PopTech Blog

Imagine an Internet ecosystem designed to spur innovation


It used to be that in business, bigger was better. Large-scale production required vast resources and a large organization to back it up and make it run. "Over the last 150 years, the primary way to organize economic activity has been through a bureaucratic hierarchy," said Brad Burnham, (PopTech 2012) a managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

As a result, big companies amassed a lot of power. Record companies ruled music. Newspapers had huge control over information. Brick and mortar universities largely monopolized education. That's how it has been for decades.

The Internet changed all that. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey didn't need much more than a laptop to launch Facebook and Twitter, which are now business behemoths. The power of their products comes from the network of individuals who use those social media tools. "Within that model, you can have a creator and a consumer collaborating together to create economic value," Burnham said. 

Many large companies are threatened by that trend. They attempt to "slow the threat," as Burnham puts it. They sue the upstarts or exercise their significant influence to lobby for regulations to protect their turf. Think about the record industry's response to Napster, for example. While that kind of reaction is understandable, it creates an atmosphere that inevitably stifles some innovation that would otherwise blossom. Those innovations might help solve some of the world's most pressing challenges. 

That's why Burnham is collaborating with Ari Jónsson, (PopTech 2012) rector of Reykjavik University, Iceland’s leading university in technology, business and law. They want to create a laboratory for Internet freedom and innovation in Iceland.

Why Iceland? Iceland is an independent democracy. The economy has grown mostly on the basis of natural resources like geothermal energy and fisheries. Industry based on information technology, however, is relatively new. "What that also means is that there is not a lot of regulation in the way in terms of information technology," Jónsson said. 

In Iceland, universities, industries and political parties are coming together through the Internet Policy Institute. That group will be analyzing issues as diverse as intellectual property and cybersecurity in an effort to establish a Internet business ecosystem that fosters innovation. The idea is to create the ideal policy framework for innovation on the Internet. "We believe that it is one of a number of tools that are critically important to ensuring that the network and the economy that is crated on the Internet has an opportunity to solve these really, really difficult problems," Burnam said.  


100,000 African farmers insured by Rose Goslinga's Kilimo Salama

Rose Goslinga (PopTech 2011) runs Kilimo Salama, a revolutionary micro-insurance product available to farmers who work relatively small plots of land in Kenya and Rwanda. Traditional crop insurance typically requires farm visits to verify claims. But it is not economically viable for an insurer to visit the many small, far-fetched farms scattered across Kenya and Rwanda.

Kilimo Salama (which means "safe farming" in Swahili) uses weather stations to remotely monitor weather conditions, including damaging droughts and excess rain that sometimes wipe out a farmer's entire harvest. This means that farm visits are not necessary. Payments and crop production advice are distributed just as inexpensively through mobile phones.

Goslinga was a PopTech 2011 Social Innovation fellow. When she spoke at PopTech back then, her organization was insuring around 20,000 farmers in Africa. 

Within the past several weeks, Kilimo Salama made a huge achievement: More than 100,000 farmers are now insured. 

Congratulations to Rose Goslinga and Kilimo Salama on that exciting milestone for an important, impactful innovation. 

PopTech 2013 will explore 'Sparks of Brilliance'

The theme of this year's PopTech conference will be "Sparks of Brilliance," an exploration of the nature of creativity. 

Creativity is expressed in business, the sciences, society and in art. But we seldom share, compare and contrast the lessons from these different arenas. PopTech's annual conference in Camden, Maine, scheduled for this coming Oct. 24 - 26, will do just that. 


The conference will convene imaginative visionaries from a variety of fields to see what they can learn from each other about creativity, where it comes from, and whether it can be taught or amplified. The format will include presentations and discussions about what the latest science tells us about the creative mind and how the most recent technology creates new platforms for connection that change the creative process. 

PopTech conferences grapple with pressing global trends and cutting edge innovations. Sparks of Brilliance will follow through on that tradition. 

But PopTech 2013 will also feature a joyful experience of jaw-dropping creativity in all its forms. Join us and experience inspiration like never before at Sparks of Brilliance. 

Adrian Anantawan makes music accessible to all

Adrian Anantawan was born without a right hand. But that did not stop him from becoming a violin virtuoso. 

At PopTech 2012, Anantawan shared his own story of resilience; how starting at age nine he managed to conquer an instrument that seems to require two fully operational hands. 

But Anantawan is also an educator and technologist who is interested in a more fundamental question: "What happens when a person meets a musical instrument?" he asked.

Adrian Anantawan

Anantawan helped establish the Virtual Chamber Music Initiative at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Centre. It is a collaborative project that develops adaptive musical instruments for kids with disabilities. He said the idea is that, "Children all have the right to explore the world more meaningfully and explore their imagination through this phenomenon we call music."

