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  • Satish Jha
    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
    Message 1 of 4 , Feb 28, 2006
      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@...
      > wrote:

      i4d | January 2006

      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
      of Technology.

      Michael L. Best
      Assistant Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology
      mikeb@... ‘i’ Opener

      Media Lab Asia endeavored to be the world’s largest university
      research laboratory for ICT’sand international development. With
      it routinely described as a “billion dollar” 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 globe’s biggest academic heavyweights: the
      Massachusetts Institute of Technology’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 Lab’s expectations were downsized, and now it
      continues on as a strictly GoI operation still struggling to define
      its mission.

      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 committee’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 Mumbai’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 India’s godman of IT, Infosys primo

      On the dais sat Pramod Mahajan and representing the MIT Media Lab,
      Pentland. The Lab’sfuture looked exciting indeed and the optimism
      off of the page of the Lab’s initial prospectus: “Media Lab Asia
      is the
      world’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 Lab’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
      MIT’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 Lab’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 Lab’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, “a motley
      of shitty-little projects.” 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
      worst) projects.

      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 Mahajan’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 Lab’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.

      MOU’s were signed with the Delhi, Kharagpur, and Mumbai campuses
      of the
      Indian Institute of Technology, before adequate connections with
      relevant researchers and administrators were established. These were
      addition to two MOU’s with the IIT campuses in Chennai and Kanpur
      were based on long-term and trusted relationships. The result of
      MOU’s, which included placing laboratory facilities on the IIT
      themselves, created an appearance, and often reality, that MLAsia
      was a
      research facility of the IIT’s and not an independent R&D program.
      notwithstanding, three (and later four) of these IIT’s had little
      appreciation for or tie to MLAsia or to the MIT Media Lab. In the
      when they were asked: “What has MIT done for you?” they were
      quick to
      answer “Nothing”.

      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 MLAsia’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 Sareen’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 Sareen’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 Lab’s problems. It was horribly demoralizing that
      he was
      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
      Shourie, a
      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 IIT’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 MLAsia’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 government’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 Lab’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
      numbers he
      noted that some MLAsia employees were making ten times or more that
      of a
      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 “motley collection of shitty-little projects” 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 “actionable”.

      The feeling was that money had flowed to parties who were not then
      sufficiently accountable.

      Shourie examined the research and management team that MLAsia had
      put in
      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 grâ
      the MIT / MLAsia partnership. By this time, four of the five
      either a neutral or an antagonistic position towards MIT. When asked:
      “What has MIT done for you?” they answered “Nothing”.

      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 H’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 IIT’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
      IIT’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

      Sustainability framework

      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.


    • Frederick Noronha
      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
      Message 2 of 4 , Mar 1, 2006
        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
        from power.

        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
        magazine...) -FN

        Frederick 'FN' Noronha | http://fn-at-google.notlong.com
        Goa, India | fred@...
        Co-Founder, BytesForAll | +91(832)2409490 Cell 9822122436
      • Sunil Abraham
        On Wed, 2006-03-01 at 17:48 +0000, bytesforall ... Globally people are questioning the link between patents and prosperity. Please see quote from John Sulston
        Message 3 of 4 , Mar 3, 2006
          On Wed, 2006-03-01 at 17:48 +0000, bytesforall
          > http://www.i4donline.net/jan06/kali.pdf
          > i4d | January 2006
          > An evaluation committee was empanelled and metrics were designed,
          > including the number of patents applied for and number of published
          > papers.

          Globally people are questioning the link between patents and prosperity.
          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
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