The Emerging Worlds Special Interest Group (SIG) is an MIT Media Lab initiative. It is a unique, bottom-up innovation platform focused on mega-opportunities and designed for addressing pressing challenges worldwide. Emerging worlds – cities, states, or regions – present great opportunities to test and deploy ideas. People with diverse interests, skills and backgrounds – young engineers, business people and designers – get together to collaborate openly with government officials, business leaders and academics, as well as with MIT Media Lab researchers. This initiative looks for creative solutions to pressing local challenges that can be solved with new technology, including machine learning, Internet of Things, Big Data and mobile devices.
About 1000 innovators applied, and about 100 were selected to participate in the Innovating for Billions workshop in Nashik, India in January 2016. MIT and Tata Consultancy Services co-hosted the event, in collaboration with the local government. During the workshop, innovators formed teams around challenge areas, met with subject matter experts, including our Director's Fellows Pashon Murray and Eman Jaradat, heard from local and global business and government leaders, took field trips around Nashik to better understand stakeholders and issues, and presented their challenges and proposed solutions to pursue in 6-month internships at new Innovation Center in Nashik.
According to Pashon, she had the time of her life, interacting with so many bright and engaging minds, and working together to find solutions to issues of waste management, soil and waiter in the area. We invite you to read about Pashon's experience in her own words:
Emerging Worlds “Innovating For Billions”
by Pashon Murray
Upon my arrival in Mumbai, India the evening of January 20th, I was intrigued by the way I was greeted. People stared at me in customs and inquisitively asked me where I was from. I imagine my afro hair style and confidence coupled with my willingness to nod my head or greeting people with a smile gave them permission to think I was approachable. However, most of the people were staring and didn’t say anything at all at the Mumbai airport.
During the long flight, I reflected about my purpose for visiting a city I was not familiar with. I had made up in my mind years ago that Africa would be the first developing country I would support and assist. When the opportunity presented itself to join the Emerging Worlds initiative, I prayed and the spirit led me to India. My first thoughts focused around questions such as how did this program evolve, who was involved and how I could be of assistance.
I took a different approach to India, after hearing about stereotypes, caste systems and horrific treatment of women, I had reservations about what to expect. I’ve never been a person who changes character or makes adjustments due to cultural or environmental differences. It’s more about respecting others and treating people the way I want to be treated. My main objective was to mentor a group of students who I never met and give them everything that I could pertaining to soil and waste management practices. Before I arrived Beth and Maggie, two of my colleagues, gave me the history and purpose for Emerging Worlds. The overview and perspective was helpful but different than what I experienced. In my mind, I was focused on sharing my story and experiences , and if possible, help these students achieve solutions for environmental challenges.
I waited at the airport for about an hour until Beth Zonis and John Werner arrived with the driver. I chuckled to myself as I saw a few people staring, I thought this is going to be fun and interesting. When they arrived, I hugged Beth and elaborated about my flight experiences.
When we proceeded to the car and John introduced himself, everyone began to explain it would take about two and half hours to reach Nashik because traffic was bad in Mumbai. As soon as we pulled out of the airport it seemed like the landscape was made up of millions of people. My eyes focused on the surrounding environment. I saw motorcycles, cars, bicycles and many people walking the streets. I heard horns beeping; the streets were alive with vendors with makeshift shacks assembled to represent store fronts. However, making me feel a little closer to home, I recognized American style workout gyms and restaurants. The traffic flow and pattern was chaotic. I still don’t understand how people are able to get to their destinations safely. I guess you can say it’s organized chaos.
During the drive to Nashik, John was basically interviewing me. At the same time he and Beth were updating me explaining the history of Emerging Worlds and Camera Culture. Our freeway journey to Nashik took us about three and half hours. Along the way, John was funny, he fell asleep several times but he would wake up continuing to explain just as if he hadn’t been sleeping. He had a great outlook on the project and clearly supported the objectives.
