PopTech Blog

PopTech Editions II: Nigel Waller's Movirtu is micro-izing the mobile phone


Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting a piece from Movirtu founder and 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Nigel Waller.

I wanted to see firsthand who owned cell phones and who did not. It was 2006 and I was near the border of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Driving between villages with my two local guides, pushing further north, at first it was hard to find people without phones. To my untrained eye, there was little difference between a village housing people earning $2 a day and those earning $1.25 a day. Once I became aware of that, I asked the villagers directly about their earnings. I was quickly able to map the poorer villages and found that mobile phone ownership levels dropped once the person’s earnings went below $2 a day. If you’re earning $2 a day, a $25 handset is 10 months savings for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who live below the poverty line. There seemed to be a huge opportunity, not only for a low-cost mobile phone, but also an opportunity to make a difference for these people without access.

Because I’d been involved in the mobile phone industry since its birth in the late 80s, I immediately started thinking about designing a low-cost handset.

After reading about the endeavors of Motorola and other handset vendors in that space and the very low product margins they had to endure I quickly backed off. Village pay phones was another model I investigated, but without a capability for users to have their own phone number and keep private calls and messages, the pay phones only provided a limited outbound calling service. Let’s create a pay phone with an external SIM card slot‚ I thought, but then after a little research, I understood the prices of such devices would be well over $700 a piece.

The scope of this opportunity kept churning in the back of my mind. Two years later I had the spark! My oversight was taking the product I knew, the mobile phone, and trying to find a way to make it cheaper. What I needed to do was rethink a new technical solution. Linking the mobile phone number to the handset was the mistake. Why not put the identity in the cloud and allow people to log in and log out of any shared or public device that was nearby, just like accessing your email through a web browser? I would use standard signaling technology that was available on any basic handset to provide the "Internet link" and access a phone in the cloud that would cost the user 20c a pop, instead of $25. I had managed to turn the problem on its head, and micro-ize the mobile phone.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: Movirtu

This week in PopTech: Contextualizing Iceland

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Trollbäck + Company

PopTech Iceland in photos

We came, we saw...and we took hundreds of photos. PopTech Iceland 2012, which wrapped up this past weekend, couldn't have been better! Speakers presented from all over the world, musicians collaborated for the first time on PopTech's stage, hundreds of balloons surrounded us, Reykjavik enthralled us, and attendees shared in meaningful conversations with one another. Here's a peak at PopTech Iceland 2012 through photos. We look forward to sharing more with you soon!


For more, head over to Flickr where you can find PopTech's full set of photographs from our time in Iceland.

The energy and beauty of Iceland


Nesjavellir geothermal power plant
This past weekend, to round out PopTech’s time in Iceland, we went adventuring outside the city. Of course we’d heard about Iceland’s geothermal wonder as well as the beautiful landscape that lies outside of the city, but we wanted to see it for ourselves. Extremely knowledgeable husband-and-wife tour guide team Gretar Ivarsson and Anna Dis Sveinbjornsdottir provided 15 of us with a jam-packed excursion and accompanying narration. As we drove away from the city center, Gretar kicked off the tour with a fun fact to ponder: “5,000 years ago was the last known occurrence of lava flowing over Reykjavik. But, it could happen again.”

We took a scenic drive to the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant, which is located in the heart of Iceland’s largest geothermal areas in the Hengill area. Along the way, Gretar directed our attention to the pipeline running alongside the road. Hot water is channeled into these pipes from the power plant and gravity takes it the 16 miles to Rekjavik -- in about seven hours -- to bring energy to the city. He also directed our attention to the topography, reminiscent of images of the surface of the moon, which was formed from post-glacial lava flow from about 100,000 years ago.

Once we arrived at the plant, Gretar, also a trained geologist who happens to work at the plant, took us on a tour, tinged with the smell of sulfur, to wells covered by geodesic dome-like structures, murky-looking, steaming geothermal pools, and retro-futuristic structures with steam billowing into the sky. As we walked from the power plant to the water tanks, he explained the technological and engineering feats involved to harness geothermal power, breaking it down into three phases: the collection and processing of steam, the heating of cold water, and the production of electricity.

From there, we hopped back on the bus and headed to Þingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage site and stunning place to boot. Þingvellir is well-known as junction between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates, a part of the mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s also the site for the largest natural lake in Iceland. Because of its central location, it was also the first place where Iceland’s parliament gathered once a year beginning around 930 A.D.

Incredibly, we hiked into the rift that had been formed over thousands of years (and that continues to shift about 3 mm each year). We had to take a detour because a plate shift, which had taken place only a few months ago, destroyed the direct route to the hiking trail! As we hiked through the valley, Anna directed us to the site where the parliament first convened and to the “Drowning River” where Vikings, for a time, would drown women who became impregnated out of wedlock and for other female-specific offenses.


