PopTech Blog

Groundbreaking artists, space engineer, skateboarder to speak at ‘Sparks’

PopTech is announcing a riveting slate of new speakers who will take the stage at this year’s convening in Camden, Maine. Among the presenters is an artist who has rocked the art world using only simple black and white, the engineer who navigated Mars Rover Curiosity’s “7 Minutes of Terror” descent to the red planet, a spellbinding songwriter who plays the Indian harmonium, one of the world’s most influential skateboarders, and a gamer who pioneered the use of location technology and cross-platform gaming.


The groundbreaking speakers are curated to cleave to PopTech’s 2013 theme, “Sparks of Brilliance,” an exploration of the nature of creativity itself. The conversation will be facilitated by randomly assigned lunches, wine and cheese gatherings and meetups.

The PopTech team is also currently putting together adventures for a new feature for this year’s gathering, which will be held October 24-26. On Saturday, October 26, attendees will be invited to exercise the creative energy generated at “Sparks” by enjoying an immersion activity unique to picturesque Midcoast Maine in autumn. Sail on a wooden schooner, explore a sustainable island farm, or make traditional Maine seafood chowder. More immersions will be announced soon. See you in Camden!

PopTech unveils first speakers for 'Sparks of Brilliance'

PopTech is thrilled to announce the first raft of speakers who will be joining us at our annual convening in Camden, Maine in October. The musicians, engineers and artists are all carefully curated to fit this year's theme: “Sparks of Brilliance,” a vivid exploration of the nature of creativity itself.

2013 speakers

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson are among our spectacular speakers to take the stage in Camden. They are the duo who designed the world’s first human-powered flapping-wing aircraft. Artist Helen Marriage will share her insights about staging sweeping, city-scale events, and Zach Lieberman will show how he creates visual interpretations of sound and speech. A groundbreaking psychologist, an unconventional musician, a music engineer, an improvisational performer and an international advocate will join them this fall.  

This year’s conference also features a new twist to the agenda. On Saturday, Oct. 26, PopTech participants will enjoy the opportunity to enrich their experience and choose from a series of intimate, hands-on immersion adventures unique to beautiful Midcoast Maine. Enjoy an antique schooner sail, go for a hike in the mountains overlooking the sea, visit a sustainable island farm or learn how to make traditional Maine chowder! The current adventures offer a taste of what is to come, more immersions will be added as the conference nears. Exercise the creative spirit generated from “Sparks.” See you in Camden.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras who helped bring Edward Snowden's secrets to light

Laura Poitras (PopTech 2010) is a filmmaker who has chronicled America's drift since 9-11 to war-weary nation and surveillance state. She was also instrumental in bringing to light the secrets of Edward Snowden, who has leaked a raft of documents and data on American electronic spying that has rocked the U.S. intelligence apparatus and sparked fresh debate about the balance between intelligence gathering and civil liberties. 


Poitras is now the subject of a lengthy New York Times Magazine article that details her interactions with Snowden from the start, showing how they first engaged in cautious, skeptical online contact and later collaborated to bring to light a huge story.

Poitras has also been the subject of relentless government surveillance as well as something akin to harassment as she has traveled to and from the United States. "The work is widely out there," she said about her groundbreaking documentaries. "It is known in the field. It has also attracted the attention of the U.S. government."

Snowden photo by zennie62

2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows Announced

By Andrew Zolli, PopTech and Robert Garris, Rockefeller Foundation

This August in Bellagio, Italy, the Rockefeller Foundation and PopTech are bringing together a group of select Fellows to participate in the inaugural offering of a unique collaborative incubator focused on topics relevant to the lives of poor and vulnerable populations. The Bellagio/PopTech Fellows program will also serve as a laboratory for the study of the nature of collaboration itself as a profound tool for creative problem-solving and solution development.

We are pleased to announce the first class of Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, who will focus on how data science and technology can contribute to the creation of more resilient communities.

Bellagio Fellows

An ever-expanding human footprint has precipitated increasing challenges in public health, climate adaptation, social policy, ecology, resource planning and urbanization. This is also a moment of breathtaking expansion of new data sources and insights that might improve our resilience in the face of those threats­, unleashing new potential to design systems that persist, recover or even thrive amid disruption. Large, complex data sets, collectively referred to as big data, are at the fore of this trend.

Big data’s potential is certainly real: Researchers at IBM suggest that advances in IT have been so dramatic that we now produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day; an astounding 90 percent of all of the data in existence was created in the last two years alone.

But the reality of harnessing data’s power is much more nuanced. Data literacy generally lags far behind the ability to produce it. Big data’s promise hinges on questions about the production, ownership, openness, veracity, social life and limits of big data. In such an environment, how do we avoid making poor inferences or drowning in information overload? How do we socialize the right mindsets and behaviors?