Along the way, I saw a Ford dealership sign on the other side of the freeway; little did I know our hotel was its neighbour. We arrived at the hotel and the guards let us through. We had to check our bags through metal detectors and x-ray machines. I can’t say that I’ve ever stayed at hotel requiring bags to be checked so thoroughly.
January 21st-‐28th Overview
I caught up on some work and ate at the hotel. We had evening meetings scheduled at Winjit Technologies with other participants in the conference. The meeting was designed to discuss the program including goals, challenges and solutions for the city of Nashik. During the meeting we had a strategy review and organized the groups by expertise. As they described the project groupings including; transportation, waste management, health & hygiene, soil and water, food & agriculture, and education, I immediately felt I could assist with four.
I tentatively volunteered for four and said I would make a commitment once the conference started. In my mind, I could not help but think about growing up in an entrepreneurial family and how all of my past experiences were relevant. After everyone introduced themselves and we assigned groups and mentors we had dinner. I must say that John did an excellent job at the meeting describing Joi Ito, the Media Lab and the Director’s Fellows program to everyone. I met Eman Jaradat (Director’s Fellow) and many others from Camera Culture during dinner. Once again, I discovered more of the Media Lab’s talent and its awesome individuals. We all sat around and discussed our areas of interest. As our challenge was taking shape, I could feel my excitement building, especially as we discussed the details of Emerging World’s projects.
On the morning of the 22nd some of the MIT crew had left the hotel for the Nashik Engineering Cluster (NEC) and some were in the restaurant having breakfast. Maggie sent a text and alerted us that the second car would be arriving shortly. We loaded up the van we drove through the city and took pictures. As we arrived at NEC it seemed out of place. The building was surrounded by residential slums and people and motorcycles everywhere. Suddenly, the NEC appeared out of nowhere.
The day started with a gathering in the main auditorium. The participants introduced themselves and discussed the purpose of the program. I love the idea of students addressing challenges in Nashik and coming up with ideas to combat those issues with solutions. In the first two days I witnessed first-‐hand the poverty, pollution and environmental issues. As leaders discussed many of the issues facing Nashik, I kept thinking about the history of India asking myself why we are just now addressing these issues. Was the country affected by colonialism, caste systems and bad leadership? Why now? Did the leaders of the community respect MIT and the other leaders? Did Ramesh Raskar’s relationships and native city look to him for solutions? I concluded the community respects Ramesh and his dedication to Nashik,
It is clear to me the people in developing countries are in need of leaders returning to their homeland to help sustain and build bridges for the future. I didn’t know much about Ramesh until the third day. We sat next to each other. As I listened, his love for Nashik was clear. He exudes a wonderful compelling personality. I could tell by the private dinners and the leaders who showed up every day they were following his lead. They believed he and the corporate members could lead and effect change in Nashik.
Project and Mentorship
On the third and fourth day we listened to people introduce themselves and inspire the students to be better thinkers, creators, entrepreneurs and inventors. The corporate leaders, Media Lab team and others started sharing the challenge statements and the group categories. Each leader and mentor had to introduce himself or herself to the students in the main auditorium. I spoke very briefly during the introduction for Food and Agriculture, Transportation, Waste Management and soil and water. Instead of speaking about Detroit Dirt or my past experiences, I kept it clear and concise about the UN recognizing me for my work in composting and soil. I didn’t want the focus to be on Detroit Dirt only. My role was to judge the talent and be a mentor.
I decided to mentor the Food and Ag group. However, the group had multiple focuses so instead I decided to work with the soil group. Beth and I explained to the whole group the importance of the areas of focus, soil testing, supply chain, and crops. I also reiterated the importance of healthy soil. Four students said they would like to dedicate themselves to soil testing. After some extensive discussion, I couldn’t understand why so many students were interested in supply chain issues. Many felt like the farmer wasn’t being respected in the supply chain throughout India. I understood their passion but some Indian farmers weren’t following protocol for soil testing. Also, many of them have to address other issues before selling crops.
As I developed a relationship with the group, our discussion focused on soil and contamination issues as well as potential solutions. I told them to keep the challenge statements clear and simple. How do we get farmers the proper access to soil testing? What kinds of devices can we create to assist them? How do we integrate the technology?
