PopTech Blog

Women and men, haves and have-nots

Contribution by Stephanie Coontz

The theme of this June’s PopTech conference in Iceland, the need for resilience, follows logically from last October’s theme of realignment. I have been doing a lot of thinking about both these issues recently in relation to trends in family life. In my last two presentations at PopTech conferences I described the realignment of marriage norms and male-female relationships as women’s legal rights inside marriage and socioeconomic options outside it have expanded. Both trends have been good news for millions of people around the world.

But undercutting the generally positive direction of these changes has been a disturbing realignment of class relations. Almost everywhere we see a widening gap between rich and poor, and a collapse of traditional working-class routes to economic security. The growing economic and financial stresses facing traditional working-class communities have depleted their reserves of resilience and sources of renewal.

The widening gap between the haves and have-nots goes beyond access to material security. It is also evident in access to stable personal and familial relationships. Among economically secure individuals, there has been a marked increase in gender equity, a decline in family violence, and an increase in the time parents spend cultivating their children’s minds and bodies. But economically insecure individuals now find it harder to establish and maintain stable families and community networks. 

American Museum of Natural History's bright new exhibit on bioluminescence

If you've ever chased fireflies on a warm summer evening or trailed your fingers at night through glowing tropical waters, you've experienced the natural wonder of bioluminescence.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is currently featuring a new show called Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence, which places these glittering stars center stage instead of twinkling in the shadows where they usually dwell.

The show addresses questions like:

  • What is bioluminescence?
  • What organisms are bioluminescent, and where are they found?
  • How does bioluminescence work?
  • How do organisms use bioluminescence to survive in their environment?

See these fantastic creatures as imagined by the talented AMNH design team; LED-lit, lovely and larger than life.

Creatures of Light runs through January 2013.

Nithya Ramanathan on why measurement matters

How do organizations that are working to solve some of the world's most challenging social and environment problems measure the impact of their work, especially when that work is happening in remote areas and on a significant scale? Take, for example, not only gauging air pollution levels in remote villages in India and the corresponding deaths caused by smoke inhalation from cooking indoors over fires but then tracking clean cook stove solutions that reduce the incidence of deaths. Or, how about measuring the population and thereby preventing the extinction of seabirds on remote islands by gathering and analyzing the sound of those birds?

Both of these projects have been tackled by PopTech 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Nithya Ramanathan and the organization she founded, Nexleaf Analytics. Nexleaf Analytics couples low-cost, everyday objects, like cell phones, with sophisticated analytics to transform those devices into scientific instruments. "Using very simple technologies and more complex computational models we're able to dramatically reduce the cost of data collection. This means we can start deploying instruments in hundreds, or even thousands, of households to really get a better understanding of what's going on in the field," explained Ramanathan during her PopTech talk.

In the case of the indoor air pollution problem, a simple pump and air filters coupled with a cell phone photo provides enough data for a computer to parse the risk. Or, in the case of the sea birds, a modified baby monitor, created simply with mobile phones, turns the sound of bird calls into data, which then, in turn, helps scientists understand how the avian populations are changing over time. By using cell phones and other off-the-shelf technologies in new ways, Nexleaf Analytics is providing "real time access so we take action when it matters most," concludes Ramanathan.

PopTech Editions I: James Fowler's 10 points on the science of spreading the word

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from political scientist and PopTech presenter James Fowler.

1. Good deeds are contagious

We naturally imitate the people around us, we adopt their ideas about appropriate behavior, and we feel what they feel. Acts of charity are no exception. In our 2010 generosity experiment, we showed that every extra dollar of giving in a game designed to measure altruism caused people who saw that giving to donate an extra twenty cents.

2. The network acts like a matching grant

That same experiment showed that contagious generosity spreads up to three steps through the network (from person to person to person to person), and when we added up all the extra donations that resulted at every step, we found that an extra dollar in giving yielded three extra dollars by everyone else in the network.

3. Messages get amplified when they spread naturally

People are bombarded by information and appeals every day, especially in our newly mobile and tech-centered society, so the effect of any one appeal to do a good deed may get lost. But don't underestimate the effect of a broadcasting strategy. Our research on get-out-the-vote appeals suggests that the indirect effect of a message on a person's friends is about three times larger than the direct effect on the person who received the message in the first place. The more you can get people to deliver the message naturally, the greater this multiplier effect will be.

4. Close friends matter more

When we studied behaviors like obesity, smoking, and drinking, we found that spouses, siblings, and friends had an effect on each other's behavior, but next door neighbors did not. So any attempt to change people's behavior should probably focus on motivating these "strong ties" rather than broadcasting to a wide range of weak connections.

5. Our real world friends are online, too

Although most relationships online are not strong (the average person on Facebook has 150 "friends"), we do tend to be connected to our closest friends online too. Therefore, it is possible to use online social networks to reach our real world friends to spread social good. If someone is suggesting friends to a person who could help spread the world, it is important to try to figure out which of his/her relationships are also likely face-to-face. We have done this using photo tags and frequency of communication online, both of which work relatively well.

Read all ten of Fowler's points on spreading the word.

This week in PopTech: Rebuilding the dream, designing for impact, and taking back the purple

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.