He shared video of children with severe disabilities who were able to create music with the aid of a computer, camera and simulated colored shapes on a screen. A paralyzed former violinist is even able to accompany Anantawan and other musicians as they perform "Pachabel's Canon." 

 "The violin itself is a 16th-century piece of technology. It was created to extend the range of the human voice," Anantawan said.  "At its best, technology serves to extend the range of human capability."

Photos by PopTech

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since wars begin in the minds of men

"Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." - UNESCO's Constitution, 1945

Today millions of Kenyans are casting their votes in an election that is being closely watched worldwide. PeaceTXT, a collaborative initiative of PopTech and renowned global technology, violence interruption and peacekeeping experts is piloting a unique approach that promotes peace and solidarity through SMS messaging. The following post by PeaceTXT partner, Patrick Meier, captures the spirit and promise of this unique project. 

- Leetha Filderman, PopTech President

In Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech and in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men's minds adn behaviors.


Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality — we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As U.S.-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases. The good news is that we already know how to treat the latter: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the "Crowd" is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile advertising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages and reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.


To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the 12 months leading up to today's presidential elections, the Kenyan NGO SNA-K has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi and CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country's most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.

In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region's largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO's mobile reach during today's elections. And thanks to SNA-K's customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS's to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.”

The partnership with PopTech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and SNA-K have already had positive impact in the lead up to today's important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS:

first screen shot

"Tu dumisha amani!" means "Lets keep the peace!" SNA-K's local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.

In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:

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Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What's more, they even requested that additional messages be sent. SNA-K has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact on the minds of men. 

Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that "for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya and SNA-K partnership are making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!

Patrick Meier (PhD) serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and lead contributor to PeaceTXT. He blogs at iRevolution.net and tweets at @patrickmeier.

Margrét Pála on teaching kids to be resilient

Icelanders are a famously hearty lot. Norwegian Vikings trying to escape the rule and taxation of Norway’s king first inhabited the land that is now Iceland in the 9th century. So they had pluck from the start. But you simply have to be resilient to survive in such frozen, forbidding territory. 

Margrét Pála (PopTech 2012) is a groundbreaking educator from that rugged country. Starting back in 1989 she was first somewhat infamous, and later more famous, for developing her own rigorous pedagogical model for educating young Icelandic kids. Pála emphasizes resilience, in part, because it is a key component to surviving and thriving in a challenging world. 

It's all very Icelandic, and her ideas can seem a bit rugged to the uninitiated. But that makes sense, given that since the Vikings arrived on that isolated island in the North Atlantic, Iceland's history has been marked by wrenching poverty, volcanic eruptions, poor farming conditions, avalanches that wiped out entire villages, and repeated economic collapses.

"We are hard-wired in our resilience," Pála said in her 2012 PopTech talk, which is now available online. "'We have seen it worse,' we always say."

In practice, this means emphasizing decision-making and creativity. Rather than traditional toys, classrooms are populated with open-ended, natural materials that require children to improvise. Exercises include instructions about breaking norms and rules: "Go through the window," Pála exclaims. "Why are you always using the door?" And her kids get a bit of tough love. "Go out with your bare feet," she says to them. "Maybe it hurts a little bit. That's great."

Classrooms are also segregated by sex, children are required to wear uniforms to encourage discipline, and the curriculum includes exercises in jumping off cushions to help very young children learn the value of a little courage in life. That's something every Icelander has needed since at least the 9th century.  

Asenath Andrews' exemplary education of young mothers

Statistics prove that when it comes to positive education outcomes, teen pregnancy is something akin to a death knell. The data show that whatever chance a girl had to graduate high school and go on to higher education evaporates significantly when she gets pregnant. 

But it's instructive to look at people and institutions that turn those numbers on their head. Consider the Catherine Ferguson Academy in Detroit, founded and run by Asenath Andrews (PopTech 2012). It is an alternative high school for teen mothers that also provides early education services for their children.

"Our job is to make sure that our girls graduate from high school and are accepted to a 2 or 4 year college before they leave," Andrews said in her 2012 PopTech talk that is now available online. Here is the thing: Andrews' school typically reaches that goal 100 percent of the time.

How impressive is that? Consider the math. Studies show that out of 14,000 American school districts, 25 of the lowest-achieving districts account for 20 percent of high school dropouts and 16 percent of teen births. Problems also get handed down from generation to generation. Only about two-thirds of those girls' children will graduate from high school. 

An innovative curriculum explains some of Andrews' success. Students are heavily involved in urban farming and raising livestock. One graduation requirement, for example, is that each student must plant, pick, cook and eat a meal from her own garden. Students are in the midst of planning, designing and building a real sustainable community near the school. They have also travelled to South Africa to teach urban farming.

Another reason Andrews' school performs so well is due to the professionalism of the staff and their high expectations for each student. "If I expect that you are going to have a future, then you expect it," Andrews said. "Smart is what you get, not what you are."

