PopTech Blog

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

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.