  • Van Jones (PopTech 2007) is founding president of Rebuild the Dream, a pioneering initiative to restore good jobs and economic opportunity. In Jones' new book, Rebuild the Dream, he reflects on his journey from grassroots outsider to White House insider. For the first time, he shares intimate details of his time in government – and reveals why he chose to resign from his post as a special advisor to the Obama White House. Read an excerpt from the book on GOOD
  • 2008 PopTech Fellow Heather Fleming founded Catapult Design, which helps foundations and non-profits apply design thinking to global development. Interested in learning how to use design to positively impact society? Check out Catapult Labs this May in San Francisco!
  • Artist eL Seed's (PopTech 2011) works are a mixture of street art and Arabic calligraphy. Last week eL Seed brought what he calls calligraffiti to Harvard University and created a piece entitled "Taking Back the Purple." He explained that, “You have to be a kind of ‘artivist,’ an artist and an activist at the same time, and I believe that is the duty of art: to speak what other people do not want to speak. Say loudly what other people don’t want to say.” 

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: eL Seed

Three ideas whose time has come: Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez on the future of world security

Increased investment in human development, a fundamental restructuring of the way international aid is distributed, and a comprehensive treaty to regulate the global trade in small arms are three ideas whose time has come, according to former president of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez.

President Arias presented these ideas during his keynote at last week’s Affordable World Security Conference (AWSC) presented by the EastWest Institute and the W.P. Carey Foundation at the Newseum in Washington D.C. PopTech was one of the conference's many partner organizations.

The AWSC was a two-day event that featured top thinkers and a distinguished guest list to discuss ways in which the United States and other countries must weigh competing priorities and find new ways to ensure comprehensive human security in an era of increasingly limited resources.

For President Arias, investments in education, public health, and poverty reduction are far more likely to increase security for all nations than unchecked investment in weapons of war.

“Imagine the impact on security by reducing poverty by half,” Dr. Arias said in his moving and matter-of-fact speech. “Imagine the impact on security of universal primary education. Imagine the impact on security in eliminating the digital divide. Imagine the impact on security in drastic reductions in hunger and sickness.  These changes would take power from terrorists and dictators in ways that weapons never could.”


Resilience Week at USAID

This week, the USAID is focusing its attention on resilience from an international perspective and specifically exploring ways to do business to avoid crises in the future. Of particular interest to the USAID is the horn of Africa where we held PopTech's Climate Resilience Lab this past February. USAID explains:

While we can't stop catastrophes from occurring, we can do more to help people withstand them so that they don't shatter development gains or give rise to violence that can set countries back decades. USAID is committed to strengthening food security so that droughts no longer lead to food crises. We are committed to expanding our focus from relief to resilience-from responding after emergencies strike to preparing communities in advance.

For more, check out the conference and related conference papers and read the Communique for the Joint IGAD Ministerial and High Level Development Partners on Drought Resilience in the Horn of Africa (pdf).

Image: USAID.Africa

Van Jones on rebuilding a dream

Rebuild the Dream coverWith an election year looming, people are paying careful attention to what's going on in and around the White House. Past PopTech presenter Van Jones offers a unique perspective in his just-released book Rebuild the Dream.

The book describes Jones' journey from green economy activist to his appointment by President Obama in 2009 as first-ever Special Advisor for Green Jobs, a position he left just a few months later. Why he left and why Jones still believes in the concept of the American Dream are focal points in the book and provide the backbone for his Rebuild the Dream movement.

Jones explores how we can create jobs for millions of Americans—including returning veterans, debt-burdened students, and public employees (such as teachers, policemen, and firefighters) who all are increasingly, adversely affected by America's failing economy. Read his take on how the hope Obama built a presidential campaign around lives on at the grassroots level and in the lives of average Americans.      

Unity Dow on a generational shift in Africa

Unity Dow wears many hats. She’s a lawyer, a retired judge (who happens to have been Botswana’s first female high court judge), a prolific author of four works of fiction and one non-fiction, and an advocate for the rights of women and girls. In her PopTech talk, she shared her perspective on a spectrum of topics connected to her pursuits including rethinking the future of Africa, reimagining the role of women and girls, and reclaiming one’s self and identity in the process. Watch Dow's talk or read our complete interview with her, which touches on some of the most salient points from Dow's talk.

PopTech Editions I: Duncan Watts on social contagion: What do we really know?

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from Duncan Watts, a research scientist at Yahoo! Research.

The phenomenon of social contagion—that information, ideas, and even behaviors can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do—is both intuitively appealing and potentially powerful.

It appeals to our intuition for two reasons. First, it is obviously true that people are influenced by one another. Reflecting on our individual experience of life, it is easy to recall any number of instances in which we have been influenced, whether by our parents, our teachers, our coworkers, or our friends, and corresponding instances when we have influenced them. And second, once you accept that one person can influence another, it follows logically that that person can influence yet another person, who can in turn influence another person, and so on. Influence, that is, can spread.

Its potential power arises mostly from this second idea. We know that in the world of infectious disease, global pandemics, infecting millions of people — the Spanish Flu, HIV, and maybe one day Avian Influenza—can be triggered by a single individual, a “patient zero,” from which all subsequent infections are derived. If social influence can spread like a disease, then it is only natural to suspect that “social epidemics” can take place as well, and that they too have their patient zeros who trigger them.

In the 19th century, writers like Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon viewed social contagion with alarm, seeing it as the cause of collective madness, whether in financial markets or mob violence. By the arrival of the 21st century, however, the prevailing view of contagion had become far more positive—particularly in marketing and related fields. If only an enterprising marketer (or some other change agent) could create the conditions for a social epidemic, the reasoning goes, and if only they could find the right people to trigger it, awesome change could be unleashed for relatively little cost.

One belief that hasn’t changed over time, however, is that social epidemics are responsible for dramatic, possibly sudden social change. But is this assumption really true? And if not, then what exactly can social contagion accomplish?

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: An electron micrograph showing recreated 1918 "Spanish Flu" influenza virions via Wikipedia