Re: [bytesforall_readers] A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION ON MEDIA LAB ASIA
- I like Mike's candor.However, as an analysis I would like to have a more substantive dialogue sometime later.Interesting that I watched the show- had a ringside view. Mike had one view. I saw some parts of the same elephant that may have escaped him.Mike would recall that we inaugurated Bimal Sareen at Baramati.. his first day on the job and I was explicit enough to tell both Mike and Negroponte that they just killed Media Lab Asia. They asked me why.. I pointed towards the new leadership.I told Mike and Negroponte that the guy will be gone in less than a year. Mike asked me to support for a year then. I agreed and did not say a word about the new CEO for the next year. But he left before completing his year.It just so happened that I was asked to meet all three finalists for the CEO's position and share my opinion on them with the ministry officials. I was candid. None of them could have met the expectations from them. It needed a very different leadership that understood management, technology, research, social issues, polity, the way the world was shaping up.. And we had the three finalists include one who was talking methodologies that vanished a generation before he discovered them and the other was happy doing what she wanted to do. The third was brought in and we got to see what fate awaited him.It also happened that one day I had got a call from two bureaucrats from the ministry - six months before the CEO was brought in -congratulating me and asking me when was I going to start. I was surprised but willing to lead MLA for a Rupee as a token compensation. But then the next day I got a call that Negroponte had other thoughts. Some six months later we had the new CEO Mike referred to.Funnily enough once again I got invited to be interviewed for the Managing Director's position of MLA just a couple months ago. The letter said that they will not cover the air fare from overseas. I suggested that they could have a video-conference or telephonic interview. But the financial controller and admin officer wrote back in a crass bureaucratic way that I had to present myself on the day invited and that was that. His responses were reminiscent of what is wrong with handing over innovation to those who only follow rules in an unthinking fashion. I did not go for the interview as there was little one could contribute to an organisation that was bound by such rules.Media Lab Asia was supposed to spearhead innovation. Create a culture of creating a new world with technologies. Bring about some attitudinal change in our culture of science and technology studies and research to finally meet the mainstream global thinking down the time line and may be lead in some areas. It could not have delivered in a year or two or five.. It was doomed to start with if it had to become mature adult before it learnt to walk..I did not get the view Mike had but as someone from the world of media, I had written the end of Media Lab Asia in Mike's knowledge well before it became visible. I enjoyed whatever opportunity I had to see a new wave of thinking that came with Sandy Pentland who spent considerable time in India those couple years and it was good to see the excitement that Sanjay Dhande had and some other individuals from the world of IITs. But the two worlds were very different and there was no bridge connecting them. Every meeting fueled resentment rather than new ideas. MLA seemed too five-starish to them. It was born and died at The Oberoi.
But the discussion on MLA requires deep introspection. Its easy to blame and much more difficult to create. Failure of Media Lab Europe added another credibility gap to the story of exporting Media Lab.Its a product of American soil where Media Lab added phenomenal value for the investments made in it. To transplant it on to other soils is not that easy. Those soils are not ready for this plant of innovation.. Not just as yet..I am reminded of what I heard attributed to Nehru when he was returning from Belgrade.. One of his cronies asked him if they could carry some beautiful rose plants from Tito's Yugoslavia. (As we know Nehru loved roses) He reportedly asked the person to carry the Yugoslav soil as well.Fifty years later we had not learnt from the wisdom of a man who seemed to have failed India of his times with his elegance.
On 2/28/06, parthadhaka <parthadhaka@...
i4d | January 2006
A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION ON MEDIA LAB ASIA
Kali, creator and destroyer
The author argues that lack of early attention to the institutional
and political sustainability of the project, along with fundamental
flaws in the underlying structure of the entity, led to its ultimate
The author is currently Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute
Michael L. Best
Assistant Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
mikeb@... â€˜iâ€™ Opener
Media Lab Asia endeavored to be the worldâ€™s largest university
research laboratory for ICTâ€™sand international development. With
it routinely described as a â€œbillion dollarâ€ facility in
pollyannish anticipation of huge fundraising successes â€" the
optimism of the Lab was staggering. And it certainly was the highest
profile, and perhaps most interesting, South/North university
collaboration in the ICT for development arena, bringing together
two of the globeâ€™s biggest academic heavyweights: the
Massachusetts Institute of Technologyâ€™s Media Lab and the Indian
Institutes of Technology (IIT).
The vision of the Lab was for a unique public-private-academic
partnership focused on innovation and world class research; a sort of
organization never before seen.
