PopTech Blog

PopTech 2013 stage talks now at your fingertips

It's a happy Wednesday! All of the stage talks you heard at the PopTech 2013 conference just a few weeks ago are now available online. Like what you see? Join us at PopTech 2014 next October

Community takes center stage in ‘The City Resilient’ Edition

The latest PopTech Edition focuses on community as the central element in this deep examination of the tenets of urban resilience. PopTech is releasing this Edition to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy slamming into the East Coast.

This collection of in-depth articles and videos examines the basic definitions that help us study resilience, explores common attributes of communities that seem to bounce back and it begins to unpack some of the key cutting-edge techniques and technologies in the field.

Peter Durand's City Resilient

While community is the nucleus of this Edition, the constellation of information brought to that concept is markedly diverse. The opinions come from a distinctly multi-disciplinary panel of experts in an effort to bring the broadest possible aperture to subject matter that is pressing, complicated and difficult to define and measure.

The format varies widely as well. “The City Resilient: Enabling communities to bound back” is a formidable blend of videos of prepared talks, interviews and short documentary films, as well as written pieces submitted by outside writers and text profiles of a handful of provocative resilience innovators.

Brooklyn Children's Choir

The videos and articles attempt to examine such fundamental issues as the definition of community in the 21st century and how to measure resilience. The authors and speakers delve into the preparation, response and recovery from sudden, intense disasters like killer storms, as well as slower, creeping afflictions like economic decline. And finally, the group of experts weighs the best ways to manage the complex web of overlapping authorities and institutions before, during and after a crisis.

Each PopTech Edition explores an emerging theme from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. This particular Edition grew out of an urban resilience summit by PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June 2013. Please enjoy PopTech’s fourth Edition, “The City Resilient.”

At PopTech: Immersions for creativity of all kinds

Day three of PopTech consisted of a series of  “immersions,” opportunities to engage in structured discussions on pressing topics of innovation, study the creative process with a pair of skilled artists, or go out on a selection of Maine-oriented activities from sailing to chowder making.

In one of these immersions, Artist Shantell Martin and self-described “nerd artist researcher hacker” Zach Lieberman invited a small group of around 10 PopTech attendees to explore the creative process and work on a series of exercises to provoke visual creativity. Gathering in a sunlit room of the historic Camden Opera House, the pair spent two hours discussing creativity, drawing, instructing and talking.

At work at PopTech's art immersion

Lieberman described the instruction as “exercises around conditional design.” They began with simple tasks of collaborative drawing using only straight lines and dots, and then into creating drawings out of one long, continuous line. “Lines can tell us where we come from. Lines can tell us where we are going,” Lieberman said. “I think there is something really beautiful about an infinite line.”

PopTech attendees learning new techniques

Martin shared an intimate treat with the small class. She invited the participants into a large room hung with tall sheets of white paper. She then created one of her trademark, large-scale black-and-white drawings using thick black magic marker.

Shantell Martin shares some secrets

The whole time, Martin described what she was doing, what she was thinking and invited the clearly enthralled audience to ask whatever they liked about the process. “Thinking that you are finished and feeling like you are finished are two different things,” she explained near the end of her work.

Shantell Martin at work

The immersions were the last wrinkle in “Sparks of Brilliance.” See you next year in Camden.

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: A deep dive into creativity on day two

Day two of PopTech 2013 featured a deep dive into the mysterious origins of creativity inside the human brain and some examination of creativity in fields as diverse as science, medicine, photography and business.

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman is working to unravel some of those mysterious origins. He is deeply immersed in research that is rapidly mapping out the creative process inside the human brain with the help of brain scanning equipment. Kaufman explored with the Camden audience the specific portions of the brain that activate and deactivate during creativity and how those patterns differ in some highly creative people.

Scott Barry Kaufman

The precuneous, for example, is a region of the brain heavily involved in “looking in,” or producing and following thoughts such as daydreams or thinking about the future. Other parts of the brain are “looking out,” or paying attention to the outside world as we go about our business.

For most of us, our brains concentrate largely on one or the other. “The more that you are focusing on your inner stream of chatter, you are oblivious to what is going on out there,” Kaufman explained as an example.

But brain scans of particularly creative people show they are actually doing more of both at the same time. They are able to “simultaneously activate these two brain networks,” Kaufman said.