The 2013 Bellagio/PopTech Fellows, made up of key innovators in the fields of data and computer science, the arts, and the humanitarian and ecological spheres, will explore these questions and begin the path to practical answers. Our goal is to bring new ideas and opportunities to bear on the practical intersection of these two major themes of the day, big data and resilience.

The Fellows will meet for two weeks in late August, and benefit from visits by several “catalysts” to further spur their thinking. We hope that this gathering of eclectic minds will result in unconventional breakthroughs. 

A salon for improving financial inclusion in the U.S.

On Sept. 17, 2013, with the support of Serve from American Express and Innovations for Poverty Action, PopTech will bring together a select group of financial experts, technologists, behavioral scientists, antipoverty activists and social innovators to explore new ways to improve the financial lives of unbanked, under-banked and unhappily banked Americans.

The Innovation for Financial Inclusion Salon will convene at Yale for a daylong series of presentations and collaborative discussions, capped by an evening lecture event open to the Yale community.

Financial stratification over the past 40 years has resulted in a growing banking crisis for some Americans. More than 10 million U.S. households – 1 in 12 – don’t have an account with an insured, traditional bank, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Add the under-banked – those without checking accounts – and the figure rises to 28.3 percent of U.S. households, more than 68 million people.

The United States can learn from the developing world, where in some places the unbanked are now utilizing novel financial services innovations. Often these new financial tools are available in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, where regulatory barriers to entry are typically low. The Internet and mobile technologies have transformed the way consumers interact with information, and with each other, and have reshaped ideas about what money is and how it is transacted.

There are powerful ideas for new approaches to serve the unbanked and under-banked in the United States. In spite of significant regulatory compliance barriers, financial innovators are developing new forms of payments, transfers and stored value for new kinds of commitment savings and micro lending products.

There is also a deep behavioral revolution underway in the social sciences. New research tools are revealing the critical psychological dynamics that are essential to making these products work. Among other things, this research guides the design of incentives to ensure cognitive investment and provoke behavioral contagion to help these products spread from person to person.

The Salon will include participants from the financial services, emerging technologies and behavior science sectors, along with relevant international participants, to explore new potential pathways and points of collaboration. We hope this convening and our related efforts will accelerate awareness and galvanize action around significant social innovation opportunities.

Photo Credit: fpsurgeon via Compfight cc

A taste of exploring creativity at 'Sparks of Brilliance'

Some previous speakers at PopTech convenings have already started the exploration of creativity that will be the focus of this year's conference in Camden. Whether it is probing the basic concept of form in the field of design, researching the creative process by breaking down modern inventions into their components, or mapping the brain, the nature of creativity has always been a rich vein of interest in the PopTech community.   

PopTech's 2013 "Sparks of Brilliance" conference is currently being carefully curated to dive deeply into that pool of thought and research. The format will include presentations and discussions about the latest science on the creative mind and how technology creates new platforms for creative connection. 

Some of the most riveting presentations about creativity from the past several years hint at the likely flavor of "Sparks," though this conference will chart its own course. 

Neri Oxman (PopTech 2009) explores the nature of the design process. She is particularly interested in products that mimic the multi-functionality and customization of nature, like building materials that both support a structure and transmit heat and light. "For many years I have been asking myself this one simple question," she said in her talk. "What is the origin of form?"

Thomas Thwaites (PopTech 2011) became so interested in the process of invention, design and construction that he decided to go backwards in time and technology. He built his own toaster — meaning he went out to a mine to gather iron ore and forged plastic and made copper wire to build the 400 parts that make up a modern toaster. 

Sebastian Seung (PopTech 2010 salon speaker) is working on mapping the connectome, a chart of the 100-billon neurons and ten times that many connections between those neurons in the human brain. That guide to how that system operates will expose how our genetic makeup and our experiences blend to mold our thoughts and personalities. 

These thought leaders are pioneering 21st Century explorations into the nature of creativity. And it is only a small taste of what is likely to come at "Sparks." See you there

Great, diverse minds gather for 'The City Resilient' design charrette

City Resilient

A diverse, multi-disciplinary crowd gathered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 25 for a daylong design charrette and intense brainstorming as part of PopTech's 'The City Resilient' event, made possible by The Rockefeller Foundation. Around 100 technologists, community activists, landscape architects and other experts participated in the workshop, which included small group discussions and exercises designed to spark creative thinking around the concept of urban resilience. 

This was no ordinary crowd: The diversity and intellectual horsepower at BAM Tuesday was exceptional. It's a remarkable thing to have a coastal environment official,  an urban forestry guru, a hyper-local community activist, and a compassion researcher all sitting around the same table discussing the best way for a community to respond to a hurricane, or a dirty bomb or other disruption. The whole gathering was like that. 