But after twelve months of operation under a formal relationship
between MIT and the Government of India (GoI), the connection to MIT
was severed, the Labâ€™s expectations were downsized, and now it
continues on as a strictly GoI operation still struggling to define
The inability to sustain the MIT/MLAsia connection was due mainly to
two critical failures. First, the Lab was structurally unsound; it
sowed seeds of failure in the contracts and framework of the Lab
itself. Second, and most critically, the Lab went forward with a
number of shotgun marriages; it relied on various self-interested
relationships that, lacking the trust that comes from time and
effort, were never strong enough to maintain the collaboration.
Said another way, MLAsia ultimately fell victim to its inability to
establish political and institutional sustainability.
Love at first demo
The genesis of MLAsia came in a visit to the MIT Media Lab, in 2000,
then Indian IT Minister Pramod Mahajan. The Media Lab had recently
launched a new program focused on technologies for the developing
and had also been looking at opportunities for international
Driven by the leadership of Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chair of
the Media Lab, and Alex (Sandy) Pentland, a senior member of the
faculty, the Media Lab worked to develop a program in India. A
joint task force was put in place to study the feasibility of such a
but the committeeâ€™s final report was a foregone conclusion â€"
strongly supporting its creation.
In June 2001, MIT and the GoI entered into a formal agreement to
the Laboratory with the GoI committing 13 million dollars for the
first year of operation. Of this, l.2 million went to MIT to support
activities related to the Lab and the rest, a considerable research
allotment for the first year, was to be spent in country.
A Board was created, with Mahajan at the helm, and CEO-like
authorities were vested in a Management Committee comprised of Sandy
Pentland; Sanjay Dhande, who was then a senior IIT Kanpur professor
is now head of that institution; S. Ramakrishnan, a senior bureaucrat
from the Ministry of IT; and this author.
The formal launch of MLAsia was a grand event hosted at Mumbaiâ€™s
Hotel on June 24, 2001, complete with laser shows and dance numbers.
the front row of the ballroom was the future president of India, APJ
Abdul Kalam, sitting next to Indiaâ€™s godman of IT, Infosys primo
On the dais sat Pramod Mahajan and representing the MIT Media Lab,
Pentland. The Labâ€™sfuture looked exciting indeed and the optimism
off of the page of the Labâ€™s initial prospectus: â€œMedia Lab Asia
worldâ€™s largest academic research program dedicated to bringing the
benefits of new technologies to everyone, with a special focus on
meeting the grand challenges in learning, health, and economic
Weak structure creates weak substance
Within days of the launch, however, it was clear that the Labâ€™s
institutional architecture put it at risk. The initial structure of
Lab, including its relationship with MIT, was flawed and led to
failures in substance as well as the disenfranchisement of a number
stakeholder communities. First and foremost, the Lab was launched on
initial trial year basis. MIT was the proponent of the trial year
structure, a twelve-month escape clause that was insisted upon by the
MITâ€™s upper management and not by the Media Lab leadership.
The idea of a one-year trial might have been a good one if it had
properly defined as a stepping stone to longer term sustainability.
and the GoI could have spent the year ensuring the Labâ€™s
developing a shared vision and strategy, identifying strong
and research personnel, and most critically, cultivating the range of
stakeholders that would be essential to success: the private sector,
Indian academic community, and relevant members of civil society and
development community. Instead, the Lab was mandated to realize
immediate research successes.
An evaluation committee was empanelled and metrics were designed,
including the number of patents applied for and number of published
papers. In other words, the structure demanded matureresearch outputs
from this initial year. This was in addition to the nitty-gritty
activities such as leasing office space and putting in place a basic
Honestly realizing immediate quality research successes would be
impossible for anyone, so alternative approaches had to be identified
and exploited. One approach (which is fairly standard in the broader
academic community and is not particularly reprehensible in my
is to double-count existing activities.
Anything that smelled remotely of a MLAsia project, and had some
loose connection to MIT or other related institutions, was co-opted
into the MLAsia family. Fair enough.