Can you spot the troll(s)?

She gave us a lesson on the difference between Icelandic trolls, elves and hidden people in Icelandic lore, pointing out, as we walked through the ridge (passing a waterfall, no less!), where trolls had turned to stone when they’d been exposed to sunlight.

The tour wrapped up at a locale along the crystal clear river where visitors (including many of us on our tour) make a wish before tossing a krona or two into the coin-infused glittering water.

PopTech Iceland: Day 2 recap


The second and final day of our conference in Iceland has drawn to a close and yet again, it was quite a day! Today, we heard from a whale anatomist, a computer geek, a Sugarcube, an activist poet, and a risk assessment expert, all of whom spoke about resilience as it relates to their respective fields. PopTech’s Andrew Zolli kicked off the morning by posing a modquestion about the kind of resiliency that’s required when circumstances don’t present us with meaningful choices, but instead only have us considering our default options or what’s right in front of us. The audience truly responded to the eclectic group of presenters including:

Joy Reidenberg, a fast-talking, energetic anatomist captivated the PopTech audience with her talk, “Why Whales are Weird.”  With one amazing fact after the next (Whales evolved from deer-like creatures! Their spinal movement is more like galloping in the water! They don’t actually spout water! They have mustaches!), she took us through the story of evolution using whales as a model. She explained that evolution is the process to mediate resilience and thus, survival.

Geek extraordinaire Eben Upton founded Raspberry Pi as a way to get kids “lured into” programming again. Once he and his team realized that kids weren’t exploring computer programming the way he and his peers had back in the 1980s, which he foresaw as “a kind of slow motion disaster for the entire society,” they created ultra low-cost, compact computers that are competitive with other devices. His premise: If we don't provide children with the education or tools needed to become interested, they will not become empowered by technology. Raspberry Pi seems to have hit on something that’s meeting that need: In just a few months since they launched, the not-for-profit organization has already sold 100,000 computers and is well on its way to selling a projected one million computers by the end of the year.

Economic commentator and author Tim Harford presented a refreshingly creative, albeit somewhat depressing, perspective on financial systems, which he’s deemed are complex and tightly coupled. He drew upon numerous anecdotes (oil rig explosions, nuclear disasters, etc.) to make his point. He said, “If I really wanted to understand how to prevent crisis in complex systems that exist in the financial world, I realized I should be looking at engineering systems and the triggers that lead to terrible accidents.” But, he goes, on, “Banking is more complicated than any nuclear reactor I’ve ever studied.”

Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir was one of 25 people who helped rewrite the Icelandic constitution. She took the PopTech stage to explain how the citizens of Iceland responded after the banks collapsed in 2008, protesting politely outside of Parliament to a louder, angrier outcry, which the government eventually acknowledged. The government then suggested that Iceland's citizens should rewrite the constitution to understand who the Icelandic people really were, especially since the Danish had originally written the constitution. Ómarsdóttir explained the process by which those 25 elected citizens broke up into committees and, with considerable public input, worked for four months to overhaul the constitution.

Margrét Pála gave a no-nonsense, impassioned and entertaining talk about the Hjalli method, the approach she’s taken to children’s education for 22 years. This specific approach includes sex-segregated classes, natural play material instead of conventional toys and a long-forgotten belief in discipline as a way in training social skills. In addition to providing details about Hjalli, as well as her own upbringing, Pala described how the 2008  “economic change,” as she called it, made her feel like “We reclaimed our own Iceland.” When it comes to the financial crisis and its impact on the 2,000 children she teaches, she explained, “My greatest fear is that children will not have a chance because of lack of adversity. We need adversity to be the best people we can be.”

Before performing his final song, musician Alexi Murdoch said, “I’m going home to dream of water temples and whales.” We’d expect nothing else; this is PopTech after all.

Top panoramic image: Emily Qualey
Stage images: Árni Torfason for PopTech

PopTech Iceland: Day 1 recap

PopTech convenes under Jason Hackenwerth's balloon sculpture installation, Tempus Fugit.

Our first day of PopTech Iceland just concluded and what a day it was. We heard from the president of a country, a head of a foundation, an anthropologist, a crisis mapper, and a Retired Army Brigadier General. Presenters sought to define resilience through the lens of systems, communities, organizations, governments and individuals, presenting concrete examples and theoretical concepts about how things bounce back after encountering disruptions. PopTech’s Andrew Zolli kicked off the conference by providing a resillience framework associated with pattern, structure, time, and memory rather than a simpler, literal articulation. A few highlights of the day included:

Global wanderer Steve Lansing’s anthropological work has taken him to thousand-year-old water management systems in Bali, a network of complex adaptive systems. Farmers from different villages and classes—one of the first examples of functioning democratic institutions—self-organize to maximize their rice crop yields, coordinating a system of irrigation that involves age-old water temple rituals. The strength of this system was put to the test during the Green Tech Revolution of the 1970s when people began using pesticides to produce more rice, and cooperated less for higher yield. When the hillsides became muddy, the plants infested with bugs, and the water contaminated farmers reverted  the age-old system, acknowledging the significance of the water temples, restoring and inner and exterior equilibrium.