City resilient

The day started with a brainstorming session managed by the Pomegranate Center's Milenko Matanovic. Matanovic posed a question: "What do you think are critical elements of neighborhood resilience?"

Participants responded by developing a list of 66 elements. Examples from that list: social capital; volunteerism; ownership; knowledge retention across generations; communication within and between neighborhoods; access to resources; humor and play; trust action and compassion; diversity; and, people who act as nodes.

The event also included breakout sessions managed by frog in which groups of 6 to 8 participants worked for hours to develop new ideas for how a hypothetical city could respond to a disaster. In one exercise, for example, the made-up coastal town of Faraway Beach, population 100,000, is struck by killer storm Hurricane Hartmut. The scenarios were further complicated by the addition of "slow" disruptors, like economic collapse. 

This precipitated a flurry of small-group discussions about specific proposals for preparing for and then dealing with the chaos that follows major disruptions of the kind that are only likely to increase in frequency and severity over the next century. Participants considered how to communicate when electricity and technology are gone. People weighed how to forge and utilize relationships across communities, rather than just in them. And they brainstormed how to get a community to enthusiastically embrace disaster preparedness — by making that preparation fun.

It was all part of a discussion that has just begun. Matanovic told the participants, "We know the journey is not complete, but you have done an amazing amount of work."

Photos by PopTech.

At 'The City Resilient,' systems for handling change

Hundreds of participants gathered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater on June 24 for PopTech's 'The City Resilient,' a day-long exploration of the diffuse and increasing threats to cities and communities around the world. The event also featured a full day of presentations and Q&As that tugged at strands in the tangle of strategies designed to make cities more resilient.

It started with an honest and sometimes frightening accounting of the risks. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin joined a number of speakers in delivering a sobering account of the trends facing cities. When the Rockefeller Foundation opened in 1913, 1 in 10 people around the world lived in cities. Now half of us do. By 2050, around 75 percent of humanity will live in urban areas.  

Those mega-cities will face greater risks from global challenges like climate change. And disruptions will metastasize, as cities become more interwoven as a result of globalization. Rodin said 'The City Resilient' wasn't about rebuilding after disasters like Superstorm Sandy, an example that dominated much of the discussion Monday, but more about the systems that will better prepare cities for the next challenge. "We have to build back stronger and smarter,” she said. (Nancy Kete, who leads the Foundation’s global work on resilience, also moderated a panel that further explored those issues.)

This scary era of increasing threats may already be upon us. Dr. Irwin Redlener, who is the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, examined nine major disasters over a 215 day period starting in late 2012, including Superstorm Sandy, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings and horrendous tornadoes in Oklahoma.

Irwin Redlener

Redlener says we are not doing well. He described recovery efforts in general over the past decade as often "very, very slow and painful." He said in some ways that U.S. disaster recovery efforts are strangely backward, leaving victims to muddle through a complicated web of efforts that are supposed to help them. "We have actually put people who have suffered in a disaster setting the stage as the coordinator of their own recovery," he noted. "And this is an impossible situation.”

So what works? The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs early Monday released a new poll conducted among people in communities hit by Sandy that showed just how much they valued friends and family — the immediate community — before during and after the storm. (The Center's Director Trevor Tompson discussed the new findings from the stage at 'The City Resilient.')

Peter Durandt

Those survey results were widely reflected in the research of some of the speakers Monday as well as community and local government officials on stage that day from communities hit hard by one major disaster or another. Robert Sampson, who conducted a decade of research about community resilience in Chicago, said that resilient neighborhoods have a strong social fabric — what he called "collective efficacy." This can be measured in a series of factors like how much people know and trust their neighbors or by the prevalence of nonprofits and other community organizations in a neighborhood. "These kinds of networks vary tremendously," he explained. "We can measure them."


Other speakers broke down the building blocks of resiliency all the way down to the personal level. David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University who conducts research on how to provoke compassion and altruism. His research shows how simple cooperative activities in a laboratory like having strangers pounding on a table together in a rhythm made tremendous impact on how likely his subjects were to behave altruistically towards each other. His research also shows that mediation also has a dramatic impact on provoking compassion.

Erika Svendsen

And some experienced civic leaders echoed similar sentiments about breaking resilience down to the level of the individual in the community. "When we talk about resiliency, it is about people," said LaToya Cantrell, a New Orleans City Council representative who fought to re-establish damaged areas after Hurricane Katrina. Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken New Jersey, which was flooded in Sandy, agreed. "The core of being prepared is preparedness for the individual."

