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The rise of the pop-up city

This article appears in the issue June 2015 [Volume 24, Issue 6]

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We’re used to seeing large crowds gather for major events. Some happen on relatively short notice, such as when several million people attend an outdoor Mass celebrated by a globetrotting pope. Others occur at regular intervals, like when more than 3 million arrive in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, roughly every year for the Haj pilgrimage, or when upward of 20 million travel to Karbala, Iraq, for the Shiite holiday Arba’een.

For pilgrimage sites such as Mecca and Karbala, the infrastructure is already in place to handle necessities such as food, lodging, ritual bathing, group prayer and other related activities. Such events are carefully planned and coordinated in advance to keep everything running smoothly.

But what happens when 30 to 40 million or more show up, and the site of the event keeps moving from one city to another? Such is the case every three years or so (the intervals vary) in different cities throughout India where the world’s largest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela (or Kumbh, as it is often called), is held.

Nashik, India, with a population of just under 2 million, is one such city. In August around 30 million people are expected to arrive for Kumbh 2015. Activities will include taking a dip in the Godavari River at the appointed time, along with other rituals and practices. After roughly a month’s stay, the pilgrims will return home.

In April 2016, it happens all over again but in Ujjain, a city about one-fourth the size of Nashik. Its population will suddenly leap to between 30 and 40 million, then back to half a million. Think about it. The world’s largest city has no permanent address.

How is such a thing even possible, and what can we learn from it? Get ready for an innovation story like none other. Introducing … the pop-up city.

Agility on a massive scale

You’ve already read about smart cities in this column. Now take that concept and make it mobile. Add to it the capacity to set up and accommodate tens of millions of inhabitants, and in 30 days, tear it all down. Then be ready to do it again in a year or two, in a different location.

As with any large gathering, risk of injury or death is ever present. Past Kumbh festivals have been marred by deadly stampedes, disease outbreaks and children becoming separated from their parents. The obvious question is how technology, and hopefully KM, can be used to make those events safer and more accommodating so people can have a richer and more satisfying experience.

In the usual approach to solving problems of this magnitude, developed nations, often in collaboration with organizations like the United Nations (UN) or World Bank, come up with elaborate programs backed by equally elaborate financing schemes. Thankfully, Kumbh organizers have resisted such measures. Instead, they’ve turned to the best source for coming up with workable, low-cost solutions—the grass roots.

Enter the Kumbhathon

The Kumbhathon is the brainchild of multilingual platform developer and entrepreneur Sunil Khandbahale and Nashik-born MIT professor Ramesh Raskar. It is not your typical “hackathon.” Operating out of the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass., and the Kumbha Foundation in Nashik, the impressive array of partners includes Indian government agencies, academia, non-profits and large global corporations. Central to it are the many micropreneurs who have been participating, sometimes armed with only passion and an idea.

One of the first steps was to launch a website to encourage people closest to the festival, including the pilgrims themselves, to submit their input. The result was more than 500 problems identified, along with 150 candidate innovations. Over the course of four one-week Kumbhathons (alternating between Cambridge and Nashik), those were ultimately whittled down to 20 challenges and 12 candidate products/solutions.

The fifth Kumbhathon will be held in July in Nashik, where the team will finalize the projects selected for deployment. August’s Kumbh and its 30 million participants will provide a one-of-a-kind “sandbox” for making refinements and collecting lessons learned. The learning cycle will continue into the next series of Kumbhathons beginning in January in preparation for Kumbh 2016. The ultimate goal is to eventually roll out the solutions to other markets across the globe, and help create what Raskar calls “a new generation of social entrepreneurs.”

Technology-based solutions are encouraged, focusing on data and mobility (more than 930 million of India’s 1.2 billion people are mobile phone subscribers). Making the most of the new sharing economy in which every possible resource is reused is also a priority. Other requirements include the need for little or no capital, and the ability to easily scale using existing infrastructure.

Participants have come up with some remarkable, low-cost, high-impact solutions. One is a mobile app that analyzes real-time health data to assist public health officials in identifying, tracking and mitigating the spread of disease. Another helps police and festival officials quickly reunite lost individuals, especially children, with their parents and loved ones. Human density data collected from cell phone towers tell authorities if an area is getting too crowded so they can redirect pilgrims accordingly.

Given the ease with which pickpockets can freely roam by blending into the vast throngs of humanity, a mobile app for cashless payments is catching on. One version is totally non-electronic, using a barcoded wristband that can be scanned by vendors. Other innovations expected to be ready in August include apps for tracking hygienic distribution of food, and for locating and brokering bikes, rides and other aspects of the sharing economy.

Sanitation and pollution control are especially important. Kumbhathon-generated solutions include waterless toilets, a system for intercepting thousands of liters of oil from temple ceremonies before it enters the waterways, and a structure that skims the river collecting floating garbage.

A critical role for KM

The Media Lab’s John Werner observes: “Cities historically were planned alongside waterways.” Now, as the Kumbh has shown, the city of the future is built around “the massive amounts of data ebbing and flowing through our lives.” That makes it a natural fit for KM.

Kumbhathon employs a five-step “dream-to-reality” process: identify, prototype, develop, validate and scale. Tremendous value can be added by connecting the dots within and across those steps, with an eye toward making new discoveries and re-applying insights learned from past successes and failures.

Capturing newly generated knowledge means not only documenting the who, the what and the how, but more importantly the why—the thinking that went into generating the solution. Treasure troves of knowledge and experience on entrepreneurship, startups, rapid prototyping/agile development, business model innovation and many other related topics and disciplines can be made more readily available, thereby accelerating the time-to-market.

KM can also help speed the transfer of solutions from sandboxes like the Kumbh to other domains. As a result, we’ll likely not only see the creation of the social entrepreneur as Raskar envisions, but what the enterprise of the future calls the social knowledge entrepreneur.

The impact potential is truly exciting. Low-cost solutions for pollution abatement bring hope to densely populated slums. Rapidly deployable platforms and technologies can help relocate millions of refugees fleeing civil strife, chemical and nuclear accidents and natural disasters. We’ll see safer and more enjoyable mega-sporting and entertainment events, along with larger, smarter cities to accommodate exploding population growth. And do we dare to even think about building smart, self-sustaining colonies on the moon and beyond?

We’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. The real question is, “How big is your sandbox?”




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