Want to improve education? Ask the kids

As a groundbreaking education journalist, Amanda Ripley (PopTech 2012) became obsessed with one of the central mysteries about American education. The United States spends more money on education per student than any other country in the world. American students enjoy some of the smallest class sizes on the globe. And yet in comparison to huge swaths of the industrialized world from Japan to Latvia, American kids consistently perform poorly on standardized tests that measure critical thinking. This is true for rich American kids and poor kids, in racially diverse cities and homogenous U.S. towns. Why?

To get to the bottom of that conundrum, Ripley, who is the author of the forthcoming book "The Smartest Kids in the World," developed a unique stable of sources. Rather than relying solely on administrators, academics and educators, Ripley tapped into a network of students. "Kids have strong opinions about school," she said in her PopTech 2012 talk. "We forget as adults how much time they sit there contemplating their situation."

Ripley needed student-sources in some of these other countries where education was obviously better than in the United States. But she also needed students who could compare and contrast school in, say, South Korea to school in Minnesota.

So Ripley established a network of exchange students. Her students included a Minnesota boy who went to South Korea for a year, another who went from Pennsylvania to Poland, and an adventurous 15-year-old girl who left Oklahoma to go to school in Finland. Ripley also polled hundreds of other exchange students. 

What she got was unvarnished feedback. "They are happy to tell you what they don't like; what they wish was different," Ripley said. And there was remarkable consensus among those exchange students about what is different overseas.

  • School is harder. "It is about the rigor through and through," Ripley said. "School is serious business in these places." That goes for the curriculum, the training and selection of the teachers, everything. This doesn't mean more hours or more homework, just more challenges. 
  • Sports is just a hobby. "We are training these children to revere and become professional athletes," Ripley says about the American obsession with childrens' sports. "It is a huge distraction from the business of schools."
  • Kids believe there is something in it for them. "Kids believe that what they are doing in school affects what kind of car they are going to drive in the future and how interesting their lives are going to be," she said. 

It's ironic that policy makers and even journalists rarely question students, because as Ripley put it, "Kids can tell you things that no one else can." 

Bill Shore's four unconventional lessons for making real impact

Bill Shore (PopTech 2012) is a legend among professionals striving to make positive social change. In 1984, Shore was shocked by the famine in Ethiopia and used a $2,000 credit card advance to help found the anti-hunger organization, Share Our Strength. Since then, Share Our Strength has raised and spent $360 million to help end childhood hunger.

At PopTech 2012, Shore discussed the "strategic necessity and the moral imperative of breaking the rules." Success in social innovation can save lives, Shore says, and organizations involved in these kinds of efforts can and should employ unconventional strategies to maximize their impact.

Shore's talk is now available online:

Shore shared four tenets of this approach:

Lesson #1: Earn money. Rather than rely only on traditional non-profit fund-raising methods, Share Our Strength puts much of its focus on building multi-faceted partnerships with corporations and corporate foundations, while also offering innovative ways of engagement through well-known culinary events and grassroots platforms. Shore says that the term nonprofit should be "a tax status and not a management philosophy."

Lesson #2: Measure impact. Set specific, measurable goals. Work toward ending childhood hunger, for example, rather than just feeding the hungry.

Lesson #3: Engage on public policy. Working effectively in this space means not just serving those in need, but also actively working to change and improve public policies in pursuit of that goal. "Public policy is a critical component," Shore says. What policies might help end childhood hunger?

Lesson #4: Be competitive. Shore advocates a philosophy of improving performance on all fronts, like hiring and retaining the very best personnel.

Shore is passionate about these ideas for good reason. Poverty is at record levels. There are 46 million Americans on food stamps and half are children. More than 22 percent of U.S. children live below the poverty line. For Shore, it is easy to understand why maximizing impact is a moral necessity. 

PopTech's 2013 Social Innovation Fellows nominations open

Nominations are now open for the 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program, so it's time to put on your thinking caps.

Do you know somebody who has a big idea, has started to demonstrate significant positive impact and has a smart strategy for reaching scale? That's who we're looking for, and we need you to help us find them.


The strongest candidates are great leaders and collaborators working in critical fields such as energy, green technology, climate change resilience, healthcare, the environment, performing arts, water, education and other areas with significant beneficial impacts. Those chosen as Fellows will participate in a five-day training and the PopTech conference this October, and will gain new skills, visibility and connections to help accelerate their path to greater impact. 

Check out the call for nominations for more details, and have a look at our past Fellows — such as the class of 2012 —for some inspiring examples. Then head on over to the nomination form where you can nominate someone else, or (be bold!) yourself.

We're grateful to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, National Geographic, Omidyar Network, the Rita Allen Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their generous support of the Social Innovation Fellows program.

Nominations will be open through April 2, and you can email fellows [at] poptech [dot] org with any questions about the program or the nomination process.

Photo by Agaton Strom for PopTech