Notes from the 5th MIT Futures of Entertainment Conference and Nokia World 2011

Tech Square next to the MIT campus is where a lot of young Boston start-ups have their offices. As I climb up to the ninth floor to see Ginger.io, founded by my friend, the newly-minted Dr Anmol Madan, I think about how, despite slow economic growth, the Greek and Italian debt crises and Occupy Wall Street protests, the spirit of innovation is still very much alive and kicking in America. Anmol started his company even before completing his PhD from MIT, raised about two million dollars in venture capital, and is rolling out his product even as you read this. (Ginger.io is a company that turns mobile phone location and sensor data into health insights for patients as well as doctors or hospitals. This means that your phone will be constantly monitoring your activity and your medication can be customised based on this 24/7 monitoring. Pretty cool, right?) We, in India, like to gloat about how India is on the rise in terms of everything but the truth is that people in India innovate in spite of the system, while in America, or at least certain parts of it like Boston, there is a whole innovation ecosystem around people with ideas.

This is what I told my co-panelists on the Cities panel that kick-started the Fifth MIT Futures of Entertainment conference. (Watch the video here: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/ ) I was really impressed by the city of Rio and what they are doing to become a global creative city, competing with, and even surpassing, other global centres like New York or London. Maurico Mota, the Chief Storytelling Office of the Alchemists (Brazil’s first transmedia company), set the tone while describing their ambitious new project, the Centre for the Futures of Entertainment. This will be a combination of academia, private and public companies, innovative business start-ups and new media producers, based in Rio, run jointly between Rio and LA, and connected strongly to other global cities like Mumbai and Shanghai. Dean Ernie Wilson of the USC Annenberg School for Communication is firmly behind the project. It’ll be interesting to see what magic gets cooked up.

There is a constant flow of exciting things coming out of Rio, and Brazil at large. Things like 5xFavela, a project that aimed to teach young people from the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro how to work in the movie business. Famous Brazilian directors like Fernando Meirelles conducted workshops in the slums. The outcome – five short films of 20 minutes each, that gave a brilliant insider point of view on slum life, were shown to a rapturous Cannes audience last May, and 5xFavela subsequently went on to do good business within Brazil as well. More importantly, almost all the workshop participants ultimately gained employment in the film industry.

Techno brega is another exciting Brazilian phenomenon. Young DJ producers make this music from their bedroom studios, by remixing and removing the acoustics from pop songs to create a new kind of electronic sound. Interestingly, the producers don’t make any money on the record sales. In fact, they give their music free to street vendors who make copies and sell them really cheap. The CDs serve as advertisements for large concerts that the producers then perform at. This is how everyone makes money – the producers through the concerts, and the vendors through CD sales. It’s an interesting model, though not the only one, in which music is trying to re-imagine itself in a digital age.

There are equally exciting artistic collaborations coming out of India, of course, and I talk about some of these at the conference. The difference is that in Brazil, the government and city officials are very supportive, with time, space and money, while in India, a lot of the exciting work happens either through the spirit of jugaad, or through private funding, like the Rs 50 crores that the Nilekanis gave to the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, or the sponsorship of edgy urban music festivals like NH7 by brands like Bacardi. (Missing the Imogen Heap performance in Pune due to jet lag was horrid; the good news is that she’ll be back soon!)

I don’t want to argue that cities can be creative or innovative simply because the government can plunk down impressive centres or pour cash into forcibly making some sort of creativity bloom. If this were so, Singapore and Abu Dhabi would have been creative hotspots by now instead of sterile concrete shells, while Mumbai continues to be one of the most exciting cities in the world despite its lack of resources. Still it would be nice if there were a balance, and I’m not seeing that in India and its cities, at least as of now.

During the conference, I had dinner with the award-winning photojournalist Molly Bingham who was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein and kept in the Abu Ghraib prison while on an assignment in Iraq. I was moved by both her courage and sense of humour. I also learnt about Iron Sky – the collaborative movie that’s being made out of Finland with the help of thousands of fans. (It’s a sci-fi flick about a Nazi colony that was set up on the moon in 1945, which finally attacks Earth in 2018. I simply cannot convey in words how insanely funny this film is – see the trailer online for yourself – http://www.ironsky.net/).