The second approach, which was the source of a lot of the Labâ€™s
problems, was to outsource the majority of research activities to
existing institutions often without sufficient regard to quality or
research integrity. One result was that MLAsia itself was not
strengthened by these outsourced activities; instead, the
institutions used the resources to further develop their own
Moreover, in the rush toward immediate outputs MLAsia assembled
what was, in the words of one senior Lab officer, â€œa motley
of shitty-little projects.â€ While there were some high-quality
exceptions to this, especially in the work from the core IIT
collaborators at Kanpur and Chennai, too many of the projects were
This dramatically eroded the substantive value that MIT could offer
this North/South collaboration: namely, deliberative, robust,
research direction. Instead, the Laboratory was running around
(or neglecting to manage) mostly unimportant (at best) and specious
The second structural flaw of MLAsia was that it failed to
immediately systematize positive relationships outside of the GoI
and MIT â€" and, indeed, outside of the specific personalities of
Pramod Mahajan and the MIT Media Lab.
This was reflected in the initial board and management composition.
Board of Directors was chaired by Pramod Mahajan himself and included
the principal government bureaucrat from Mahajanâ€™s home state of
Maharashtra. From the MIT Media Lab side, Nicholas Negroponte and
Pentland sat on the board with Negroponte as co-Chair.
This lack of inclusive reach was also true of most of the Labâ€™s
immediate senior Indian management, some of whom were selected
explicitly because it was thought that they could be easily
While a later attempt was made to expand the Board to include private
sector principals, including Naryana Murthy, it was already too
late. Even though the three major Indian IT corporations were,
ultimately, represented on the Board, not one of these companies ever
became a true partner to the Laboratory or a dues paying member.
Further, there was no apparent attempt to broaden the political base
the Lab or its Board.
Weak structure creates weak relationships
As argued above, the initial structure of the Lab had left it
systemically weak â€" politically over-reliant on Mahajan, with
stakeholders, supportive of a number of questionable projects, and
undermined by weak and shotgun relationships.
But the presence of so many relationships of urgency was not wholly
outcome of the structure of the one-year trial period, but also
primarily) due to the personalities and culture of the MIT Media Lab
leadership. Indians will often question the speed with which North
Americans are willing to jump into a relationship.
The Indians, perhaps thanks to their ancient culture and practical
of caution, are slow to commit to partnerships. However, once the
is there it is something that can be relied on. In contrast, the MIT
Media Lab team seemed willing to enter into a Memorandum of
Understanding with an Indian party after a single positive meeting.
an MOU with MLAsia always came with some funds flowing to the
party; in other words, there was plenty of incentive, and few down
sides, for others to line up for these relationships.
MOUâ€™s were signed with the Delhi, Kharagpur, and Mumbai campuses
Indian Institute of Technology, before adequate connections with
relevant researchers and administrators were established. These were
addition to two MOUâ€™s with the IIT campuses in Chennai and Kanpur
were based on long-term and trusted relationships. The result of
MOUâ€™s, which included placing laboratory facilities on the IIT
themselves, created an appearance, and often reality, that MLAsia
research facility of the IITâ€™s and not an independent R&D program.
notwithstanding, three (and later four) of these IITâ€™s had little
appreciation for or tie to MLAsia or to the MIT Media Lab. In the
when they were asked: â€œWhat has MIT done for you?â€ they were
Perhaps another example of a hasty relationship was represented in
appointment of the initial CEO, Bimal Sareen, who joined in June
Sareen was the first individual interviewed for the job by the Media
leadership and was then hired to replace the Management Committee.
fair, the Media Lab team interviewed other candidates and was quick
point out how unlikely it was that they hired the first person they
All that notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine a worse choice.
had to be hired over the objections of the private sector and
of India Board members who did not approve of his substantial salary
base. The concerns of the Board quickly became manifest as Sareen
succeeded to alienate or outright infuriate all of the existing
of MLAsiaâ€™s management and support team and most everyone from the
Government of India. Indeed, fifty percent of the Mumbai professional
staff resigned within the first months of Sareenâ€™s appointment.
was such a failure that one has to wonder how he sneaked past the due
diligence process of the executive hiring firm, Heidrick and
who was responsible for the search.
Indeed, some of Sareenâ€™s former colleagues posited that they must
have done a reference check with his past employers or they never
have suggested him for the job.
So much hope and optimism had been placed in the new CEO; he was
to fix all the Labâ€™s problems. It was horribly demoralizing that
so clearly wrong for the job.
Mahajan leaves and so does MIT
The full unraveling of the MIT / MLAsia collaboration began with the
ouster of Pramod Mahajan from his position as IT Minister. In January
2003, soon after Sareen had joined MLAsia, Mahajan was
removed from the IT Ministry,and the cabinet as a whole, by the most
senior party and cabinet members. Replacing Mahajan was Arun
man known for his no-nonsense approach to things. Early in
tenure as minister he held a series of reviews of MLAsia. He focused
attention on a review of expenditures, projects, team members, and on
the relationship with the IITâ€™s.
