We are on – Kumbhathon 5 (#K5)

Last week we were on for the 5th time over the last 18 month. Kumbhathon 5 or #K5. I was there in late January 2015 and it felt like coming back to a huge family. Read my blogpost from #K4 here.

It’s only a few weeks to go and the Kumbha Mela will start. It’s the biggest religious gathering on this planet – and here is where the pilgrims will take their dip into the holy water at three specific days in August and September: Ramkund, Nasik. Hard to imagine that millions will do so! It will be a very very crowded place then, no doubt.

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The Kumbhathon is an iniative of the MIT Media Lab which started out almost 2 years ago at inktalks, when Ramesh Raskar, born in India and currently professor at the MIT, announced it. It’s a year-round initiative to identify and address the challenges of a pop-up city like Nashik when it will grow from its “normal” 2 million inhabitants to 15 million a day during the celebrations. Kumbha Mela will give innovators, change makers, entrepreneurs and corporations the opportunity to learn, develop and test solutions to “pop-up city” problems at scale, instantly, so they can be mapped to large gatherings and emerging cities worldwide.

I was very keen to see what happened between #K4 and #K5 – what would be the status of the projects? Would new projects have been added? How would the students and young entrepreneurs have been developed and moved forward? With some of the participants I kept interacting after #K4 and three of them even came to visit me at Janwar Castle. At #K5 again there were 150+ participants there – students, innovators from all over India. Most of them with an IT or engineering background. There is / was a lack of management, administrative and creative people  … I would assume diversity would drive this initiative even further.

The first three days I was counseling and mentoring the various projects under the lead of innovation strategist Beth Zonis who was hired by the MIT Media Lab to guide the students and innovators through this crucial process of really getting things done and getting things ready for Kumbha Mela. From 10 am to 6 pm we listened to all the groups and advised them in the following key issues:

  • to get their project explained in a few compelling words.
  • to describe its benefits for Khumbha Mela.
  • to identify a business model.
  • to schedule and prioritize the process and streamline it.
  • and to share it with others in order to find synergies and identify common challenges.

Once we broke the ice and they accepted us not as “Yes, Madam” or “Yes, Sir” the presentations of the groups became much more like conversations. It took us a while to make them understand that it is them to make the decision and it’s us ONLY to give advice. Our advice should been taken into consideration but it shouldn’t be accepted as a task to follow up with. To achieve this understanding among the students was a tough job.

For some of them it was also hard to understand the 3 layers – the bigger picture – of the Kumbhathon:

  • having personal goals and reasons.
  • dedicating time and resources to a very specific project.

And on top of these two things

  • understanding what it means to be part of an open platform like Kumbhathon where you first put in before you can pull out.

Some of the projects evolved and developed since #K1 and those were the ones which were very much advanced and ready – so to speak. Actually at the last day of the Khumbhathon one group founded a company;-) During our hearings and conversations it became pretty clear that not all projects will make it. A few were still in a kind of “dreaming status” where one would think that Khumbha Mela will happen next year. There was no urgency and no will to get things done – and it was kind of hard to tell this to the students and innovators. I believe if more management and administrative people would have been in the groups they would have sensed this urgency and they would have understood how to get things done. The lack of design people also became obvious … no really compelling designs and presentations were seen. But these are all things which can be added easily.

This might sound a bit negative – but I wanted to point to some critical points which open the space for improvement. I want to see this process growing bigger … and this is why I am participating and hopefully adding value. The best things which happened over these 2 years are that the MIT Kumbhathon has really established a PLATFORM, a SANDBOX where many stakeholders have bought into: authorities of Nashik, government, universities and colleges, international, national and local companies, citizens and young students, innovators and entrepreneurs. And this is a very precious thing …. the platform / the network is set-up out of which more things will evolve. A lot of friends have been made and even more like-minded people found each other. It’s almost as like a movement has started, a movement for

  • spotting problems,
  • finding and prototyping solutions,
  • and then translate these solutions into valuable products.

A movement to think and act like innovators and the realization that this can only be achieved when as many people as possible collaborate. It can’t be achieved by one company or one institution alone.

And if only a few of the existing solutions will succeed during Khumbha Mela the system is proven right. And I am sure a few projects will succeed and help to understand situations in which cities suddenly grow at large scale much better – high among them the Kumbha Mela app, the epidemic tracker, the media tracker, the crowd steering project and maybe one of the housing projects.

I am tempted to return to Nashik during the Khumbh – not sure though if I really want to face that huge crowd;-)

Thanks to Ramesh Raskar and John Werner for letting me be part of this!

2 thoughts on “We are on – Kumbhathon 5 (#K5)”

  1. Great summary Ulrike! It sounds like K5 was just as impactful in bringing the right people together to move these ideas forward.

  2. Ulrike, this sounds like an awesome project you are working on. I hope all the best for you, Ramesh and John. Keep us posted! Hopefully you’ll go to Kumbh Mela and enjoy the spiritual gathering.

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