PopTech Blog

Jennifer Leaning on the building blocks of human security

Experienced researchers who have also carried out significant fieldwork sometimes produce particularly lucid presentations. Jennifer Leaning (PopTech 2012) has researched human security for years and has field experience in Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Kosovo, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Somalia, the Chad-Darfur border and the African Great Lakes.

Leaning studies Human security, which she says requires a minimum of three things: a sustainable sense of home; attachment to a community; and a positive sense of the future. These are the building blocks for rehabilitating people and families after they experience some of the world's worst nightmares. "I'm looking at the ways in which you can promote health and well-being through time in the setting of war and disaster," she explained to the Camden audience. 

Jennifer Leaning

Leaning has spent considerable time researching the devastating impacts of forced migration in particular — people driven from their homes and communities by war or other disruptions. "Forced migration is a fundamental — fundamental — assault on human security," Leaning said about the 40 million people worldwide who have had to leave their communities because of one calamity or another. "And it creates enormous misery. And it is a major factor in state and regional instability throughout the world," she noted. "My question is, 'How do we get the rest of the world to recognize that a particular form of assault on human society is forced migration?" 

The study of human security has also revealed some frequent characteristics of resilient individuals. Leaning's research suggests that particularly resilient people tend to exhibit a sense of self-worth; identify with a life story or trajectory; have a sense of humor; often had a prior experience bouncing back from trauma; exhibit the capacity to trust others as well as a willingness to forgive; and seem to share a conviction that life has meaning.

Knowing those tenets means that resilience can be cultivated. "Resilience is something that can be taught. It can be lost," Leaning said. "It can be recaptured. It can be re-nurtured."

But resilience is also different from survival skills and coping strategies. "I just want to submit here that not all survivors are resilient," she explained. "There are survivors who are beaten down and haunted. And many of the resilient people may not be in the survivor pool, because part of their notion of meaning is to save and protect, and they may have died." 

Its troubling to consider how many people around the world lack the basic building blocks of human security. 

PopTech is thrilled to announce 'The City Resilient' summit

City Resilient

On June 24 PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation will convene at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a network of citizens, scientists, designers, innovators and leaders for a unique summit on urban resilience.

Hundreds of invited participants will consider questions at the core of urban adaptability in the face of increasing disruptions: How do we improve communities’ self-reliance? How can we invigorate social networks that cut across socioeconomic lines, improve infrastructure and leverage big data? How do culture and the arts and humanities fit in? What about the actions of government, the social sector and community members?

This gathering is designed to foster interactions with stakeholders engaged at the forefront of urban resilience. Share your work with this influential community, and take home powerful new insights from potential partners, allies and friends. We invite you to request an invitation.

(Photo by kevin dooley.)

Ann Masten shows how children bounce back

While they are typically innocent bystanders, children are still susceptible to the disruption and trauma in the world. War, addiction, domestic violence and natural disasters are just a few examples of the tragedies visited on children's lives. 

In some ways, children respond to disruption just like adults. Some children bounce back, adapt and return to a path of normal development. Others continue to suffer in various ways physically or psychologically, sometimes for the rest of their lives. 

But some of the factors that contribute to resilience among children are unique. That's what Ann Masten (PopTech 2012) studies. "Humans have been fascinated with overcoming adversity for a very long time," she said in her Camden talk about her work. "We want to hear stories about people who overcome difficulties."

Ann Masten

Her research suggests a series of factors affect a child's resilience: capable parenting; other close relationships; intelligence; self-control; motivation to succeed; self confidence; hope; good schools; supportive communities; and effective cultural practices. 

Masten said that the degree of trauma a child experiences still has considerable impact on the chance of recovery. "Dose matters," she explained.

But those factors can help children show remarkable resilience in the wake of even severe disruptions. "The greatest danger in my view is not adversity itself," Masten said. "But the damage that can happen to these adaptive systems." 

She added that the most important factor in a child's resilience is the least surprising of all. "The most powerful protective system for a human child is a loving, caring family."

Moran Cerf: from hacking into banks to hacking into brains

Moran Cerf's career as a neuroscientist began at a computer keyboard. Years ago he was hacker. That unusual career arc actually makes sense once you understand what makes Cerf (PopTech 2012) tick.  

When we turn on a computer, the limits of what we can do and see are dictated by device manufacturers, programmers and website developers. Most of us don't think much about the digital bubble we are in online.

But those digital confines frustrated Cerf — and piqued his curiosity. He wanted to explore what was happening on the other side of those seemingly arbitrary boundaries. He sought to pull back the curtain and see how it all works; see what is behind that online reality. (This adventurous spirit also led to Cerf's stint as a bank robber.)

Moran has now brought his brand of curiosity to his exploration of the human brain. "How often does it happen to us in life when things we are supposedly in control of are actually happening by themselves?" he asked the Camden audience. 

Moran Cerf

People are not computers, however. You can't just open up people's skulls and try to figure out what is going on behind their thoughts and emotions. Or can you?

Cerf teamed up with a Los Angeles neurosurgeon who works with patients suffering severe brain problems. The neurosurgeon opens up the patients' skulls and inserts electrodes into their brains to help identify problem areas that require treatment or surgery.  "He keeps those wires in their brain for a few days while they are sitting there, awake, looking at TV and talking to their families," Cerf explained. 

This was Cerf's chance. After all, the patients already had their skulls opened up. He asked those patients if he, too, could monitor their brain activity using electrodes. "The patients are happy to participate and let me see how the brain functions from inside," he said. "So now I can look at the brain while they think and see how thoughts look."

Cerf is able to identify brain cells that respond to specific images. One brain cell, for example, might become active when a patient sees a digital image of Marilyn Monroe, while another lights up at an image of Homer Simpson. "What is interesting about these cells is that they don't just get active when you see something," he added. "They get active when you think about something."

