Notes from INK 2012 and the first #NAMA conference

I zoom into my friend Nikhil Pahwa’s #NAMA conference amidst a cloud of dust while listening to the despicable-ubiquitous Honey Singh on the car stereo. Dust another day in Gurgaon, concrete paradise of India, but what makes this day special is the pride I feel at seeing Nikhil and Medianama’s success. At the conference, Nandan Nilekani shares all that he is doing with Aadhar, India’s unique identification card system, despite the criticism they have received. He said, “We tend to overestimate change in the short term and underestimate change in the long term,” and what he proposes at #NAMA is truly groundbreaking.

Aadhar is now being thought of as much more than an identification service. Nilekani asks: “What if we think of it as a public goods infrastructure that is open and allows for innovation?” He gives the example of GPS – which was originally only meant for defense use but, when opened up to the public, created a lot of value from applications like maps. This value came simply from a technology that answers the question: ‘Where am I?’ Aadhar answers the question: ‘Who am I?’ So what kind of a billion dollar ecosystem might arise if Aadhar is treated as an open platform for India’s young entrepreneurs to build applications on? For example, e-commerce companies could use Aadhar as an identity validation tool. The possibilities are endless.

At #NAMA, the Indian Railways showcase their latest work with technology and blow me away with their launch of Rail Radar. (See http://railradar.trainenquiry.com). This is a service that enables commuters to know the exact location of a train on a map and see all the trains running at any given time on Google maps. The map is interactive – you can zoom in and zoom out to get station and train details including where your train is exactly at any given time, any stoppages and delays and so on. Someone jokes that the Railways are now in the platform business instead of the train business! I think that Rail Radar is really a great step ahead.

I make it a point to never miss the annual INK conference. This time it is held in Pune. The opening night at the Poonawalla mansion is a high adrenalin kick-starter. Adar and Natasha are really gracious hosts as 300 of us attendees run around all over their spectacular Renaissance frescoed home, oohing and aahing at everything from the toilets, the cantering baby pony in the courtyard and the Ferraris in the basement. And then it’s time for the four-day brain massage to begin. This year it is co-curated by INK founder Lakshmi Pratury, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, MIT Media Lab’s director, Joi Ito and David Rowan, the editor of Wired UK. The people that move me most, I can put in, well, since we’re thinking in threes this column, three categories.

First up are the tinkerers. These are the change-makers that David Rowan describes as having a ‘healthy disregard for the impossible’. They include 18-year-old desi prodigy Sujay Tyle who started researching bio-ethanol in a lab while he was 11. He did email jugaad to convince older people that he wanted to work with them. Then he worked at duPont as a 14-year-old, creating technology that led to them in a few months creating a 3.6-billion dollar factory. He started at Harvard at age 15 but soon dropped out to create his own company. 

There are many such tinkerers at INK. Peter Frykman is changing the future of agriculture with his drip irrigation innovations for small farmers. And there are loads of tinkerers playing with education, making it more equitable, creativity-focused and non-rat-race like. Here are some of their INK quotes that I remember. Shayamal Vallabhjee: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will always think it’s stupid.” Alan Wagstaff: “Note to parents – lead your horse to water but please make sure it is water before you ask the horse to drink.” Neeru Khosla: “I can, I dare and I have access should be the new mantra for education opportunities today.” And finally, Nancy Silberkleit, the new CEO of Archie comics: “Reading Archie comics each day for 20 minutes is a good thing!” I couldn’t agree more. Nancy is trying her best to get people literate by using comics, and just like Nancy I meet so many others, who are really pushing the boundaries of some of the world’s greatest challenges with innovative solutions.

The second type of people I encounter are the bravehearts. These include two people who gave very moving talks on life and death. Sandeep Divekar tells us that despair is when someone who you love is pleading with you to save them and you have to tell them that they should die. His wife Julie who was immobilised by a stroke took the decision with the rest of their family that she wanted to be put out of her suffering by euthanasia. Sandeep tells us about this difficult journey and there isn’t a dry eye in the auditorium. Then Dr. Nitin Ron speaks of his amazing work on innovating to help babies with neo-natal defects but also of love, compassion, kindness and healing, even when the situation is really desperate.

There are miracles that happen, says Dr. Ron, including babies that refuse to die, and mothers whose love conquers all. Don’t be swayed by science, he says. Put yourself in the Himalayas and amidst trees to understand the magnificence of nature. And realise that kindness and compassion are entirely immeasurable. Be in the moment. Following this, Will Travis, Antarctica explorer says: “Get negative people out of your life. Have people who can fuel your soul. They will help you climb your mountains.” All advice that I plan to follow.

The INK fellows are the third group of people I want to tell you about. These are a confluence of brilliant young minds and future world leaders from India and outside and they fall in both of these categories, tinkerers and bravehearts. Meeting them was the highlight of my conference. They include Alok Shetty, an architect who is experimenting with converting trash into construction material, and old shipping containers into pop-up art and performance spaces. Saba Gole, an MIT graduate has created an alternative learning environment off the MIT campus in Cambridge, where children are taught creativity and collaboration by working on really complex multi-disciplinary projects. Think superheroes meet fashion by learning about math, science, computer programming, robotics, digital arts, writing, music and film! 

I love hearing Sourabh Kaushal’s talk on recycling space debris into fuel cells. Sourabh has self-taught himself about space and written 18 award-winning scientific papers by age 22. He believes that imagination has no limits and does not need any qualification. It’s great how many of today’s Indian youth are doing jugaad-oriented self-learning especially around science, and how so much of their work is around doing jugaad to save the world. These include Priyanka Sharma who is a nano-biotechnologist, working on a biochip that can detect toxic substances, and the award-winning Vivek Nair, who has discovered a process to convert carbon emissions into carbon nanotubes (a material stronger than steel) which can then be used productively for many applications. I’m also awestruck by the energy and passion of Shubhendru Sharma and Tanmoy Ghosh, who are working on afforestation and wildlife conservation respectively. If this is India’s future, then we’re in safe hands.

Shanker Tucker and Kalki Koechlin both give wonderful talks about identity. What does it mean being Indian? Is it the colour of your skin? The language you speak? The influences you imbine? Both Shankar and Kalki are testing boundaries with their incredible bodies of work, and with Shankar I was lucky, not only did I get to hear him play, I also got to share an entire ride with him to the Poonawalla mansion! 

I want to add one more category to my mix – the fabulistas. I am completely enamoured by the Italian accent of Francesca Rosella who with her partner Ryan Genz, runs Cute Circuit. They weave technology into their textiles – so think of your clothes as computers. Think of T-shirts that display live Tweets on their fronts or send hugs to each other using sensors. Their light-incorporated dresses that they’ve done for singers like Katy Perry and for U2 are delicious, and remind me of Amitabh Bacchhan’s suit from the Yaarana song ‘Saara zamaana’ which I really wanted as a child. 

Another fabulista is D’Bi Young, the awesome Jamaican-Candian dub poet. She’s dressed throughout INK in clothes by Norblack Norwhite, one of my favourite labels, and her performance is hair-raising, as she covers topics like HIV and the status of women with anger and humour. Most of INK’s performances are fab actually. Vidya Shah evokes Gauhar Jaan magically. Baul singer Bonnie is fresh of his Satyamev Jayate high, and my friend Joi Barua teams up with Shruti Hassan for a duet that they sing together for the first time. He’s singing in Assamese she’s singing in Tamil and I’m smiling even though I can’t understand a word. Truly, music has no language, or boundaries.

* This post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder which appears in Verve magazine every month.