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 / Autumn 2006 / Issue 44(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Ambassador from the Next Economy

“Venture activist” Joichi Ito has turned his life into a prototype of the organization of the future.

On Joichi Ito’s Web site, there’s a link called “Where is Joi.” Click on it, and a NASA-generated image of the world pops up, with marks depicting his current location (in early June, this was “Joi’s Lab,” his private refuge near the Tokyo Institute of Technology) and his latest habitats. These have included, in recent months, hotel rooms in Toronto, Helsinki, and Shanghai; his sister’s house in Los Angeles; the United Airlines flight between Tokyo and San Francisco (where Mr. Ito says he spends more time than in his own bed); and the offices of dozens of businesses, groups, and friends he visits regularly. The map is not always up to date, but no matter. These days Joi Ito’s mind is most likely to be found online, in a game called World of Warcraft, no matter where on earth — or above it — his corporeal self might be.

Photographs by Vern Evans

World of Warcraft is an immensely popular role-playing simulation, released by publisher Blizzard Entertainment (a division of Vivendi), based in Irvine, Calif. Set in an intricately rendered fantasy world, it pits two immense virtual societies of elves, trolls, wizards, dwarfs, and other creatures against one another in a series of quests, battles, and trading encounters. WoW (as it’s known on the net) has about 6 million members worldwide (more than a million each in China and the U.S.). It amounts to a parallel universe, with clearly delineated political and economic roles, drawing thousands of people from across the globe at any moment to encounter superhuman foes and to form collective “guilds” via their personal computers. Spending countless hours in imaginary warfare may be simply a diversion for many people, but Mr. Ito insists that World of Warcraft is nothing less than an emerging model for organizational design. Given his track record as a venture capitalist and a catalyst for computer-based socially oriented innovation, powerful decision makers are paying attention.

“I’m not a typical venture capitalist,” says Mr. Ito. “Just about everything I get involved in has a steep learning curve, has a lot of unknowns, and has risks. Just as some people are obsessed with money and are willing to do boring things day in and day out to be wealthy, I’m obsessed with always being in a state of wonder.”

Mr. Ito is known in high-tech circles for his uncanny ability to identify the “next big thing” long before other people get to it, and for his quiet but pervasive influence on the development of the Internet. The first Internet server in Japan was housed in the bathroom of his Tokyo apartment, and he played a critical role in pioneering online chat, digital advertising, social network software, Weblogs (blogs), wikis (Web sites and documents, such as the well-known encyclopedia Wikipedia, that allow users to add and edit material), and other interactive media that continue to redefine the limits of communication and community-building. He was among the first to see the real possibilities in each of these technologies; his financial assistance and his advice are credited with helping transform them from a techie plaything for the cognoscenti into broad-based media with social, political, and business impact.

“Joi interprets in deep ways; he’s a profoundly lateral thinker, and therefore he connects the dots better than most,” says John Seely Brown, author of several eminent books on business innovation and the former director of Xerox PARC, the renowned Silicon Valley research center. “He is a hacker at heart, in the best sense of the word. Not only does he go deep, but he also tends to build, or he collects builders around him.”

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  1. John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, “You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!” Wired, April 2006: Extols fantasy role-playing games as leadership training. Click here.
  2. Joi Ito, “World of Warcrack,” Wired, June 2006: Tribute to Blizzard Software’s “glimpse into our future.” Click here.
  3. Joichi Ito’s Web site: Features “Where is Joi” plus an exhaustive CV, a Flickr site of photographs, two blogs, and links to the Web sites of the various organizations where Mr. Ito works and plays. Click here.
  4. Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Misa Matsuda, editors, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (MIT Press, 2005): Essays about the virtual community sparked by keitai (communications devices) in Japan, coedited by Joi Ito’s sister.
  5. Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (Random House, 2001): The cofounder of the Creative Commons argues for an Internet that balances intellectual property law with public domain protections.
  6. Christopher Vollmer, John Frelinghuysen, and Randall Rothenberg, “The Future of Advertising Is Now,” s+b, Summer 2006: How marketers can thrive in the kind of environment that Joi Ito’s life foreshadows. Click here.
  7. Creative Commons Web site: Clearinghouse for open source approach to copyright and intellectual property dilemmas, with Joi Ito on its board. Click here.
  8. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds. Click here.
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