Our discussion revealed some farmers are illiterate and probably weren’t aware of the process. So I challenged them to go beyond the solution and had them put themselves in the farmers’ shoes. I asked them what would be the most realistic approach to soil testing. I started suggesting to them that some of the companies and organizations in the room had equipment and devices that could assist their research. I mentioned the Media Lab’s sensors and corporate members’ inventions and suggested that they create their own solutions. Some mentors ask me to back down with suggestions and I did. They explained that they wanted the students to develop and create. I understood where they were coming from but if we’re judging the projects and assisting the students with implementation in the future I felt like I should coach so they are better prepared. Aside from me backing down, I spent a week of my life in India and I wasn’t there to visit, this was about creating solutions.
When all of the student groups begin to present on the 5th and 6th day we had to judge their presentations based on the challenge statements. Honestly, I could tell which groups were organized, who had good mentors. It was evident how time was spent. Some of the presentations were excellent and some had mentors speaking for them. Others knew exactly what the problem was and how to address it. We gave the students the opportunity to take a day and regroup for the last day of presentations. On the last day the judges were going to decide on what projects should proceed.
On Monday morning I accompanied the group to visit one of the agricultural universities. The local university’s department of Agriculture and soil experts joined the meeting. Basically the students ask them multiple questions pertaining to soil contamination and healthy soils. We found out only 25%-30% of farmers are following protocol and getting soils tested. Most of the small farmers don’t participate. The majority who get tested are commercial farmers. It was an awesome experience. The students were building a case for solutions.
When we returned back to NEC they started immediately planning education awareness and technical solutions. The students concluded the farmers need education and they need tools or devices that can assist with testing.
Let’s be clear, we’re not just talking about the basic testing, as universities and labs can perform those outcomes. The group wanted to create an organization that would help address contamination and soil issues. They asked me about sensors and existing kits they could modify or adjust to the needs of India. In the afternoon of Monday the 25th I met with three companies in Nashik who asked me to align with them for programs that focused on waste management and composting.
Later that day, I took a tour of the city with some corporate mentors. We saw a very small compost pile adjacent to parks and temples. One of the companies asked if they would find the acreage would I help them get their compost project off the ground. I told them that they should start with a pilot and then go full scale. I explained that it didn’t matter what country or city it was people have to witness seeing composting first hand. It’s the universal language for farmers and gardeners and it’s the beginning steps for waste to energy. As I spent time
touring the city and giving advice, I begin to reflect on where I started in Detroit. I always told the media that I wanted to create a model that could be replicated anywhere in the world. So, here I am in Nashik, India explaining my process and empowering people to compost and test soils. I made a commitment to return to Nashik and continue to assist long-term. Spiritually, when I walked around the neighborhood temple and saw the composting area it solidified my purpose and I felt like the vision had gone full circle.
On the 7th day I woke up and had breakfast, I joined John, Beth and Alicia for the Republic Day celebration. We drove around the city and met with the superintendent of the police. When we arrived at his home we ate breakfast again and joined other leaders at the site for the parade. There were thousands of people there from the military, police department, youth military schools, organizations and the people of Nashik. It was awesome. They treated us like royalty. Beth and Alicia teased me about being popular with the local residents. Every other second someone was saying ma’am can we take a picture.
The history of India was explained to me that day. They celebrate their independence from British colonialism in August. In January, Republic Day honors the date on which the Constitution of India came into force: January 26th 1950, replacing the Government of India act of 1935. My trip had gone full circle, first I had people staring at me in Mumbai and Nashik but in the end I felt like the residents of Nashik had accepted me and they wanted my assistance.
