Kumbathon: Incubating smart citizens for smart cities

Kumbathon: Incubating smart citizens for smart cities

August 6, 2015 | Author: Ramesh Raskar, Associate professor MIT Media Lab, leads Imaging and Health-tech research. He is well known for his TED talk on trillion-frames-per-second camera and EyeNetra, a mobile phone attachment to get eyeglasses prescription.

Citizens are becoming digital well before cities will become digital. The world’s fastest growing cities swell in population far before the infrastructure is developed to support these increases.  As a result, many modern cities do not function properly. While there are countless band-aid interventions currently in the market to address these problems, there are few that facilitate broad change. To ensure a sustainable future, novel and systems-level technologies are required to create a nervous system that supports the wide-ranging needs of a population we aim to shift this paradigm.

We recognized the need to create smart citizens for smart cities and set about trying to work out a solution. For an initial trial, Nasik was chosen as a sandbox.

Why Nasik?

I met Sunil Khandbahale in August 2013 and, as we are both natives of Nasik, recognized a kindred spirit. We instantly became friends and collaborators. As inventors, we recognized the potential of mass innovation in our education-centric tier II city.

Apart from our personal affiliation, we picked Nasik because it is a unique non-metro city, which has become a cultural and educational hub. There are a least twenty engineering colleges in Nasik. Blessed with great climate, it has become a destination for many cultural and tourist activities.

For the past fIve years, I have been running bottom up innovation workshops called REDx camps, along with a team of innovators from MIT. We have been running these camps in different cities in India such as Pune, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Nasik is one of the latest initiatives. We have brought together local innovators, entrepreneurs, student researchers, and government officials to tackle common goals of Smart cities.


Pop-up cities can appear in many ways such as festivals, concerts and refugee camps. There is a defined scale marking the predictability and control for such events. Nasik plays host to one of India’s biggest festivals, the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh mela is an Indian festival where Hindu pilgrims congregate to bathe in a holy river. It is celebrated every three years in rotation between four cities, Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik. According to Indian mythology, drops of nectar from a kumbha or pitcher fell over four rivers thus consecrating them. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganga at Hardwar, the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, the Godavari at Nasik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. Hindu pilgrims believe bathing in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins. The mela or fair lasts for a month and a half. 2015 is Nashik’s turn to play host. Addressing Kumbh Mela in this space is critical to showing the impact we can make in an uncontrolled situation. It will also grant us entry into other sectors, thus strengthening the impact with each innovation. This initiative is closely related to others worldwide dealing with smart cities, big data, digital governance and so on.   While innovations in smart city initiatives build on top of existing high quality and data-rich infrastructure, innovations for pop-up cities cannot rely on such pre-existing resources.  We find inspiration in The Deshpande Foundation’s Hubli Innovation Sandbox.  Our role is to reimagine Kumbh Mela by simultaneously engaging stakeholders, innovators and organizations.

How will this be done in Nasik?

Organizing a Kumbh Mela has diverse challenges. Issues such as housing, transport, sanitation and health facilities, crowd management, security, proper communication systems etc. need to be managed. Kumbathon aims to capture the spirit of innovation by managing the madness and chaos.

We use data analytics for crowd management, pop up housing solutions to house pilgrims, an epidemic tracker to help doctors track the spread of diseases by capturing information such as gender, age, location, symptoms etc. The medi tracker gives information about near by ambulances and hospitals.

Using Nasik as a model, the ideas can then be made scalable and applied to all Kumbh Mela cities as well as to create other smart non-metro cities.

 Why do we need Smart Citizens for Smart Cities?

In developing countries, citizens are becoming digital well before cities are becoming smart. Thus our emphasis is on Smart Citizens, because these Smart Citizens will play a key role in defining Smart Cities. In the emerging world, learning takes place without schools, transactions proceed without a formal currency, companies build transportation solutions that don’t own the fleet, food is grown away from traditional farms and digital information democratizes participation in civic matters. The innovation sandbox focused on identifying, nurturing and launching key ideas with social impact. This will lead to corporate ventures, startup ventures or new research and insights.


At the MIT Media Lab the world is our lab.  I believe the next set of research challenges are not inspired by problems in Boston but the 5 billion people that will soon become digital worldwide. MIT researchers need to be out there to learn and solve those problems. The way people are interacting between digital and physical layers is transforming through machine learning, crowdsourcing, big data, the Internet of Things, the proliferation of mobile devices, and connectivity.  The Co-Innovation Model for Emerging Countries strives to redefine the relationship between people and technology in emerging countries.  It spans sectors across, health, education, food & agriculture, housing & transportation, finance, and local business.  It is an open innovation platform that engages researchers and scientists in deep conversations and joint projects.

Our experiment in Nasik has proved how effective this project is and we are confident our lab will be able to provide solutions for innovators and help build entrepreneurs thus creating smart citizens for smart cities.

The Kumbh Mela is a good excuse, but our real emphasis is on smart citizens based innovation. Nasik has been chosen among the 100 smart cities by PM Modi, and so now our team is focused on making the smart citizens for smart city dream come true.