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PopTech: A Conference to Break Cynics

PopTech, the annual three-day meeting of innovators and do-gooders is a cynicism breaker.

Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech, introduces the 2011 conference's World Balancing theme to attendees in Camden, Me. (Photograph by Kris Krüg for PopTech)

Andrew Zolli, curator of PopTech, introduces the 2011 conference's World Balancing theme to attendees in Camden, Me. (Photograph by Kris Krüg for PopTech)

PopTech, the annual three-day meeting of innovators and do-gooders in Camden, Me., is a cynicism breaker—even for the most Hobbesian-minded person.

Founded 15 years ago by a group of Camden residents and technologists, including Robert Metcalfe (inventor of the Ethernet) and John Sculley (former CEO of Apple), PopTech has developed into a rare gathering. On the one hand, sure, 600 or so people listen to speakers, drink too much coffee, and exchange business cards. But because attendees hail from so many different fields—from science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities—there is what PopTech Curator Andrew Zolli calls a mashup effect, in which “genius is found in the white spaces.”

In another conference curator’s hands, PopTech would be a mess. How can you have Nils Gilman, whose latest book, Deviant Globalization, looks at the burgeoning global black market, on the same panel as marriage historian Stephanie Coontz and Aaron Shirley, the pioneering physician and health advocate from Mississippi? Because, argues Zolli, there are commonalities to problems. (And, if the commonalities aren’t obvious, Zolli, whose other job is a global foresight and innovation consultant, connects them.) Zolli’s and PopTech’s philosophy is that positive change remains locked in “silos of excellence,” and that innovation can come about better and quicker through interdisciplinary collaboration.

A good example of this is Sarah Fortune, an assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University. She was a 2010 PopTech Science and Public Policy Fellow, who at last year’s conference explained that image analysis was a barrier to her tuberculosis research. The volume of analysis she needed went well beyond what her lab or budget could handle. Josh Nesbit, CEO of Medic Mobile and a 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, heard Fortune’s call and connected her to Lukas Biewald, cofounder of CrowdFlower. Innovation found. CrowdFlower breaks large digital projects into small tasks and distributes them to workers around the world. Now Fortune’s image analysis process is faster, underscoring the potential of crowdsourcing scientific research.

This year’s theme at PopTech was “The World Rebalancing,” a highfalutin phrase that would make a firm cynic snicker. But no one disagreed with Zolli’s contention that “the first decade of the 21st century, if not the crappiest, has been a major contender. Really what we’re in is an in-between time, a transition from one phase to another.” This is happening not just in the United States, said Zolli, with its engulfment by terrorism, war, financial calamity, and political dysfunction, but around the world. He listed the economic rise of China, India, and Brazil as part of this rebalancing, as well as the environmental crises on the horizon.

There were too many fascinating people and their presentations at PopTech 2011 to mention in this article (81 in all), but here is a sample:

Ólafur Grímsson, Iceland’s president, took the stage to talk about his country’s period of rebalancing after the October 2008 banking meltdown and two consecutive volcanic eruptions. “Three years later,” said Grímsson, “our economic recovery is on its way. How did Iceland do it? What are the lessons?” Answer: comprehensive political and governmental reform, along with investment in clean energy. Not only did Iceland not pump public money into private banks, it underwent a complete overhaul of the country’s power structure, from government to banking to academia. “It was the will of the people,” said Grímsson, who credited social media for strengthening Icelanders’ reformist demands. As for the rest of the world, President Grímsson had this to say: “We are seeing a tectonic shift in the nature of our societies, transforming the balance between the market on one hand and democracy on the other ... The question now is: Which shall predominate?”

Aidan Dwyer, a 13-year-old from Wisconsin, presented the results of his nine-month after-school and weekend science experiment: a new approach to solar panels that earned him a 2011 Young Naturalist Award and Facebook requests from venture capitalists. Dwyer explained that the shapes of oak tree branches got him thinking about how light is absorbed, which led him to the number sequencing theory of Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, which led him to believe that a solar design modeled on the Fibonacci pattern would be better than a flat panel. So far, many people believe he is right. Dwyer’s tree-like solar arrays have the potential to gather more light when the sun is at low angles, they take up less room in urban areas, they are not as affected by shadows, and they do not collect dust and dirt as easily as the current flat panels.

Simon Hauger, an engineer turned inner city teacher, gave an inspiring talk about the power of project learning. Thirteen years ago, he founded an after-school program, called the Hybrid X Team, at West Philadelphia High School to engage students in science, math, and engineering. Not only did the team build hybrid vehicles, their cars outperformed similar vehicles from top universities and corporations. Since that time, Hauger has launched the Workshop School, a project-learning high school premised on the belief that most kids find school insanely boring. (Dwyer confirmed this was true.) Hauger’s faith in the curiosity and agility of young minds – and his insistence that education be interesting and fun – continues to pay off. Now the school has been tasked by the city of Philadelphia to figure out how to reduce energy use in buildings by 30 percent.

Amy Sun, a founding member of MIT’s Fab Lab program and director of its Jalalabad, Afghanistan branch, showed some amazing photographs of how Jalabad citizens created a WiFi network from junk: wire, a plastic tub, wood, and the like. The idea is to use found objects, or things that are reasonably available, instead of specialty made items. The Fab Lab program is a worldwide initiative now in its ninth year that brings volunteers like Sun (who has expertise in robotics, computer science, communications, energy, and “inane fun toys”) to places far from the technological cutting edge. Sun said one of the best things about the Fab labs is that people in very different places share their solutions. In the case of the Jalalabad WiFi network, it has been exported to other places in the country. “We are seeing village-to-village innovation,” said Sun.

US Navy Capt. Wayne Porter and Marines Col. Mark Mykleby wowed the PopTech 2011 audience with a summary of their groundbreaking article “A National Strategic Initiative”—but not before Mykleby made clear that none of their statements represented the views of the US military or government. Why the disclaimer? Porter and Mykleby explained that when it comes to American foreign policy, Washington has developed “institutional autism.” “We have strategies coming out the wazoo,” said Mykleby, “but we don’t have any overarching strategy. We wrote this because we want to talk about threat and risk, and stop talking about the past.” The officers argue that the United States has to move away from “containment”—the post-World War II strategy developed to contain the spread of communism—to what they call “sustainment” or “sustainability.” That will require an engagement with the world, not so much through military force but through the strength of the US’s educational system, social policies, international diplomacy, and commitment to sustainability practices in energy and agriculture.

Basically, PopTech was a feast for the intellect. Throughout, Zolli, a kind of Willy Wonka in the innovation factory, praised the presenters and plugged his organization’s yearlong efforts: its social innovation and science and public policy mentorship programs; its two labs, the Climate Resilience Lab and the Ecomaterials Innovation Lab; and its latest initiatives, such as PeaceTXT, a collaboration to use mobile technology to end violence. Next year, PopTech is taking its show on the road: In February, it will convene its Climate Resilience Lab in Nairobi, Kenya, and in June, it will hold a conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, to explore “resilience.” “PopTech,” said Zolli, “is a machine to change the world.”

Read more stories by Tamara Straus.

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COMMENTS

  • BY John Ohanian, CEO, 2-1-1 San Diego

    ON October 28, 2011 09:50 AM

    I attended Pop!Tech last year and this year, and completely agree that Pop!Tech is a machine to change the world.  After spending 3 days listening to very inspiring and “eye opening” speakers, I found myself believing that, although times are difficult for so many people, there is much to be hopeful for.  With challenges come great opportunities for our emerging leaders to look at the world differently, and inspire people to come together to bring about change!  Looking forward to next year in Iceland and Camden.

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