When I realised that Iron Sky was seed funded by Peter Vesterbacka, I laughed out loud at how small the world really was, because I’d had dinner with Peter in London en route to Boston. In fact, it was a Diwali dinner at an Indian fusion restaurant called the Dockmaster’s House on the rather dull Canary Wharf. Does the name Peter Vesterbacka not ring a bell for you? Well, Peter made his debut on Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world list this year, and you’ll soon be hearing a lot more about him. He is the co-founder of Angry Birds, which has quite simply, crushed the mobile and Internet gaming market in the past two years. It has already had 400 million downloads across various devices and platforms. (Download the free version and try it if you haven’t already. It involves birds attacking pigs through slingshots, and that’s just the start.)

He’s aiming to touch a billion Angry Birds downloads within the next one year and at the rate at which they are growing, they might get there sooner. He casually declared over papad and chaat that he is building what he hopes will be the biggest entertainment brand on the planet. “Bigger than Disney,” were the exact words. A lot of content so far has gone from traditional to digital media. (Disney). There are a few brands, however, that have gone the other way round (Super Mario or Lara Croft) and Angry Birds aims at being the leader of this pack. Right now, whatever they touch becomes gold. So they launched a plush toy business and sold 10 million pieces in 10 months – likewise with board and card games. They’re launching a cookbook over the next few weeks and they bought an animation studio over the summer to make an Angry Birds movie.

I think they are ripe for an Indian explosion. Sweet shops in Mumbai are already selling Angry Bird mithais. I have friends whose eight-year-old kids make Angry Bird art projects. Peter leaned over and whispered to me, as we were having dessert, about why he would succeed in dominating the world. “We’re not American,” he said, grinning. “People like that. People in China think we are Chinese. They are counterfeiting our T-shirts and we love it. Let them. Similarly, we want to be local in places like India.” Well, I’m not so sure of his not-being-American thesis for success, but I do like his cockiness!

I was in London to speak on ‘The Next Billion’ at the Nokia World annual conference. There I met folks like Dion Nash, a trend forecaster from South Africa, and reconnected with Philip Dodd, from the Made in China consultancy, who I last saw two years ago in Mumbai. Philip told me that in China, he had noticed that for the first time, young people were thinking within; thinking of their past and history. He spoke of noticing vintage clothing shops opening up in Shanghai, something that would have never happened some years ago, and people being interested in old uniforms. This conversation of the old with the new was something that he looked at favourably. He was also keen that China reaches out to India to collaborate more within the arts and culture space. This is the South-South globalisation that the folks on my cities panel in MIT were also talking about.

In my own comments, I discussed the economy of friendship and the economy of family that I find young people in our country navigating between. To me, it is not a transition or a rebellion in India from family to friendship, like it may be in other parts of the world. Instead there are multiple worlds that young people live in. To be yourself doesn’t mean to forsake something to get something. Identity is not fixed among Indian youth, it is both in the self and in the community; it is performed differently in different places.

There is certainly a strong movement towards the friendship economy. The recent Airtel ad caught this zeitgeist beautifully. Yes, har ek friend zaroori hota hai. In Bollywood films, we are seeing more and more stories of friendship – Dil Chahta Hai started the trend and Mujhse Fraandship Karoge is the latest iteration of it (via Zindagi Na Mile Dobara, and others). In our cities, we are seeing more people living with friends. With social networking on mobiles, BBM and so on, it would seem that friends are decision makers and mobiles are empowering this.

Yet the pull of family has not gone away. Young people do not want to escape their families here, unlike in other parts of the world. They want their approval, whether in career choices or in life choices. (Definitely in spouse choices!) See the way families cry together in our reality shows – right from Dance India Dance to Kaun Banega Crorepati! Young Indians want a future in which they manage both, family expectations as well as their own dreams and they use technologies like the cell phone to negotiate these worlds.

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