Just as deeply as Kaufman is interested in some of the good things going on inside our brains, brain cancer researcher Jim Olson has come up with some potentially revolutionary ways of getting something bad out: cancer.

Jim Olson

Olson has invented “tumor paint,” that lights up cancer cells, showing surgeons precisely what to cut out while leaving healthy cells in place. The paint is based on the venom of a scorpion and is 100,000 times more sensitive than an MRI in detecting cancer cells.

Tumor paint illuminates brain, prostate, breast, colon, skin and other cancers and human clinical trials are set to begin in Australia late this year. “In a few years, surgeons will have a hard time going back to surgery as they have done it in the past,” he said.

A series of speakers also brought the Camden audience along on an exploration of some of the creative processes at work in a variety of other fields.

Photographer Adam Magyar develops ingenious digital camera systems and employs high-tech, digital tools adapted from industrial applications. He is particularly interested in urban environments and city dwellers. His riveting work transforms otherwise mundane situations into compelling and magical images. “I was always interested in the rest — the unimportant moments,” he told the audience. ‘I always capture a lot of details. I love details.”

Adam Magyar

Similarly David Robertson, a professor at the Wharton School, used the history of innovation at LEGO to show how creativity sometimes needs boundaries to excel. At LEGO, this has meant disciplined market research before inventing new toys and forcing designers to work within relatively strict parameters.

David Robertson

Robertson admits that the trick is knowing how much to let business creativity bloom and how much to set some limits. “It is a hard balance. A lot of companies get it wrong,” he admitted. LEGO is getting it right. Profits are soaring.

Lisa Servon, who conducts research on urban poverty, community development and economic development, brings hands-on creativity to her work trying to develop financial tools that are useful to poorer Americans. Part of that work has involved Servon working at a check-cashing facility in the Bronx. “Poor people know best what they need,” she said. “It is not the policy makers and the researchers.”

Lisa Servon

They joined a full slate of speakers and PopTech Fellows who took the stage in Camden to help the audience better understand the creative process in all its glory. See you next year in Camden.

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: Communities, data, and ethical resilience

How could communities make better use of big data to enhance their resilience?

The six Bellagio/PopTech Fellows convened this past August at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center to look deeply at how data can help communities bounce back in the face of key stresses — environmental, political, social and economic.

Bellagio Fellows

Building on their multidisciplinary backgrounds, and spurred on by several catalysts, the Fellows created a fresh approach that emphasizes ethics as a central — and often overlooked — factor.

Today, at PopTech, the Fellows announced “Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action,” which outlines the interplay of six key domains, including ethics, governance, science, technology, place and sociocultural context.

The framework is already generating original ideas on how communities can more appropriately sense, analyze and utilize data, while respecting the autonomy and privacy of community members. We are excited to share the Fellows’ vision, and look forward to the practical applications that are beginning to emerge.  

At PopTech: Violence interruption leveraged by mobile phones

A raft of data supports the public health approach to preventing violence and cultivating peace. Treating violence like a communicable disease that spreads rapidly among people and groups provides a proven effective stratagem for tracking and interrupting an outbreak and preventing further spread.

For years, those kinds of violence interdiction efforts have utilized “boots on the ground,” relying mostly on the physical efforts of trained personnel who go out to trouble spots and leverage their local knowledge and contacts in communities to help tamp down outbreaks of violence or prevent it in the first place.

In March, just five years after vicious post-election violence rattled Kenya, a similar contagion-style effort was employed there during and after elections, which this time proceeded peacefully for a variety of reasons. But there was a twist in this violence prevention effort: It may have been the first time that mobile phones were used to expand the reach and impact of the disease-control approach to preventing violence.

That exercise included a hybrid of research in the field long before the elections, personal networking in tandem with the use of mobile phones, sharp discipline in the vetting of intelligence on potential violence, and careful diligence in text messaging. These techniques may provide an invaluable blueprint if that high-tech violence-interruption model goes to scale at other locations around the world.

PeaceTXT is a PopTech-initiated collaborative effort to understand how new communication technologies can be integrated with face-to-face violence prevention to reach scale. PeaceTXT is a cooperative endeavor that began by looking at how the mobile phone might be used as a fulcrum in PeaceTXT partner CureViolence’s approach to violence prevention. CureViolence worked in Chicago to explore the possibility of using text messaging to amplify their approach and to identify possible communications mediums that could be used for violence prevention.