This discovery has led to some remarkable experiments. Patients have been able to teach themselves to activate one cell and deactivate another to make one image appear and another disappear simply by concentrating on one or the other. The patients are actually manipulating images in the outside world using only their minds.

This raises some stunning possibilities. "If we can connect cells to a computer and move images, we can actually replace that with a robotic arm and help people who have lost the ability to move their hands," Cerf explains. 

All of us may one day benefit from the kind of curiosity that once led Cerf to wonder more about what made computers tick. And banks. 

After trauma: Dr. Sandro Galea on who might bounce back

Bad things are likely to happen to us in our lives. Very bad things. Traumatic things. Sadly, as much as we like to deny it, statistics prove this to be the case. 

The way we will each respond and recover to those tragedies and setbacks, however, will differ dramatically. Some of us will sink into deep depression, even long-term dsyfunction. Some of us will skate through seemingly unscathed. 

That strange phenomenon is what Dr. Sandro Galea (PopTech 2012) studies. He is an epidemiologist who examines why some people mentally bounce back after trauma while others continue to suffer, or even get worse. Among other things, his lab performed significant research into mental problems among witnesses to the 9-11 attacks.

In his 2012 PopTech talk, Galea started by shocking us out of denial. "It is ingrained in our minds that bad things happen to other people and sometimes they happen to good people," Galea said. The data Galea shared, however, shows that 9 out of 10 of us will suffer at least one traumatic event in our lifetime. 

Sandro Galea

It gets worse: That frightening number seems likely to only go up. "The number of disasters in the world is increasing and it has been increasing for the past 30 years," he added.

Galea's research plumbs the sometimes-murky relationship between our genetic make up, how our parents behaved, and how the number of exposures to traumatic events can all interact. Those factors help determine how likely we are to seem resilient after disasters, or slip into serious mental problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. 

He also explores the slippery nature of our memory when it comes to trauma. "These events happen," he said. "They are large events. We talk about them and then we forget about them, which is of course a problem if we are going to understand the consequences of bad stuff."

Galea's talk is part of a rich vein of PopTech content about recovering from mental trauma. For example, George Bonanno, (PopTech 2012) a psychology professor at Columbia University, also studies data that show how human beings cope with loss and extreme adversity. And Retired Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, MD (PopTech 2012) and clinical trainer Laurie Leitch, Ph.D. (PopTech 2012) work on neurobiological approaches to social resilience. This line of inquiry seems likely to become more and more relevant with each passing year, as much as we like to deny it. 

Photo Credit: Dwoww via Compfight cc

David Eagleman explores the unconscious brain, morality, and crime and punishment

David Eagleman (PopTech 2012) is a pioneer exploring the last great frontier of the human brain. He is particularly interested in the unconscious brain, how it drives our morality and decision making, and how what we know about those processes informs our thinking about crime and punishment in America. 

The complexity of the brain is dizzying. The human brain weighs only three pounds. But Eagleman notes that it contains tens of billions of neurons. Between those neurons are hundreds of trillions of connections. There are as many neuron connections in a cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way. 

Many of us probably think about the brain as being us: our personality and thoughts. But in fact only a small fraction of those neurons are dedicated to our consciousness — the mind. The large majority of that vast network is actually dedicated to the work of the unconscious brain, which is completely invisible to us. The conscious mind, Eagleman says, is the "broom closet in the mansion of the brain."

Eagleman shared some vivid examples to show how the unconscious brain affects some of our most important life choices. "If your name is Dennis or Denise you are statistically more likely to become a dentist," Eagleman explained. And we are all statistically more likely to choose a spouse with a name that starts with the same letter as our own. That unconscious drive to like things that remind us of ourselves is called "implicit egotism." Other examples were more subtle, but still surprising. If you are holding a mug of hot coffee, for example, you will describe your relationship with your mother as closer than if you are holding an ice coffee. 

But Eagleman also explored some more startling case studies, like how a brain tumor drove Charles Whitman in 1966 to climb to the top of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and gun down more than a dozen people. Whitman, a previously sane man, knew something was the matter and in his suicide note requested a brain autopsy. Eagleman also showed how another brain tumor turned a man with a previously normal sexual appetite into a pedophile. "When the brain changes, you can change also," Eagleman said. "You are tied to your biology and there is no way you can escape that."

The growing body of knowledge about the power of the unconscious brain provokes some interesting philosophical questions about the human condition.  "Are we free to choose how we act? Is the mind equal to the brain?" Eagleman asked. "What seems clear is that if free will exists, it is a small player in the system."

Eagleman is also interested in more practical matters, like how what we are learning about the brain can teach us about American crime and punishment. "Nowadays, when we are talking about morality and decision making, what we are really talking about is the neural basis of this," Eagleman said. 

He established the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine to bring together neuroscientists, judges and policy makers to wrestle with these difficult issues. The work there calls into question the current assumptions at the very heart of the U.S. justice and penal system. These assumptions include the belief that we fundamentally choose how we act, and that all brains are basically equal. "It is a very charitable assumption," Eagleman said. "But it is demonstrably false."

The implications of that are startling. "The problem with these assumptions is that it has led us to treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution," Eagleman said. As a result, America has highest percentage of citizens behind bars in the world, and 30 percent of inmates have mental illness, making American prisons the country's "de facto mental health care system." 

"This does not exculpate anybody," Eagleman said. "What this gives us instead is the capacity to do rational sentencing, to do customized rehabilitation, and to do realistic incentive structuring instead of imagining that everybody respons the same to the same sort of deterrent." 

Photo Credit: cgalvez777 via Compfight cc

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