Lakshmi Pratury on INK conference: “We want to showcase innovation of thought”

Team YS
29th Oct 2010
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INK conference aims to create an awakening, especially among the youth of India

Lakshmi Pratury has donned many a mantle. As her life has progressed, her journey has evolved. Following your heart is easy to say in word but difficult in deed. Lakshmi has followed her heart. She has conveniently swapped roles from a technologist to a venture capitalist to a social entrepreneur, all responding to her inner call. Finally, she has chosen to tread the path less travelled. Attending TED since 1994 has given her mind a new lease of ideas. She has now embarked upon awakening the youth of this country, who are millions in number. Riding on the wave of India’s soft power, she is now seeking to create an innovation platform through the INK conference (to be held at Lavasa, December 10-12, 2010) after having successfully cohosted TED India conference in 2009. In her chat with Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, chief evangelist, YourStory, she shares her vision about the INK conference.

YourStory: Thank you for talking to YourStory about the INK conference.

They say revolution is made by a group of people. If you look at history, maybe Russian Revolution or French Revolution started as a small spark somewhere and spread to different parts of the country. So, I think this gathering of enlightened group of people [INK conference] is sure to create a revolution down the line. So, what has been the inspiration for INK conference, following huge success of TED India in 2009?

Lakshmi: I clearly believe in the revival of the Indian Renaissance. More than the revolution I would say it’s the Renaissance. If you look at the Renaissance period, it’s the time where people who are big (or the rulers) dedicated considerable time and effort on cultural aspects and the knowledge power. Accumulation of knowledge, thirst for knowledge, need to collaborate with each other -- all of these came out of the Renaissance period. And I feel that India has got such a rich culture that it can offer to the rest of the world. Not just as a hobby or a thing to do in your spare time, but truly as a way of life. How can we integrate our knowledge -- hardcore knowledge and technical knowledge -- and combine with our power and make it into a very unique proposition to the rest of the world. Also, at the same time learn from the rest of the world. If you look at the culture of America, it has evolved to what it is today because America, as a country, has allowed anybody and everybody who is good and had knowledge to come into their culture and offered them a space to think. I feel, for India to become capable of this, we need to learn from everyone. The danger lies in thinking we know everything. The goal is to take the best of India to the rest of the world, and bring the best of rest of the world into India. That’s the thought behind INK conference. And we have been very inspired by that. I have been attending TED since 1994 and just the thought of people from different disciplines coming together in one place is very very exciting and exhilarating and intellectually stimulating. And that is what I am excited about.

YS: Can you give us an idea of how the audience are chosen and then what is in store for them?

Lakshmi: We curate the audience, as we curate the speakers. The idea is to have a very diverse set of audience -- people who are artists, architects, technologists, business people, social entrepreneurs, authors, journalists. They should be a combination of people because you get as much as much from the speaker as you do from the audience. We believe that every one of our audience is capable of being a speaker. We can fit only a maximum of 40 speakers on stage, and any of our 300 audience can be speakers. So, we curate them carefully so that there is a good mix of international audience and Indian audience, and at the same time people from different disciplines so that as there is as much diversity as possible.

YS: Looking at the speaker list, it seems as if speakers have been chosen not only from India but across the world. What kind of speakers are lined up or is the speaker list finalised?

Lakshmi: It is final, but we have not given out all the names yet. There are still a few names which we will release in a week or so. But if you look at it, we try to get a broad set of people in terms of discipline as well as geographical diversity. We have Susan Lim from Singapore, Hoa Thin Din who is from Vietnam, we have people from US and we have Gordan from Europe and we have really tried to get a mix across Asia, including India. We are also going to have someone from Latin America. So speakers are drawn from different regions of the world, as you can see.

YS: You were talking about the INKubator recently. How are you planning to go about it after the INK conference?

Lakshmi: It is probably a next year program, because this year we really want to focus on pulling off a great conference. And the idea behind the INKubator is that we want to capture some of the ideas that come out of the conference. Be it from the speaker or the audience or it could be anyone. It could be ideas we get from this conference and incubate them so that we see the idea grow into implementation. In India, one of the key things is we don’t have an infrastructure available to implement the ideas. So, that’s the reason we wanted to do this. The whole purpose of the INKubator is to capture, say two to three, ideas that come out of the conference, and figure out how they can be implemented.

YS: In some of the talks, there will be a direct indication of what the government should do and what the policymakers could do for development. Are you calling in any government representatives or bureaucrats to attend the conference?

Lakshmi: We have a group of inner circle members and we are working with them to figure out who we should have. But typically, the conferences that we do are not necessarily political. They are more of how can individuals implement them or collaborate with each other. It is true that in India government is a very big part of day to day lives, unlike America. So, you do need to involve the policymakers, but we haven’t figured how to do it yet. This is the first time we are doing the INK conference and intend to add another layer every year as we go by. But, for the first year, we are replicating what we had done with TED India and we will see who we would invite.