Sisi ni Amani Kenya is an organization founded specifically to enhance local peace-building in Kenya with a text-message-based approach to civic education and violence prevention, and received support from PeaceTXT to further develop and scale its model.  The program also relies heavily on the technological expertise of the Praekelt Foundation, Medic Mobile and QCRI.

During the 2013 elections, Sisi Ni Amani implemented its programming on the ground and across mobile networks. The organization was established, in part, in response to the devastatingly effective use of mobile phones in 2007 to spread rumors and stoke political violence. “If our approach to using mobile technology is modeled after anything, it is from the people who wanted to cause violence in 2007, and did it really effectively,” said Founder Rachel Brown.

Rachel Brown

But members of the Sisi Ni Amani team emphasize that local intelligence, networking and knowledge were every bit as important as the use of the mobile technology, and that the messages might have been useless — or worse, potentially inflammatory — without it. “Some of the places where we are working, we have lived there,” explained George Ooko, one of the Sisi Ni Amani coordinators who spent the election season embedded in Kenyan neighborhoods armed with a cell phone, three extra cell phone batteries and a spare charger.

When text messages are sent, they have to be carefully formulated to consider local language and mores. Each 160-word text, in fact, is vetted by a small group of local volunteers before it is sent, in order to maximize impact and minimize the risk of untoward results. “You have to be very careful which word you use,” said Ooko, who is attending PopTech in Camden. (Sisi Ni Amani also relies on deep local knowledge to carefully vet incoming intelligence on potential violence through a variety of sources.)

The texting that did take place was also highly disciplined and targeted. Messages could be sent to users in specific geographic areas, allowing messages to be tailored for particular threats and using language most likely to prove effective to a niche audience. Sisi Ni Amani also learned some valuable lessons about limiting overall messages to avoid overload, and sending messages at the most effective times of day.

But surprisingly, Ooko and his colleagues say that one of the most important facets of their election work was determining when not to send a text. Mary Njambi, another Sisi Ni Amani coordinator attending PopTech, described receiving reports from voters who said they were being locked out of a voting facility. In that case, Sisi Ni Amani decided it was better to contact local elections officials directly, and no text was needed. In other cases, the organization delivered intelligence directly to police. “You shouldn’t always send a message,” Njambi said.

All of that discipline may have helped, and Sisi Ni Amani’s statistics from the election are impressive. Around 65,000 Kenyans signed up to receive messages during the elections. The group sent out more than 680,000 text messages during the election season. A Sisi Ni Amani post-election survey showed that 46 percent of respondents forwarded a Sisi Ni Amani message to others. Around 85 percent of respondents reported talking with others about messages, and 92 percent reported that the messages had a positive impact.  

PeaceTXT is an effort that grew out of a markedly diverse group of collaborators. CureViolence, for example, early on dispatched their international director to Nairobi to help Sisi Ni Amani incorporate the disease-control model into their high-tech hybrid. “We had a disease-control approach, the same as you would have for tuberculosis, cholera or AIDS,” said Josh Gryniewicz, the director of communications at CureViolence. “How do we amplify the work? That is here SMS came in.”

Gryniewicz also acknowledged PopTech’s leadership spearheading the work of PeaceTXT over the last several years. “None of this would have happened without PopTech,” he said.

PeaceTXT will be sharing its experiences and methodologies in the coming months and will continue to work toward the development of an integrated model of violence interruption and prevention that builds on the success of the early work in Chicago and Kenya.

At PopTech: Impact Fund will assist remote health care effort

Josh Nesbit, a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2009, pioneered the use of mobile phones for health care in a remote region of Malawi. He then went on to co-found Medic Mobile, which is bringing these innovations to broader parts of the developing world. The model features a central clinic laptop running FrontlineSMS software, enabling community health workers to use mobile phones to coordinate patient care.

Josh Nesbit

Raj Panjabi was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow the next year, in 2010. He co-founded Last Mile Health, which forges innovative partnerships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities. The model features dispatching community health workers trained to treat patients in remote locations.

