Dr. Laura Jana shares her Kumbhathon experience

As I wake up to enjoy a cup of jasmine tea on my last morning in India before heading back to the US, I’m struck by just how fortunate I am to be here - not just in a country full of stunning colors, scenery and people, but in Nashik in particular. This is actually my fourth trip here - a tier two Indian city in the state of Maharashtra reportedly one of the fastest growing cities in the world (the population of which happens to rival the entire state in which I live). The reason I’m here? In a literal sense, I’m helping set up MIT’s Health Screening Pavilion using new, cutting edge health-technologies. In a larger sense, it’s to bear witness to and more importantly, a part of something incredibly big.

For those of you attuned to world events, or those who simply pay attention to massive shifts in populations of people around the globe, you understandably may think I’m referring to this month’s 2015 Kumbh Mela – a month that will see a massive influx of religious pilgrims into Nashik. And when I say massive, I mean massive: I’m told that daily arrivals have already been on the order of 50,000 a day, and in short order will result in tens of millions of religious pilgrims from all across India following thousands of their religious and spiritual leaders (“sadhus”) to Nashik – literally pouring in to take a sacred dip in the holy river Godavari that runs through the center of the city.

While the scale of this every-twelve-year event in Nashik is tough to even fully comprehend (plenty of photos to follow will help you imagine!), believe it or not, that’s not the only really big thing happening in Nashik.

What I’m even more enthused about is being a part of the globally collaborative, community-engaged, technology- and innovation-fueled effort in Nashik called “Kumbhathon” – a unique and ambitious effort spearheaded by renowned MIT Media Lab professor and Ramesh Raskar and Sunil Khandbahale – both good friends and global citizens from Nashik. These two, along with an ever-increasing group of the world’s movers, shakers, innovators, and leaders – from local and global industry to engineers, educators, health professionals, government officials and technology gurus – are collectively dedicating themselves to social entrepreneurship and making the world a better, healthier, and more equitable place.

So what, exactly, will that take? Well from my somewhat unique vantage point as a physican, educator, pareting expert, author, MIT Media Lab collaborator and now Director of Innovation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center – I think it will take exactly what this welcoming city, its businesses and people, the Kumbh Foundation, MIT Media Lab, and the incredibly engaged next generation of social entrepreneurs, engineers and students that have been coming together for the past two years for six Kumbhathons have to offer: an global innovation launchbox where cutting edge health- and other cost-effective and ultimately scalable technologies can be rapidly and collaboratively prototyped, developed, validated and - most importantly – affordably deployed.

Given all we now know about the need for 21st century skills, education, health and well-being, and the critical foundation that global connectedness and technology offer, I think this will be big. After 4 trips to Nashik and counting, and having spent time with so many incredibly talented, dedicated and diverse collaborators, I’m increasingly convinced that the goal of “creating smart citizens for smart cities,” and improving the lives of billions is, in fact, attainable. And that, I believe, is very very big!


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