New York-based Nico Muhly and Reykjavik-based Valgeir Sigurðsson brought their musical talents to Kaldalón Hall in a collaboration that involved Muhly on the piano and Sigurðsson on the xylophone. This duo’s deep, haunting sound filled the hall and mesmerized the audience.

Retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, MD and clinical trainer Laurie Leitch, PhD founded Threshold GlobalWorks, LLC to explore the neurobiological approach to social resilience through a model they developed while serving as Bellagio Practitioner Fellows. Laurie Leitch explained, “We are born neurologically wired for human resilience. We just have to know how to use it. It’s an untapped natural resource.” Loree Sutton provided additional context, questioning what happens when the place you’re bouncing toward is not the place you want to be: “Is it desirable to bounce back or bounce forward? How can we invest in the kind of global jet stream of consciousness, creativity and courage that everyone of us needs who has the audacity to take on the status quo?”

Mohammed Rezwan builds floating schools in flood-prone Bangladesh. After realizing that schools in these areas with the heaviest rain are flooded 3-4 months per year, and that the students can’t attend during that time, he began to build solar-powered classrooms so that kids can continue their educations--no matter what. This model has been replicated for floating health clinics and training centers to teach farmers sustainable farming methods. While there are about fifty boats in operation now that have impacted the lives of about 90,000 people, within the year he hopes to have over 100 functioning boat. “The future floats,” Rezwan concluded.


Alyson Warhurst, CEO and founder of Maplecroft, maps risks. She explained, “Charts and figures can be used to tell a story to predict risk in the future and intervene, engage policy change to shape the future growth environment and prevent disaster.” Among other things, she’s mapped corruption, human rights, child labor, and the HIV/AIDS rates of truck drivers in Africa. She shared a few key findings that have come from her mapping work: Economies rich in natural resources are more resilient to economic crises; when risks conflate, resilience multiplies; and the risk profiles of emerging economies that are fast-growing are steadily improving.

It was a day of talks across a multitude of disciplines about what works and what has not in each speaker's respective field, all tied to strengthening people and systems to respond to significant shifts. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin concluded her talk by quoting Ernest Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Images: Árni Torfason for PopTech

And we're off!

We're gearing up for PopTech's Toward Resilience conference--tomorrow in Iceland! PopTech's flags are flying high at the beautiful Harpa concert hall, our home base for the next few days.

Image: Emily Qualey

PopTech Editions II: Paul Polak on the past, present and future of miniaturization


iDE's drip irrigation system

Recently, PopTech launched its second Edition, Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution. Our Editions explore an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we’ll highlight pieces from contributors who are exploring the dynamics of the micro-everything revolution, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. Today, we’re excerpting part of an interview we conducted with Paul Polak, founder and president of International Development Enterprises (iDE).

Paul Polak is a champion of equipping the poor, or those living on less than $2/day, with tools to establish their own livelihoods.Founder of International Development Enterprises (iDE) and D-Rev and author of Out of Poverty, Polak has spent many of his 79 years working on the ground to develop approaches to alleviate poverty — intelligently. He has found that by following some straightforward tenets, including making products and services that can scale up to serve millions while also scaling downto work in smaller sizes, the 1.2 billion people around the globe living in poverty will have an opportunity to change their futures. We spoke with Polak about the need for a business revolution across industries around design, affordability, simplicity, and miniaturization.

PopTech: One way to think about the micro-everything revolution is by framing it around the ‘divisibility of technology,’ as you refer to it in your book, and the need to pay attention to how goods and services are broken down so that people can take advantage of them at different scales. For example, you mention that you can't cut a full-sized tractor into small pieces to farm on a small plot of land.
Paul Polak:
The problem with the green revolution, particularly with agriculture, was that you could design and create miracle seeds that would increase yields, but in order to make those actually contribute to improved crop production, you also needed fertilizer and water and agricultural implements. You could divide the seeds into tiny packets and make them available to farmers but many of the seeds required irrigation and irrigation couldn't be divided into affordable pieces so the farmers couldn't use the miracle seeds.

That problem has been repeated in application after application and only in the past few years have people focused on making tools divisible and smaller and cheaper. The transformative revolutions in business have been based on two things - a revolution in miniaturization and affordability.