Raj Panjabi

At PopTech’s annual convening in Camden this year, it was announced that the pair are the first to receive support from the PopTech Impact Fund — a program committed to leveraging resources and providing small catalyst investments that seed new initiatives that have high potential for disruptive impact. It is one of the ways PopTech nurtures its network of change agents and precipitates collaborative endeavors.

 Through the Fund, Nesbit and Panjabi plan to combine the power of their two programs. The idea is to equip Panjabi’s remote community health care workers with the technological tools utilized in Nesbit’s program. This has the potential to dramatically improve the delivery of health care by providing those health care workers with virtual access to medical expertise and coordinating capabilities they would not otherwise have in remote locations. “Do we have the moral imagination to make things better?” Nesbit asked the Camden crowd. And Panjabi seemed to answer: “We have a chance right now to change the way an entire country cares for its people in the most remote areas.”

At PopTech: The courage to summon creativity

Courage was a common theme expressed on the first day of PopTech’s 2013 gathering, “Sparks of Brilliance,” a convening to explore the nature of creativity. Athletes, artists and engineers all described overcoming fear as an integral — even paramount — component of the creative process. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of physical pain.

Rodney Mullen is a legend among street skaters. He invented most of the tricks in any great skateboarder’s toolbox: the flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip.

And his body has paid the price. At times in his life, Mullen has had so much scar tissue in his hip joints it has impaired his ability to walk. He showed the Camden audience some frightening videos of skaters going down in some horrific, frightening wrecks. “This may come as a surprise to you,” Mullen joked. “Skateboarding can be hard on the body.”


But he insisted that the courage and tenacity to get back up, continue trying and continue inventing despite fear and physical pain was a part of coming up with new stunts and continuously improving. “What we do as skateboarders is we fall. We get back up and we fall,” Mullen explained. “There is a correlation between overcoming, resilience, drive and success.”

For Mullen, the creative process also includes relaxing the mind and ignoring any conventional wisdom that says something can’t be done or achieved. “The biggest obstacle to creativity is piercing through this obstacle of disbelief,” he told the Camden audience.

Helen Marriage is a co-director of Artichoke, a creative company, which she founded with Nicky Webb in 2005. Artichoke enables artists to create breathtaking, city-wide art installations that she calls, “large-scale public interventions.”

Helen Marriage

For example, “The Sultan’s Elephant” in May 2006 was the largest free theater ever seen in downtown London. It included a giant, 42-ton mechanical elephant, joined by a 20-foot tall girl, that entertained audiences for four days with sprays of water and rides. 

Marriage is mesmerized by the transformation of public spaces into theaters for shared artistic experiences. “The point is the brilliance of these artists in reimagining our world,” she says

But some of her job is surprisingly mundane: She has to convince public bureaucrats — transportation officials, police, public administrators — to agree to allow these huge interventions to move forward. Mostly, Marriage says those officials are often afraid. They are afraid that traffic will be snarled. They are afraid people will be angry. They are afraid that people won’t like it.

Marriage’s job, in part, is to convince those officials to have the courage to let the creativity happen. “There are many reasons why people are frightened. One of my jobs is to identify those anxieties and take them away,” she says. “The point is the transformation of the human being.”

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson are aerospace engineers.  They recently won the 33-year-old AHS Sikorsky Prize, for the first flight of a human-powered helicopter to exceed 60 seconds duration and reach 3 meters in height.

Todd Reichert

The machine they built is a sprawling, complex monster with four sweeping blades and a bicycle at the center —  big enough to fill up an airplane hangar. “It has the wingspan of a 737 and weighs less than a seat in that aircraft,” Robertson explained.

Cameron Robertson

But to do it, both engineers described a process of setting out to design something that many other engineers believed could not be achieved. They also failed many, many times. The pair thrilled the Camden audience with a video of their prototype violently crashing again and again before they finally achieved stable flight. “Impossible is nothing,” Robertson said.

This was also true of Zach Lieberman, who helps kids summon the courage to be creative at his School for Poetic Computation. “One of the things I promote as a professor is this idea of fearlessness,” he said. And it was true of artist Shantell Martin, who has to have the courage to let her pen have a life of its own in order to create her stunning illustrations. “I don’t know where the pen is going,” she said “The pen is going and I am just following.”

And for the many speakers and Fellows who presented on day one of PopTech 2013, the strength, courage and resolve to be creative formed a unifying theme. What revelations will day two bring?