Money was an important issue, though not as critical as the deeper
institutional problems. But from the outset there had been a promise
from the MIT Media Lab leadership to raise 80% of MLAsiaâ€™s annual
budget, with the GoI putting in the remaining 20%. As Shourie began
review, however, not a single rupee had been raised from any source
outside of the GoI. (We should recall that this was the height of the
telecom and dot.com bust and the usual funding sources for this type
an endeavor were very limited.)
The original vision for MLAsia was that it would not operate as a
government lab and would not be constrained by the governmentâ€™s
and regulations. However, with 100% government financing it became
difficult to consider it as anything but a government lab.
An example of this tension was the thorny issue of the Labâ€™s salary
structure: was it paying at international rates, at Indian private
sector rates, or at GoI rates. In point of fact, it was paying at all
three of these levels, depending on the hiring case. Sareen made an
international salary while some GoI officials on secondment to the
were getting government salaries. When Shourie reviewed these
noted that some MLAsia employees were making ten times or more that
comparable or more senior employee at one of the few prestigious
government research laboratories.
Moving on from salaries, he reviewed the various projects and could
help but notice the fairly weak set of outputs from the first year.
was the â€œmotley collection of shitty-little projectsâ€ problem.
while the research value or esthetic could easily be questioned,
and his internal review team went so far as to label some of the
outsourced research expenditures as â€œactionableâ€.
The feeling was that money had flowed to parties who were not then
Shourie examined the research and management team that MLAsia had
place. Sareen was considered a liability and there were very few
positive research assets directly affiliated with the Lab since most
the real work had been outsourced.
Certainly all this was quite regrettable, but in my opinion all could
have been forgiven. Mahajan, for his part, had told us explicitly
he understood how the dot.com bust years were not the best for
fundraising and that twelve months were not enough time to generate
solid research outputs. And everyone was sympathetic to the fact
to speak candidly, institution (and relationship) building in a
as complex as India can be a very difficult and slow process.
Sareen could have been sacked, salaries could have been harmonized,
projects could have been rationalized, and the reported $5 million
requested by MIT to sustain their end of the relationship could have
been easily realized. But, in the end, the relationship with MIT was
terminated. Recall that much of the outsourcing of the Lab had been
the Indian Institutes of Technology. And in the final analysis, it
the nature of these relationships that proved to be the coup de grÃ¢
the MIT / MLAsia partnership. By this time, four of the five
either a neutral or an antagonistic position towards MIT. When asked:
â€œWhat has MIT done for you?â€ they answered â€œNothingâ€.
Regrettably, the end of the MIT / MLAsia relationship was not pretty.
Significant acrimony and vindictive statements were traded between
Negroponte and Shourie. Nobody benefited from this quite public
argument. But, quickly, things quieted down and the President of MIT
issued a private letter of apology to Hâ€™ble Minister.
At the time of this writing the BJP, the party of Mahajan and
is sitting in the opposition and Congress is back in control with a
set of politicians in charge. Media Lab Asia continues on as a
of the Ministry fully supported by the Government of India, primarily
serving as a funding agency, and strongly linked to the IITâ€™s.
My role and vision
It must be said that I was complicit to many of these failures and
responsible for some of them. Furthermore, I hasten to add that I had
and continue to have enormous respect and personal regard for many of
the stakeholders in the MLAsia experiment including Negroponte,
Pentland, many IIT colleagues, and the initial MLAsia senior staff.
But my vision was far from what the current reality is â€" a
research funding agency. My hopes, shared by many, were for a unique
public-private-academic collaboration. From MIT, I would have taken
extraordinary ambition and work ethic and the heavy resource levels;
from the MIT Media Lab, I would have taken the appreciation for
high-risk research and the playful and experimental ethos; from the
IITâ€™s, I would have taken the rigorous capacity for desk research
analytic competencies; from India herself, I would have taken the
cultural ethic, the seriousness to problems of development, and the
diversity of people and thought.
I would have started small with one or two carefully chosen
one or two very solid collaborative relationships, one or two grand
challenge problems, and the will to hire and foster world class
A large part of my research has focused on understanding how ICT and
international development interventions can be sustained over the
term. I have been conceptualizing, as have others, a sustainability
typology. In my research I have noted the need for:
* Economic or financial sustainability â€" the aspect that probably
gets the most attention in the literature.
