled with the smartest minds (or people who know how to find and work with the smartest minds) developing (a) new approaches to content creation, consumption, and compensation based on emerging technologies, and (b) solutions to the problems of content creation, consumption, and compensation created by emerging technologies. (a) and (b) will often be one in the same. Also, a content incubator along the lines of the one described here. The incubator and the lab would work hand in hand.
A concept like this could live in a larger organization, something like Project Liberty, but on a much larger scale. Or it could live at a university. The obvious Exhibit A here is the MIT Media Lab which, to be fair, still involves quite a bit of corporate funding.
Starting from a big pool of “what if’s?”, lean startup methodology could be applied until the ideas left standing are ready for proof-of-concept. If they survive that process, those ideas could go on to become small businesses, creating products that could partially fund the lab (depending upon the overall business model).
Ultimately, though, the lab’s product would be data. More specifically, prognostication. What will or won’t work. We find out the hard way so the rest of the world can pick and choose the best models and evolve them.
So, who wants to put up the seed capital?
(By the way, there is, in fact, a content lab, which from my brief research seems to be focused more on branding and content marketing as opposed to iterative product design, but looks like a step in the right direction.)