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: A clutch of scientists sparks innovation in the Middle East

The Arab world was once such a hotbed of innovation that the torrent of technological breakthroughs that took place there starting around the 7th century is sometimes called the “1,001 Inventions.” The era witnessed the first flying machine, the first hospitals and the paramount invention of coffee.

But today the same region is often considered a consumer culture that often lacks the means to promote and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and is largely devoid of the kinds institutions and informal networks that recognize and cultivate innovation.


Saudi scientist Dr. Hayat Sindi believes that the region is awash with youth and talent that remains largely untapped. “We have been consumers for a long time,” Sindi said about that part of the world. “It’s now time to transform into an industrialized society that can match the world’s most advanced economies.”

Several years ago Sindi set out to establish an organization to cultivate an ecosystem of innovation that would embrace and assist young scientists from the Middle East who have particularly promising ideas or prototypes in the fields of energy, health, water and the environment. She called it the i2 Institute (imagination and ingenuity) and her work is coming to fruition. The institute formally launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in November 2012.

The central focus of i2 is a robust fellows program. In May, the first six i2 fellows began an intensive training program focused on entrepreneurship, business and social sciences. Sindi’s program has attracted the support of the MIT Media Lab, PwC, IBM and Harvard University, and it includes five weeks of training in Cambridge, Mass.   

The idea is to elevate the fellows’ ideas, improve and broaden their skill sets, and help bring their projects to scale. But the program is also supposed to create examples of entrepreneurial success from the Middle East and to cultivate a culture of innovation. “We need to connect the dots,” Sindi explained. “Good inventors need the right environment and part of my job is to contribute to the creation of a larger ecosystem.”

Hayat by Durand

The social science portion of the fellows training includes a trip to PopTech, and Sindi’s fellows are in Camden this week, meeting, observing the conference and networking. Sindi was previously a PopTech Science Fellow and a Social Innovation Fellow and benefited from that training and networking herself.

Sindi says PopTech deserves considerable credit for i2’s success thus far, and she traces the idea for the fellows program back to a pivotal meeting with PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli and President Leetha Filderman at PopTech’s annual conference back in 2009. “That was very important,” Sindi said. “They gave me connections to the right people who would help me. Their constant support has really inspired me.”

Saudi microbiologist Hosam Zowawi is one of the first i2 fellows. Zowawi was working on his doctorate at the University of Queensland in Australia studying the spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the Middle East. He was overwhelmed with the burden of studying around a thousand samples of bacteria looking for superbugs.  “I was thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to analyze all these samples?’” So Zowawi came up with a new, rapid diagnostic tool that now promises to aid in initial medical management and the implementation of infection control precautions.

It’s a promising breakthrough, but has not yet been brought to scale. “I have a science background and no business background at all. It was hard to figure out how I would commercialize this tool,” he said. “Thankfully, I found i2.”

Like Sindi, Zowawi is similarly evangelical about cultivating an atmosphere of innovation in the Middle East. “The current belief is you can’t do this type of thing in this culture,” he said about that region. “This shows that the culture of entrepreneurship is starting to grow.”

All revolutionary eras start somewhere. Perhaps Zowawi is one of the first pioneers of the next 1,001 Inventions.

Get Social at PopTech 2013

This week on Oct. 24-26 our annual showcase of world-changing people, projects and ideas takes place in Camden, Maine. Whether you're joining us in Camden or watching the livestream at home, here are a few ways to maximize your PopTech 2013 experience. 

  • The official hashtag for this year's conference is #poptech. 
  • Be sure to stop by the Camden Village Green Oct. 24-26 (across the street from the Camden Opera House) to check out "parkSPARKS," an interactive art installation from By Design involving hammocks, reclaimed float rope, mesh and local lumber from a Maine barn.
  • On Saturday, Oct. 26, speaker and skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen will be at the Camden Skate Park, located just uphill from the Opera House at 10 Knowlton Street. Be sure to stop by and say hello to the man who invented numerous skateboarding tricks, including the flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip. The park will open at 2:00pm and Rodney will stop by at 2:30pm. Please note that children 10 years old and under who will be skateboarding need to have a parent or guardian present. Additionally, anyone under 18 who will be skateboarding needs to have a parent or guardian sign a release form at the skate park. 

Image: Peter Durand