Are there examples in other industries where you’ve seen products successfully integrated into the market as a result of an emphasis on miniaturization and affordability?
If you look beyond what's been happening quite recently, the revolution in transport was created by Ford when the company designed a car that a working man could afford. Ford's car was $500 compared with $2,200 in those days. They were smaller and lighter, which is one of the main reasons they were cheaper.

The same is true for computers. Apple created a revolution by taking a computer that filled a whole room, putting it on a student's desk and making it available at a fraction of the million dollar starting price of the existing mainframe computers. That principle has transformed big business and it's increasingly transforming business at the grassroots.

D-Rev, for instance, has created a $400 phototherapy device for neonatal jaundice. The existing Western technology that does the same thing starts at $3,000 and the $400 device outperforms the more expensive device. D-Rev has also put together an artificial knee that sells for $80.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: iDE

The streets of Reykjavik

PopTech has touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland! The sun is shining--almost 24 hours each day during the midnight sun!--and the excitement is palpable as we prepare for our first international conference. Since the event kicks off on Thursday, we spent today getting acquainted with the Bay of Smoke, as the city is known, with a mini walking tour.

We began by moseying along the Faxafloi Bay, taking in the scenery, and then heading up Snorrabraut onto Laugavegur Street. On our way, we encountered Denmark artist Theresa Himmer’s shimmering Lava Drop, dripping glitter down the side of a building (which we were hunting down after reading this post). 

We continued on Laugavegur, passing boutique after café after boutique. As we strolled, we encountered graffiti peeking through a couple of buildings. Following the painted trail, we came upon a graffiti-filled courtyard where painted murals of monkeys, ostriches, robots and SpongeBob covered exposed sides of houses, corrugated metal, and concrete walls while people ate lunch on picnic tables.

From there, we walked on Vitastigur to the great church on the hill, the Hallgrímskirkja, which was designed by architect Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937. He is said to have designed this Lutheran parish church with its massive organ and unusual shape to resemble Iceland’s basalt lava flows.

We wrapped up our quick tour with a rooftop lunch at Babalu before heading back to PopTech’s home base, Harpa, the stunning conference hall and conference center on the Faxafloi Bay.

Designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in co-operation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, the spiffy center held its first concert in May 2011--and we can’t wait, just over a year later, for our speakers to take the stage at PopTech Iceland.

For more images from our Reykjavick excursion check out our Iceland Flickr set

Images: Emily Qualey

Why Iceland

After many months of planning, PopTech has arrived in Iceland. One of the most common questions I get is why we’re here, so let me offer a few thoughts.

Iceland is a truly remarkable place, both geographically and culturally. To begin with, it’s a physically gorgeous country, filled with waterfalls, glaciers, shimmering northern lights and (occasionally to everyone’s chagrin) volcanic eruptions. The landscape is stark, ethereal, and, often, of recent geological vintage. It’s a place where one can feel humanity perched modestly amid forces much more powerful than itself; after sitting quietly alone in front of the iconic, turbo-charged Gullfoss waterfall for a few hours, if someone had said to me, this waterfall is alive – it’s inhabited by an ancient spirit – I wouldn’t have quite believed them, but I would certainly have known where they were coming from.

And it’s not just the waterfalls. Iceland actually sits atop the meeting point of the North American and European tectonic plates, and the ground itself feels energized and potent. Indeed, the country produces such vast sums of renewable geothermal energy that, if they could, the aluminum smelting industry would happily ship every ounce of Bauxite on Earth here to be turned into soda cans and Boeing airplanes.

Icelanders have other ideas for what to do with all of that subterranean heat, from running year-round, locavore greenhouse farms, to ambitious plans for Internet data warehouses, powered by geothermal energy from below, and cooled by Icelandic breezes from above. (With the right data-protection policies in place, this could turn Iceland into a kind of “Switzerland for Data”.) Other efforts are less grand, but no less visionary: a few years ago, in a small inlet in Reykjavik, some enterprising residents ran some steam tunnels out under the North Atlantic, raising the temperature of the seawater to bathtub levels. Then they imported a bit of beach sand, and voila! – a Caribbean beach, within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle.

Iceland is demographically tiny, with 320,000 residents, almost half of which live in the capital city Reykjavik. The culture is both ancient (this is, after all, the site of the first Parliament ever, in 930AD) and, until relatively recently, so genetically isolated that it has become an important center for population genetics research. Yet, Iceland has, at the same time, been an amazing contributor to global culture – particularly through its extraordinarily rich musical scene, which is now a major export industry. And the music industry’s success is bringing all of the other, more nascent creative industries – art, graphic design, architecture, and craft – to new global audiences.

All of the above would make for a wonderful, fully justified rationale for a visit to Iceland. And really, you should come here. Yet that’s not really why we’re here.  Our reasons are at once darker, and more optimistic.

Read the complete post here.

Image: b00nj