But it is also about physical systems. Landscape architects, designers and technology researchers took the stage at BAM to explore everything from designing Internet and cell-phone technology in interconnected "web" formations to resist outages to mixing man-made infrastructure and natural infrastrcture along coastline to better cope with storms. Hopefully it can all be woven together into a tapestry to be ready for the increasing threats to come. 

Photo by PopTech

A new poll shows the value of community in a disaster

In a major disruption it is family, friends and neighbors that seem to matter the most. A new survey of people in areas impacted by Superstorm Sandy shows that they found those in their immediate community to be most helpful before, during and after the storm. Only seven percent of those surveyed said the storm brought out the worst in their neighbors. 

Aid organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army as well as first responders were also considered particularly helpful in Sandy's wake. But state and federal governments as well as utility companies polled relatively poorly. Sadly, the poll also showed that the impact of the storm continues to disrupt the daily lives and social relationships of people in many communities affected by Sandy. 

City Resilient

The survey of more than 2,000 people in neighborhoods hit hard by Sandy was conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a partner in PopTech's "The City Resilient," a summit on community resilience held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on June 24. "Our survey data powerfully illustrate how important the help of friends, family and neighbors can be in getting people back on their feet after natural disasters," AP-NORC Center Director Trevor Tompson said of the data. Tompson is also a speaker at "The City Resilient." 

Photo credit for front-page fire hydrant photo: Czarsy via Compfight cc

Astrid Scholz brings green, smart development to 'The City Resilient'

Like all PopTech audiences, the crowd attending the upcoming event, "The City Resilient," will be filled with people of extraordinary talent and knowledge. As examples, PopTech asked a handful of these thought leaders to answer three questions about their work and their views on community resilience. Here is Dr. Astrid Scholz, President of Ecotrust.

Please briefly describe your work and your typical working day.

My typical working day changed quite a bit in December of last year, when I stepped into the role of President of Ecotrust, a 22-year-old organization based in Portland, Oregon working at the intersection of social, economic, and environmental change. We are working to foster the resilience of systems that are critical to our wellbeing, such as Food and Farms, Forests, Fisheries, Finance, and the Built Environment, to name a few. I lead a staff of 65 with deep sectoral expertise in these areas, as well as in cross-cutting disciplines—economic analysis, creative finance, mapping, GIS, software development, and storytelling.

Astrid Scholz

We are a hybrid organization, using a mix of for-profit and nonprofit initiatives to drive transformative change in the region where we live and work. We believe that resilient solutions arise from the intimate relationship between people and the places where they live, and the specific characteristics of the natural, social and environmental assets of those places. Building on those relationships, we work on disruptive institutional innovations, which we then try to scale through the use of public, private, and philanthropic capital.

While our work is grounded in the region where we live, we recognize that the challenges we face in the 21st century are global in nature. So we see our home as a living laboratory, where we experiment and prove out resilience approaches that we are now more actively working to share with other regions, and to learn from them as part of a larger community of resilience practitioners. 


How does your work relate to efforts to build resilient communities?

At its core, resilience is the capacity to influence and adapt to change. Creating resilient communities involves the adoption of principles and practices that foster that capacity, especially with an understanding of specific social, economic, or ecological vulnerabilities that a particular community might face. In our recent report, Resilience and Transformation, we describe this approach, and how it requires a shift from top-down community development models that are geared toward goal-oriented outcomes to one that recognizes the need for cultivating new dynamic, bottom-up institutional models that embody resilience principles and address vulnerabilities at multiple scales.

In addition to programmatic initiatives, Ecotrust works to deploy creative financing through our working endowment (the Natural Capital Fund) and other sources of catalytic capital (such as New Markets Tax Credits) to invest in early-stage innovations that are building resilience in our urban and rural environments. For example, we made an early investment in Seattle’s new Bullitt Center, which aspires to be the world’s first commercial “living building.”

Another example is our work on FoodHub, an online marketplace for connecting wholesale producers and buyers of local food. It is a critical piece in the puzzle of imagining regional food systems, helping create new value chains by facilitating the connections between local growers and large buyers such as schools and hospitals, and laying the groundwork for the needed aggregation and distribution infrastructure.  


Please describe one key principle for building resilient communities.  

One of the core design principles we recognize for building resilient communities is the cultivation of rich and highly networked relationships. Rich and diverse relationships allow for the development of social capital, local and regional self-reliance, and robust feedback loops that allow for learning and adaptation. We start by asking how these relationships might better support the viability of local and regional economies; how they can more openly and broadly share information? We believe that building robust networks for learning, with rich feedback loops will allow us to respond and innovate more quickly in the face of increasing challenges and change.

 A couple of years ago we commissioned an artist to illustrate what we are after, and literally paint a picture of the resilient economies towards which we are working.