PopTech Blog

PopTech's 'Better Banked' salon explores U.S. financial inclusion

Around 40 financial experts, researchers, anti-poverty activists and social innovators gathered on Tuesday for PopTech’s “Toward the Better Banked,” a daylong salon designed to advance discussion about how to improve the financial lives of unbanked, under-banked and unhappily banked Americans.

The diverse set of experts gathered for the event at Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center which was made possible with the support of Serve from American Express and Innovations for Poverty Action. The challenge that was under the microscope at the salon is daunting. Around 1 in 12 American households don’t have an account with an insured, traditional bank, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Financial stratification between affluent and financially challenged Americans continues to grow. Consumer debt has ballooned. Meanwhile, some of the novel financial service innovations that are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, such as mobile-phone-based payments, haven’t taken root and propagated the same way in the United States.

better banked

“Toward the Better Banked” was not designed to come up with solutions to these problems during the single day of presentations, brainstorming sessions, group breakout discussions and informal chats. But it set out to bring together a diverse set of experts who might not otherwise interact in order to pose some provocative questions, move the discussion forward and at least begin to shed some light on potential breakthroughs and solutions.

Some of the discussion focused on the need to gather hard, reliable data on income and spending behavior in American households that might benefit from the innovative banking tools under discussion. Timothy Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, is currently gathering rafts of that data as part of an in-depth study of 250 families. Early analysis of the data shows that a great deal of the problem facing many Americans is not just low income, but highly volatile income and expenses that are hard to predict and manage. “That is a different problem than just low income,” he said.  “What are the tools that people are using to meet these questions of volatility?” he asked. “What does that mean about poverty?”

better banked 2

Other questions focused on what lessons from overseas might apply in the United States. Billy Jack, associate professor in the Economics Department at Georgetown University, researches alternative methods of carrying out financial transactions in Kenya, where the mobile phone has become a leading tool for exchanging value. “Do we have to use mobile banking for financial inclusion?” he asked the gathering.

Some of the presentations began to probe innovative products and ideas that might help solve some of the problems facing under-banked Americans. As part of her research, Lisa Servon, associate director of the Community Development Research Center at The New School, spent four months working at a check-cashing operation in the Bronx that served mostly lower-income people. Servon noticed how the check-cashing operation cultivated fierce loyalty among its customers through personalized, forgiving, friendly service. “Whatever direction we go, the point I want to drive home is we are all here talking about people,” she said. “And relationships matter.”

Unconventional partnerships might be another path forward. Justine Zinkin, CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, and Dean Karlan, president of Innovations for Poverty Action, discussed a joint project to issue what Zinkin described as an “un-credit card.” The card is designed to consolidate a consumer’s debt, fix monthly payments, close other credit cards and ultimately reduce a consumer’s debt.

Another branch of discussion explored how the banking challenge among Americans poses some opportunities for innovative ideas and products. Jonathan Zinman, an economics professor at Dartmouth, discussed potentially huge business opportunities lurking in the $13 trillion in consumer debt. He suspects that fee-for-service liability management could be big business. “That is money that is sitting on the table — people are paying more than they need to for their loans,” he said. “If you can help consumers access this money, you, in turn, can get a slice of that money.”

Some presenters have already created products to serve under-banked Americans or leverage technology to lubricate global transactions for individuals or businesses of any size. Francisco Cervera, CEO and co-founder of eMoneyPool, a private microfinance company, is in the business of establishing virtual “money pools” — savings clubs where ad-hoc groups of individuals take turns borrowing from a common fund. And Chris Larson, CEO and co-founder of OpenCoin, discussed Ripple, a lightning fast way to trade value anywhere in the world across currencies.

The discussion will continue. Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth at American Express, said some of the best minds had come together at the salon for an exploration that had to start with some provocative questions. “How can you create change and a difference on a scale that is not millions but is tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions?” he asked. “How do you drive that kind of difference in the world?”

Who's who at PopTech 2013

Creativity takes many shapes. It’s artwork and skateboard tricks. It’s using technology in playful ways and improvisational comedy. It’s space exploration and new ways of embracing mindfulness. Next month in Camden we’re bringing together imaginative individuals to share valuable insights on the nature of creativity. Joining them on stage will be our new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows, set to be announced next week - stay tuned!

We're also thrilled to announce that Joe Palca from NPR will be in Camden this October to lead a discussion on the role creativity plays in scientific discovery.

Joe Palca
NPR's Joe Palca

See who else will be in Camden this year:

Marian Bantjes: A designer, typographer, writer and illustrator well known for her detailed and precise vector art, her obsessive handwork, her patterning and ornamentation.

Olivia Chaney: A spellbinding songwriter who plays the Indian harmonium and has taken the stage at festivals like SXSW and Glastonbury.  

Anab Jain: Founder and director of London-and-India-based design studio, Superflux, which produces inventive and critical work exploring the limits of emerging technologies and their implications on society and culture.

Ellen Langer: An artist and Harvard psychology professor whose research has demonstrated that by actively noticing new things — the essence of mindfulness — health, well-being, and competence follow.

Zach Lieberman: "Nerd artist research hacker" who creates visual interpretations of sound and speech.

Helen Marriage: Co-founder of Artichoke, which executes the staging of sweeping, city-scale events and installations.

Shantell Martin: An artist who has rocked the art world using only ‘simple black and white.' She was also cast as herself in the TV show "Gossip Girl" and her hand-illustrated bedroom walls were featured on the cover of the New York Times home section.

Rodney Mullen: One of the world’s most influential skateboarders, credited with inventing numerous skateboarding tricks, he is the "Godfather of Streetskating" and a truly remarkable inspirational speaker.

Joe Palca: Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. In addition to his reporting for NPR's magazine shows “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” Palca is a guest host on “Science Friday.”

Esther Perel: A psychologist who is recognized as one of the world's most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures.

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson: The duo who designed the world’s first human-powered flapping-wing aircraft.

Kevin Slavin: A gamer who has pioneered the use of location technology and cross-platform gaming.

Adam Steltzner: The engineer who navigated Mars Rover Curiosity’s “7 Minutes of Terror” descent to the red planet.

Charlie Todd: Founder of Improv Everywhere, a “prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places.“

Lisa Witter: Partner and chief change officer of Fenton, where she heads up the firm’s work in innovation and co-leads the practices in women’s issues, health, philanthropy and global affairs.

There's still time to join us but tickets are going fast. Register today!

PopTech 2013 tickets are going fast — here's why!

The end of summer marks the beginning of our favorite season at PopTech, as we prepare for another unmissable gathering this October 24-26 in Camden, Maine.  

Sparks of Brilliance will be a deep dive into the creative instinct with a diverse array of category-defying makers, explorers and creators — from an erotic intelligence expert to a skating legend, a top NASA scientist to one of the world's foremost game designers. It's going to be visionary, actionable and most of all, fun! We know you'll love it. 


Our 2013 schedule has been redesigned to allow even more opportunities to connect with friends and colleagues, including a host of immersive experiences in and around what Forbes calls one of "America's Prettiest Towns." 
Go sailing on the Appledore (a time-honored PopTech tradition), explore a sustainable farm on beautiful North Haven Island, make a traditional Maine meal of bread and chowder with award-winning chef Annemarie Ahearn, or join in-depth conversations with edge innovators about the future of data and hackable cities.

As always, you can count on meeting truly remarkable people in the down-to-earth, welcoming setting that's made PopTech one of the world's most beloved thought-leadership convenings. 

To make the PopTech experience even more accessible, we've lowered this year's ticket price — which means tickets are going fast. Check out the roster of amazing speakers (more are being added all the time) and register today!

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.