Kumbh JW 2

Photo by John Werner

In the late 1800’s after the Crimean War there was a peace celebration in Copley Square in Boston.  The square was not what we know today but a messy community space.  People gathered in an epic peace celebration imagining that there would never be war again.  The energy rose to a cacophony as villagers began banging on anvils creating an impromptu orchestra.  MIT was founded in this very square in 1861, 15 years prior.

Last January I had the opportunity to travel to Mumbai for a bootcamp with the Camera Culture group.  After days in Mumbai we drove out to Nashik to meet a group of young innovators.  On the way I saw people walking in the streets.  As they walked they held out their sheets to dry, doing their laundry on their pilgrimage to Nashik.  The simple beauty of the scene and the simple ingenuity struck me.  This was the first of many ingenious and simple solutions I would see from these resourceful people and it reminded me of the spirit of innovation that MIT holds so highly.

As we got closer to Nashik I saw huge trees uprooted and laying on their sides along the road.  They were enormous to be uprooted in such a way.  They were old and strong as if they had been around for millions of years.  I wondered if only the hulk himself could uproot such substantial trees leaving devastation in his path.  It was some time before I realized that the government had upturned the trees in preparation for the massive crowds that this small town was waiting for – the Kumbh Mela.

The Kumbh Mela is one of the largest festivals in the world.  I find the size of the festival hard to even comprehend.  I am reminded of large crowds that I have seen in my life – most recently when 3 million people amassed in Boston to celebrate the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series.  It was massive, chaotic and energized.  The Kumbh Mela will be 10 times that size – overflowing with people and cultures encompassing the entire human experience in one festival. I was told that the Great Wall of China is the only man made structure that you can see from outer space but I think you can see the Kumbh Mela as well imagining that the rotation of the earth will shift as a result of this gathering.

This coming event has a special meaning to me.  It will be run by 2 amazing individuals whom I respect and admire – Sunil Khandbahale and Ramesh Raskar.  Both men grew up in Nashik.  They know the city and they know how the city responds to the Kumbh.  Sunil is known for his invention of digital dictionaries which have impacted millions. This dictionary leaves Sunil with a great legacy but I know this true legacy will be his ability to empower the next generation of innovators.  Ramesh shares the same passion to inspire young minds to create solutions to help the masses.  We see this in our lab in Cambridge day after day as Ramesh mentors our researchers.  Events like these allow us to reach even more young minds.

We arrived in Nashik where I would be a keynote speaker at a community college.  I presented on how to become the next leaders and innovators of our time.  I looked out at the sea of 20-something’s, all Nashik born and looking toward the future – their eyes bright with hopes of what will come.  We talked about innovation and how Google and Microsoft came about at an unlikely time when the economy was struggling.  In tough times inventors can do great things.  I truly believe that this generation will do amazing things and change society in a way that we cannot even imagine.  I realize that our Kumbh initiative is not about the 40 days of the festival but the 4000 days between this festival and the next one when these young people will continue to work and grow and create solutions as a result of this bootcamp.  This will be the jumpstart that will start a wave of innovation and reinvention.

Harvard has sent groups to the Kumbh Mela in the past – most recently sending the divinity, business and design schools to Nashik to gather data.  Now, as MIT prepares its trip to Nashik we have even greater expectations.  MIT can facilitate ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and talent.  We have an opportunity to be face to face with the next generation of big thinkers.   We will bring a coalition of researchers with us to experiment at scale, creating a sandbox of innovation, helping humanity in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

I often think about those early days in Copley Square, of a community coming together in celebration of the greatest imagined future.  MIT has always been a place of ingenious solutions, opportunity, and alternative thought.  From its first days to now it has held on to that importance and power.  I look forward to the Kumbh trip as an extension of this energy and intent.

I dedicate this post not to the trees that have been uplifted in Nashik in preparation for the masses but rather to the 20 something’s that I met that day during my keynote.  I saw a change in their eyes as we talked.  They are the next generation of leaders.  They can lead their communities and change our world.  They can make this a better place for the people of Nashik.  They can change the world for the better if we help them unlock their potential.  I will keep you informed as we progress with this critical and exciting initiative and we will be sure to bang the anvils when we return.

learn more about this initiative here

-John Werner