The Hindu: Portal to connect strangers across continents

On January 12, Mumbai will get the country’s first ever magic box. A golden shipping container will stand at Azad Maidan, and people who walk in can communicate with someone thousands of miles away, as if they were standing in the same room with them.

The Mumbai Portal, as the box will be called, will connect people in the city to those in 20 other cities in the world till January 15. Immersive audiovisual technology in the portal’s interiors makes the ‘face-to-face interactions’ with strangers possible. At least five to six hours of interactions are planned for each day: a mix of programmed interactions and open hours for Mumbaikars.

The Portal is part of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. It has been created by Chlorophyll Innovation Labs and Shared_Studios, a New York-based arts, design and technology collective, and is supported by The Better India. For the project, a recycled shipping container was sourced locally, fitted with proprietary Shared_Studios technology, and artists from the JJ School of Art painted it. The process took 10 days.

The thread that links the marathon with the portal is “pushing boundaries of the human spirit,” says Chitresh Sinha, VP& Head, Innovation, Chlorophyll Innovation Labs. The programmed interactions – which include four to five pairings – look at bringing this out. So, for instance, actor John Abraham will talk to children in a refugee camp in Iraq who are using fitness to rebuild their lives. Saba Parveen, a girl who beat all odds to play football and coach underprivileged girls in Mumbra, will share her story and interact with girls in Afghanistan who are in similar environments but love football. Dharavi Rockers, a band formed in Asia’s largest slum pocket, will jam with a globally acclaimed percussion group from New York. “Magic unfolds when they connect as human beings and as individuals,” says Mr. Sinha.

There will also be open hours, where anyone can walk into the portal and connect to an arts zone or even a technology incubation centre somewhere else in the world.

The idea is to take these human interest stories and connect with people who these stories would inspire, or who would inspire others, adds Dilip Jayaram, CEO, Procam, promoter of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon.

Portals are essentially art installations initiated by Amar Bakshi, a former special assistant to the US ambassador to the United Nations and founder of Shared Studios. In 2014, the first portal connected citizens of New York City with strangers in Tehran. Participants signed up for 20-minute slots, stepped inside the portal, and were connected to strangers across the world. They were given a prompt: “What would make today a good day for you?” as the starting point of their conversation. The result: Artists collaborated on paintings and musical compositions, an Iranian American dancer performed live for his family in Tehran for the first time, and sixth grade students compared stories and experiences.

“After this experience, people began writing to us and asking, ‘how can I begin a portal in my city?’ As of end-January, we hope to have close to 30 all over the world,” says Jake Levin, Chief of Staff at Shared_Studios.

Over the past two years, there have been more than 25,000 conversations through portals, he says. Among these: A US military officer who served in Afghanistan speaking to a local Afghan man for the first time, or a woman in Washington DC who spoke to a teenager in Havana, Cuba, and realised she had grown up on the same street as he.

“Both sides benefit from these conversations. It also has potential in conflict, where people don’t get the opportunity to understand and change perspectives. It’s very difficult to maintain hatred if you are looking at someone in the eye. Ultimately, we hope to see a change in politics, relationships and perceptions,” says Mr. Levin. In September 2016, a portal was set up at the United Nations General Assembly for the Summit for Refugees and Migrants, wherein refugees in Jordan, Iraq and Berlin could directly share their experiences with diplomats.

At a larger level, the idea is to create more opportunities for interactions. While we live in the age of technology and communication, we are becoming more insulated, says Mr. Sinha. Apps like Facebook and Whatsapp have confined us to the same circle of people, to our small communities. “When you step out of your comfort zone and meet a stranger, that’s when the magic unfolds. You connect to people you wouldn’t normally meet.”

As Indians, we are not open to random conversations with strangers. But in a portal, where there is a contained experience, you will be comfortable with interactions, he says. The Mumbai Portal will also connect people magically brought together. Mr. Sinha says he came across Sangeetha Chakrapani online — she runs Together, which helps special children in Mumbai lead independent lives through baking. Quite by chance, he also found Sue Hoss in Iowa, US, who does exactly the same thing. The two will meet through the portal for the first time.

What the portal is doing at a global level, the marathon is doing for Mumbai and India, he says. “On one Sunday of the year we forget how we yell at each other in trains, we forget the sexual harassment that happens in Mumbai. The city comes together, big and small are in the same crowd, and everyone gets along with each other.”

Better still, there are those who will feel that if someone in a war-torn country could have overcome a challenge, so can they. “People have common fears, aspirations and dreams. Our problems, to us, often seem like the end of the world till we meet another.”