Mapping the Kumbh Mela

Interdisciplinary faculty and student research on a “Pop-up Mega City”

Q&A for “International Business” magazine

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Questions from reporter (via Meena):

Q: The HBS team has just spent time at a completely unique event. Understanding that your research is not complete, can you share any initial impressions about the research experience, especially given all of the prep that went into it?

Q: What do you expect the HBS case study to contribute (again, realizing that your results are not out) to discussions on business or management, especially given that there is no other event in the world like the KM?

Q: During the visit to the KM, were there any particular “teachable moments” that stood out to you? Any anecdotes (that you’re comfortable sharing at this point) that illustrate some bigger lesson?

Answers:

Q: The HBS team has just spent time at a completely unique event. Understanding that your research is not complete, can you share any initial impressions about the research experience, especially given all of the prep that went into it?

A: Our team included faculty and students from four schools at Harvard, including Divinity, Public Health, Urban Planning, and Harvard Business School (HBS). It’s unusual in academia to have four disciplines doing research together. At the Kumbh Mela, it’s quite obvious that religion, well-being, cities, and finance all combine to lead to a successful experience for tens of millions of pilgrims. The scale of the Kumbh Mela, the explosion of sensory inputs from sound to sight to touch, and the clear spirituality of the pilgrims made it that much more real, that much direct, and that much more intense for all of us. It’s a lot different than, say, a finance professor working alone and doing academic finance work by creating panelized regression on a stock market dataset.

Q: What do you expect the HBS case study to contribute (again, realizing that your results are not out) to discussions on business or management, especially given that there is no other event in the world like the KM?

A: I’m interested in using the tools of finance and real estate to address the problems arising from three mega-trends in our world: first, massive and rapid urbanization, particularly in South Asia. Second, worse and worse scarcity of basic resources like clean air, clean water, electricity, land, and a surplus of traffic and greenhouse gases. Third, for the most part governments are stuck and can’t address these problems. At the Kumbh Mela, instant urbanization – a transformation in weeks from an underwater flood plain to a city of tens of millions – unfolding in a thoughtful and planned way – can potentially be a model for the kinds of things governments, non-government actors, and citizens should consider the in development of hundreds of other new, permanent cities. The HBS case study will set up some of the decision points and the discussion in class will draw out these considerations.

Q:  During the visit to the KM, were there any particular “teachable moments” that stood out to you? Any anecdotes (that you’re comfortable sharing at this point) that illustrate some bigger lesson?

A: From a land use and infrastructure planning point of view, the teachable insight is that here the focus was on mostly just two aspects of public infrastructure: roads and electricity. The land planning was carried out anticipating the acreage needs of the Akharas. Simplifying the attention down to the core of these three considerations appears to have been successful in accomplishing the very explicit goal of all parties: to have a successful event. Many times, government and the private sector can’t agree on the one big goal and they try to do too much by focusing on more than two or three aspects of the built environment.

The anecdote that illustrates that for me is simple (and sort of boring). We repeatedly asked the organizers what they do about land disputes and how they adapt when the land is not used as they had intended (both of these occur constantly in most other cities). They responded many times and with many different voices that disputes and violations of land planning hardly occur at all here. So that line of inquiry did not lead to a dataset for us. The reasons they don’t occur are, to me, because of a) the very aggressive use of very wide roads and b) the advance negotiations (and decades of precedent) around location and size of lots for Akharas. These frameworks, approaches, and setting of common goals can be repeated.

I hope that this is useful to you. Please feel free to follow up.

Also these two pieces may give you some other useful context on my research:

Dharavi turns a case study for students at Harvard – Economic Times
http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2010-06-04/news/27618093_1_slum-dwellers-largest-slum-dharavi-redevelopment-project

How to improve infrastructure and slum life – Wall Street Journal India
http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/tag/john-macomber/

Funding the design of livable cities – HBS Working Knowledge
http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7135.html

John

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Written by jdmacomber

January 28, 2013 at 2:48 am

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