As I concluded my trip to Nashik I knew I had to return, the people requested that I come back and assist with various projects. I knew that if I could spend more time with the people of Nashik and my mentees we could really create programs that would effect generations to come. The students started creating and developing devices that they could integrate into the farming community. I encouraged them to take the opportunity to intern in the new innovation center in Nashik and create real-life solutions. I told the mentees that I would be available to answer questions via email or on WhatsApp. I had them ask Beth and others from the Media Lab about available technology and assistance. Beth reached out to one of her contacts about connecting with the students. My group had great feedback, all of the judges had positive things to say about them. I knew they had the talent and intellect to create a great program for farmers, especially the farmers who couldn’t afford the technology.
I will have to go back and assist the entrepreneurs and businesses we met with that were interested in composting. They are eager for change and we need to help them reach their goals. Ramesh introduced us to so many influential leaders and business owners that it made it easy to see change on the horizon. Most of the government officials and various leaders are committed to change. Nashik obviously has environmental issues but the people are ready to create a movement that will change the landscape forever. I explained to them the simplicity of my business (Detroit Dirt) and all it takes is a small group of people to get the composting pilot off the ground.
I spent my last day in Mumbai so I could see the city and compare its population and size to Nashik. It was crowded and full of people. I spent most of the time with Sri, one of the corporate visitors from California. We both left Nashik at the same time. He had a meeting with Ramesh the next day and I was flying out at 1:00 a.m. Sri and I talked about different approaches involving for-profit versus non profits. I believe the Media Lab and I can create a waste management and composting application that involves instruction on managing waste streams. We can build a network that will create campaigns we can take into developing countries. Nashik should be the start of the revolution.
If we can teach people through apps and start campaigning globally by joining with the UN and other organizations focused on waste management, we can build a platform that connects projects around the world that will combat climate change. We need to build a platform where corporations, residents, non-‐ profits, composters and waste companies can share information that will help build a global movement. We should be able to map out the progress around the world that tells the story of zero waste.
I enjoyed my visit to Nashik and I especially love the collaboration of the Media Lab, corporates, REDx, NDIC, and the Kumbhathon. I met some really cool people. I believe I should collaborate with the Media Lab not just as a fellow but as a long-term partner. I would like to address issues in developing countries with emerging markets. We can create products and resources developing countries can utilize. Some of the development we can outsource.
If we create the model and continue to replicate it, we can include the applications to track data and get members creating a network that can be shared around the world. Everywhere I go I see a disconnect from data and information. It is time to connect everyone to the soil and dirt. Together we can impact the landscape of the world. The more we connect information through technology the easier it will become for communities to get involved.
I believe a membership model for customers is easiest to create and set up. We can get people from around the world to join in the campaign for a small fee and donate part of the proceeds every year to be awarded to a city, organization, corporation or student that’s doing outstanding work involving zero waste. The goal is to create a movement and get major sponsors to join the organization and have them commit to engaging as well. Part of the donation will include sensors or technology that will assist their mission and connect it back to the application so people around the world can witness the progress. For an example, the mentees would like to encourage more farmers to compost and get their soil tested. If we help them create the sensors we can create the application data that will be aligned with other programs globally. The data will reflect the importance of healthy soils in regards to gas emissions and climate change. I’m very proud of the students. I had to challenge them to look beyond soil testing. I explained to them that I’m composting to send a message. It was the easiest way for me to help solve various issues. Composting helps with reducing gas emissions, good compost practices help with waste to energy, and gardeners and farmers can create compost on their own. Soil testing is very important in developing countries; it’s the root of the soil problem. If you don’t have healthy
soils you produce unhealthy crops. Addressing soil issues can uncover other problems that need to be solved. The carbon that’s released in the air can be stored in the ground, if we’re all connected to the soil we need to all be aware of the soil we’re eating and drinking from. The Media Lab has the resources to help assist me with technology that can be used for all communities. Then connect the communities to the soil and challenge everyone to participate. I’m committed to helping communities around the world. But, it starts with awareness and getting the communities to practice soil testing and getting them to start composting. Campaigns allow people to step up and be responsible. It’s about commitment to future generations. We can repair soil globally through technology. Nashik would be a great start and then we can replicate it everywhere. I’m looking forward to developing technology that will help people around the world and then aligning them with the proper information for empowerment.