PopTech Blog

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

This week in PopTech: Extraordinary women and enduring voices

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.

  • K. David Harrison (PopTech 2008) leads language revitalization projects in an effort to preserve the dying and disappearing languages of the world. Harrison, who is currently working with National Geographic's Enduring Voices, recently returned from Kalmykia, Russia, home to Europe's only indigenous Buddhist people, where he documented Kalmyk music, storytelling, and a strong language revitalization movement among Kalmyk youth. 
  • Longtime friend of PopTech and Social Innovation Fellows faculty member, Ken Banks' new initiative, Means of Exchange, is working to bolster community resilience by focusing on methods of economic self-sufficiency. 
  • Neuroscientist and best-selling author David Eagleman (PopTech 2010) took to Reddit for a live Q&A earlier this week. Here's what he had to say about science, art and tapping the mysteries around us.

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: Lee

Matt's back and he's still dancing

The world first admired his moves back in 2008 when his video Where the Hell is Matt went viral. Now game designer and international traveler Matt Harding is back, shaking his thing in countries all around the globe. 

Check Matt out as he dances in Damascus, boogies in Bratislava, and juggles in Kabul. The latest video was shot in 71 locations, including 55 countries and 11 states. Seattle-based Matt says Americans should travel abroad more, and appreciates that his dancing gives him an opportunity to see places he would never get to otherwise.

Matt may have two left feet, but they certainly have taken him to some interesting places.

PopTech Editions II: Andrew Zolli on connecting the curves of the micro-everything revolution

Last week, 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 contribution from our PopTech’s Executive Director, Andrew Zolli.

Today, there are two kinds of curves shaping technological progress. Their interplay will frame the micro-everything revolution for decades to come – and with it, our efforts to alleviate poverty, build resilience and drive social change.

The first kind of curve is one we’re well acquainted with here in the Global North: the accelerating, upward trajectory associated with many forms of advanced technology. Whether measuring computer processing power, data storage, network connectivity, bandwidth, gene sequencing, or solar panel efficiency, many technologies are undergoing a continuous growth in the upper bounds of their capacity. In the process, they are continually enlarging what we might call the Scope of the Possible.

When we hitch a ride on this kind of curve, the effects can be self-compounding. When the U.S. labor market was linked to the ever-accelerating World of Bits, for example, huge increases in productivity, knowledge and creativity followed. These increases fed on themselves, further fueling the upward tilt of what has become an (almost) perpetual motion machine of innovation. Yet, while dramatic, there is nothing inherently magical about the U.S. experience: stop by a place like Nairobi’s iHub today, and you will see a thriving community of African entrepreneurs and technologists who, like their Palo Alto peers, are busy inventing the future, and with it, one suspects, significant future wealth.

Slightly less well-appreciated is the second kind of curve: the plunging per-unit cost of various forms of technological functionality, which in turn has enabled access to technology across much of the Global South. The cost of say, wirelessly transmitting a gigabyte of data, sequencing a human genome or detecting a novel pathogen is decelerating rapidly. This is because, as the underlying technologies increase their capacity, they also become more efficient, in terms of materials, energy, economics, space and time. What yesterday took a million dollars and a machine the size of a school bus to achieve, will just as likely be done tomorrow in a millisecond, for a few pennies, in the palm of your hand.

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Anand Giridharadas: To check in or to linger longer

In Anand Giridharadas' (PopTech 2011) most recent Currents column for the New York Times, Going Online to Check In, Not Check Out, he looks at the different strategies tech companies employ to keep us engaged. He suggests two schools of thought: In the Facebook school, it's about keeping you online as long as possible. In the Foursquare school, it's about checking in, checking out, and continuing on with your life, IRL. He elaborates:

Members of the “get offline” camp speak of their companies’ role in a customer’s life very differently — as episodic, fading in and out, there only in the key moments. As a result, their business models often come from taking a cut of the transactions they facilitate rather than from advertisements.

