Kolkata 4.0: How To Change A Culture?

It is easy to overestimate the potential impact of urban development initiatives, public or private. Because as high level concepts, we delve in a culture-free world, assuming that everyone will do what makes best economic sense; or, more accurately, we treat those who wouldn't pursue economic prosperity as outliers - oddballs - and keep them outside our calculations. But this is where culture gets in the way of our best intentions. More so, if a City needs regeneration, at the heart of the problem there is, more often than not, a 'culture trap', a negative feedback cycle of despair and denial. Any effort of new thinking must acknowledge the cultural challenges first and foremost.

But while culture is important, it is also hard to change. A culture emerges and solidifies over time, and it is inherent in assumptions and behaviours of a given people, hard to scrub out with a few conferences here and there. This is the other mistake well-meaning initiatives often make - they acknowledge the cultural challenge but undermine the true extent of it - perhaps because the alternative, accepting that culture can change only very slowly, makes the initiative itself look meaningless.

For a regeneration of Kolkata, 'culture' makes a particularly interesting topic. First of all, 'culture', as it understood in the context, is seen as a strength and not a weakness. And, even if we use the term in its broader, behavioural, sense, the lack of 'money-mindedness' (or business culture) can be seen as essential to the creative energies of the city. Those economists and researchers who study innovation know that outcome-orientedness hinders, rather than fostering, innovation. Many of the greatest leaps of civilisation have come from hobbyists, and at the core of creativity remains playfulness. And, in fact, the culture of playfulness and creativity may be of greater importance now than ever before.

The point is not to deny the importance of culture but assess clearly the difficulty both of defining what is desirable and of effecting real change. In fact, in an urban regeneration project, we have to be forward-looking, which makes the task more complex: One has to define what will be desirable several years hence, and look for ways to promote that.

From that perspective, we perhaps know what may be needed in Kolkata. One has to leverage the strengths of playfulness and creativity, but break the dichotomy of work and play, creativity and career. The sphere of work for Bengali middle class is narrowly defined: The early beneficiaries of English Education can not just let go the comforts of a Babu-life, even after the Raj has long disappeared. The minds of the generation of Patriarchs of today are shaped by that heritage, as well as promises and prospects of middle class life of the pre-liberalisation India; its memories, of predictable careers and genteel work, are still afresh. The new work - that of Brand-You, Continuous Learning and thrills and terrors of continuous change - has to be understood and celebrated; its promises need to be embraced and combined with the creative and generative spirits of the young and the curious.

We should be well-aware that there is no quick win here. And, besides, the path to cultural change is often oblique. It is more about building awareness and creating models. That soft cultural narrative that goes with Kolkata is only part of the story: In fact, it crowds out the other narratives and possibilities, like Kolkata's manufacturing tradition, the enterprise of Bengalis and Non-Bengalis of Kolkata, stories of migration of its people, not just to other Indian cities but world over. Making these stories mainstream, side by side with the cultural and educational achievements in the glory days of Bengal Awakening, would be an important step in the process.

And, indeed, one would have to go beyond this, though the limited scope of Kolkata 4.0 can cover this is debatable. Some possibilities we have discussed is creating a Leadership Boot-camp for school kids, and Industry 4.0 Camps in schools, which may be part of K4.0 or an independent business by itself. The change of culture starts with conversations and commitments: K4.0 would surely kick-start the conversation and create a platform where such developments can take place.

 


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