YS: A lot of people will be disappointed to not make it to the conference. So, are you live streaming it?

Lakshmi: Not the first year. We just want to get it right the first year and not take on too many things. My goal is to do a few things and do them well. We might in all possibility live stream one session, but not the entire conference.

YS: What is your message to the people who are not able to make it?

Lakshmi: What we want to convey is that innovation comes in all forms. Most of the time when you think of innovation, you only think of high-tech gadgets. That is what we think innovation is. But it could be the way in which we look at history. How Anupam Mishra did last year, of looking at how we conserve water. One must learn from this innovation too. Innovation could be the way in which you do something better or something that is relevant to the local audience. So there is lots of ways in which innovation could be interpreted. And what we want to showcase is innovation of thought. We want to show that in India it is ok to take those risks; it is ok to fail, because true innovation comes out of repeatedly trying to get unknown results. Someday you hit at the right thing.

But if you wait for the right thing to come along and only then do something, then you would never accomplish what you are capable of accomplishing. INK is to inspire Indians by showcasing the untold stories of various people, who have accomplished something. And what are the journeys they took to get there, and at the same time to showcase Indian and South Asian stories to the world. What we have to offer to the rest of the world. There were very few Indians who spoke on TED.com whereas now we have a lot more Indian representation on TED.com. Like that, we want to put more and more diversity on the global stage, as well as bring such diversity into India.

YS: In your TEDxChennai talk, you had said that you get ideas from other disciplines apart from the ones you are working. TED was a huge inspiration for you in that way.

Lakshmi: If you think of any great innovation that has happened in this world, the idea did not come to the person because they were just observing what they were doing, whether it is Archimedes getting the idea when taking a bath or whether it is Newton sitting under an apple tree. The ideas come when you put yourself in different scenarios and observe what happens. Similarly, product designer might get a great idea for designing a pen by looking at how somebody has designed a chip, just for an example. Sometimes breakthrough ideas come from combining something you observed and what you do. There was an amazing talk once by a textile designer. I don’t remember the name. He talked about how he looks at all the flora and fauna around his house and that’s what he brings in his design. He showed how he takes a certain leaf and how it becomes a textile design. That excites me a lot -- to break out of the mould, to look at your own day to day life. When you are exposed to brilliant thoughts from different fields, you could be tempted to try something different from what you do, which could also be purely path-breaking.

YS: About the INK conference tagline, it is “Innovation Knowledge.” What is the untold stories part?

Lakshmi: We do say that it is purely fuelling innovation and fostering knowledge. We want people to talk about either their journey or where they want to go, or some aspect they have never told before because we are always only enamoured by the result. We don’t understand how long the journey has been. For example, if you take Infy or even Biocon, if you look at Mr Narayanamurthy or Ms Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, we don’t know their stories. They have been around for a long time before they got into limelight. We want to know what was their journey was like. What is it that made them keep going, what did they do when they felt low, how they failed, how did they change their thoughts.

Now having said that the journey is important as the result. Any innovation to come to the surface or any fame to come to the people, or be visible is only after a long journey of hard work, visionary thought and action. We want to focus on that and say “most often journey is more important than destination.” What’s happening in our society, not just in India, but everywhere is that we are focussing too much on the result, and it doesn’t matter whether you walk over somebody or bribe somebody or, the journey almost never matters, getting the end result is all we are looking at it. This is why we really lose ourselves along the way. But if you say the journey is important and having down is as important as having an up, failure is as important as having success is all that matters. If we can say that, then I think we would actually take joy in that fact and also be truthful to ourselves, as opposed to the horrors in the journey.

YS: You had talked about learning from failures in your TEDxChennai talk. So, will there be any failure, journey of failure or success showcased in INK?

Lakshmi: I am sure there will be some stories of that.

YS: Any final word on what to expect?

Lakshmi: Our dream is that we want everyone, not just the people who come to the conference, in taking the talks and make them as diversely distributed as possible. I do know it’s expensive to come to the conference and we have only 300 seats. Everybody wouldn’t be able to make it. But the reason we do that is that we want to do it the best possible way so that we can give it away for free later. So, when people watch the videos, it is as realistic as possible. We hope that the talks and all that we do will generate the kind of interest in India, especially among the youth. Hope they get new role models and they also discover the prodigy that lies within them instead of always wanting to be like the three or four people they read about. I want each of them to figure out what’s great about them and pursue that.

If the journey is what matters, then whatever they take on would only matter. That would be nirvana for me.

YS: Thank you so much Lakshmi for a precursor on the INK conference. We hope it turns out to be hugely successfully like TED India.

Lakshmi: Thank you very much. We really need all the help and good wishes of everyone to make something like this successful in India on an annual basis.

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