* Technological sustainability â€" a fairly well appreciated problem
especially as we all are routinely victimized by our own technology
and its rapid rush to obsolescence.
* Social and cultural sustainability â€" by this I mean, in
equity of access issues, gender, caste, community, literacy,
language, economic groups, and so forth.
* Environmental sustainability â€" not often directly considered in
ICT for development projects, though relevant in terms of e-
waste, electric power consumption, and even the carbon reducing
promise of the global information infrastructure. And finally,
* Political and institutional sustainability â€" the nexus of
relationships between the broad set of stakeholders.
Time and time again it is lack of attention to this last category,
political and institutional sustainability, which results in the
of a project.
In the Hindu pantheon Kali is the black earth mother. She is depicted
holding a sword and severed head and wearing a necklace of snakes,
skulls and human heads. She sustains the Hindu belief of the
never-ending cycles of birth and death. While she is the goddess of
death, she lives with an overflowing love for the life of her
She destroys only to re-create.
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- I wonder how much of the Media Lab Asia experience could be attributed
to two very strong trends we repeatedly see (but hardly discuss
little) in this part of the world.
Firstly, there's the political trend for those calling the shots at
any point of time to act as be-alls and know-alls. Including in
porjects which are about technology. Mike Best has politely hinted at
that (if I read the text right). In other words, projects become the
dream-babies of certain politicians or parties, and go with their exit
This also has a lot of other implications. For instance, questionable
persons linked to politicians have their way while their political
bosses are calling the shots. Wonder how many technocrats seen this as
a fit enough issue to raise. Some seem to be trying, but that's still
a small voice.
Second, is the unhappy marriage in any project involving a terribly
under-valued rupee (whose fair domestic purchasing power barely
reflects in the Rs 44 to the dollar equation, for instance) and the
expectations of high-reimbursements among expats employed for such
Just some random thoughts.... which need more debate by those more
knowledgeable on the entire Media Lab Asia saga. The article was
interesting and insightful. Thanks Ravi Gupta and the team at I4D for
carrying this (there's some interesting debate happening in that
Frederick 'FN' Noronha | http://fn-at-google.notlong.com
Goa, India | fred@...
Co-Founder, BytesForAll | +91(832)2409490 Cell 9822122436
- On Wed, 2006-03-01 at 17:48 +0000, bytesforall
> http://www.i4donline.net/jan06/kali.pdfGlobally people are questioning the link between patents and prosperity.
> i4d | January 2006
> A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION ON MEDIA LAB ASIA
> An evaluation committee was empanelled and metrics were designed,
> including the number of patents applied for and number of published
Please see quote from John Sulston below.
-------- Forwarded Message --------
From: Vera Franz <vfranz@...>
Subject: [ipr] Sir John Sulston at WIPO
Date: Thu, 02 Mar 2006 11:54:32 +0000
Thiru from CPTech has a good summary of Sir John Sulston's intervention
at the Open Forum on the SPLT, currently underway at WIPO.
The morning commenced with an excellent overview by Sir John Sulston
(Vice-Chair, Human Genetics Commission, London-Nobel Prize in Physiology
or Medicine in 2002), entitled "International Patent Law Harmonization,
Development and Policy Space for Flexibility".
He also noted the example of the opposition expressed by the US Council
of Economic Advisers and the Office of Science and Technology to the
TRIPS Agreement during the Uruguay Round negotiations. Sir Sulston
highlighted that the patent system should exist in balance with other
forms of innovation. He cautioned against simplistic causality when
affirming the benefits of the patent system by showing parallelism
between an increase in patent applications and increasing prosperity. He
One can equally point to parallelisms between obesity and
prosperity, or between global warming and prosperity. But nobody
suggests that obesity or global warming are causes of prosperity -
they are unwanted by-products. Undoubtedly, robust patents have an
important part to play, but we should be cautious in giving them too
much credit for industrial success. This is especially true in the
context of world harmonisation. In general, the developing countries
that have shown the fastest growth are those that retained
relatively protected markets until they reached a position of
strength. The same was, of course, the case for Europe and the US a
century ago. Regrettably, harmonisation is a way for those who have
already arrived at a prosperous situation to pull up the ladder and
stop others joining them.
Sunil Abraham, sunil@... http://www.mahiti.org
"Vijay Kiran" IInd Floor, 314/1, 7th Cross, Domlur
Bangalore - 560 071 Karnataka, INDIA
Ph/Fax: +91 80 51150580. Mob: (91) 9342201521
UK: (44) 02000000259