Giridharadas is an author who writes about a "world in transition," a transition that can be seen not only in virtual spaces but also in physical and psychologoical spaces. He addresses those physically- and culturally-motivated shifts in his PopTech talk, as well as in his book, India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking, when he returns to live in India as an adult and encounters a culture moving from traditional and collective values to a me-centric individualism.

Sounds like Iceland

In just over a week, PopTech will convene a network of resilience researchers, practitioners, and thought leaders for a unique gathering in Iceland to explore resilience in its many forms. We look forward to sharing this year-long journey, Toward Resilience, here on the blog. If you're joining us in Iceland, we'll see you soon!

To start getting in the Nordic mood, we've put together a mix of Icelandic music for your listening pleasure.

Here's the playlist: 

  1. Amiina - Over and Again
  2. Útidúr - Fisherman's Friend
  3. Of Monsters And Men - Little Talks
  4. Lay Low - By And By
  5. Sigur Rós - Gobbledigook
  6. Emiliana Torrini - Jungle Drum (Jai Paul Remix) 
  7. Retro Stefson - Kimba (Inspired by Iceland)
  8. Björk - Virus
  9. Pascal Pinon - I Wrote a Song
  10. Sin Fang - Two Boys
  11. Lay Low  - I Forget It's There
  12. FM Belfast - American

Sit back, relax and enjoy the jams.

Image: Brian Suda

Shout out to Siggi Baldursson and Icelandic Music Export for turning us on to some great Icelandic sounds.

This week in PopTech: Brain scans, sustainable finance and the micro-everything revolution

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.

  • Adrian Owen (PopTech 2010) has found a way to use brain scans to communicate with people who are in vegetative states. This week, Owen talks to Nature about the fight to take his methods to the clinic.
  • If you missed it earlier this week, we released PopTech Editions II - Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution, the second feature in our series that examines an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. As with our last Edition, this one serves as a guide to a timely topic with original essays and articles from contributors, interviews from the field, videos on and off the PopTech stage, and more. Take a look.

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: Kenny Stoltz

Rachel Hope Allison's sea monster story

plastic bags heading to the ocean

Most PopTechers know all about the massive vortex of plastic that swirls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We've written about marine biologists making monsters out of ocean trash and featured activist ocean rowers. The PopTech stage has hosted heartbreaking slideshows of plastic debris and its effect on animals and impassioned environmentalists describing sailing ships made of plastic bottles to call attention to these troubled waters.

There's a newly-published graphic novel that illustrates the problem of plastic. Illustrator Rachel Hope Allison created the book, I'm Not a Plastic Bag, to tell a story of "loneliness, beauty, and humankind’s connection to our planet". The book gently reveals how our carelessly discarded everyday items combine to create something truly monstrous. With its lovely images and simple, sad story of this monster who doesn't fit it, it's an interesting way to introduce the topics of pollution, conservation, and stewardship to a younger audience. 

Plastic monster in the sea

According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), plastic accounts for 90 percent of all debris floating in the oceans. It's also the majority of the trash that washes up on our beaches. With projects like Allison's bringing awareness to the issue and an increasing number of cities and states banning plastic bags (including, most recently, Seattle), maybe this real-life monster will one day be the stuff of fiction.  

Hat tip to Treehugger

Images: Publisher Archaia; copyright Rachel Hope Allison

Announcing PopTech Editions II - Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution


We’re excited to introduce PopTech Editions II - Small is beautiful: The micro-everything revolution, the second feature in our series that examines an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. As with our last Edition, this one serves as a guide to a timely topic with original essays and articles from contributors, interviews from the field, videos on and off the PopTech stage, and more.

In this Edition, we've called upon our vast network for their varied viewpoints on the dynamics that shape the micro-everything trend, from design and engineering for radical affordability to overcoming hurdles to distribution. How are innovations in low-cost manufacturing, information technology, design, and distribution making it possible to deliver goods and services that were scarcely imaginable a few years ago, at price points that were similarly inconceivable, to consumers who were previously excluded from accessing them? We've dug deep into that question -  and others related to it - in this Edition:

And in case you missed it back in March, check out our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good.

We'd love to hear what you think! Please let us know in the comments.