PopTech Blog

6 questions with...Ian Cheney

PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

“What do we lose when we lose the night?” was the question documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney wondered as he began trying to understand light pollution and its impact on individuals, society, wildlife, and the environment. In his film, The City Dark, Cheney interviews a neurologist, historian, astronomist, and criminologist among others to explore the implications of a world where the lights never completely turn off. In the trailer alone, you’ll be lulled by the serene images of night skies and schooled by the handheld shots of the documentary’s interview subjects, In our newest interview series, 6 questions with…, we asked Cheney a handful of questions, mostly about The City Dark, which premiered recently at SXSW.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Well, yesterday I was on a train to DC to show our short film Truck Farm at the Carnegie Institution of Science. I like working on trains, though; maybe the forward motion gives you the illusion of progress even when you're just daydreaming instead of working on some grant proposal or other.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
At first glance, The City Dark is a film about the scourge of light pollution: how excess artificial light causes ecological problems and energy waste, disrupts circadian rhythms, stymies astronomers, and so on. But on another level, it's also about the way in which we risk - as a modern, urban and digital culture - losing the subtler benefits of a connection to the greater universe. When we disconnect ourselves from nature, and from the stars, I think we lose a valuable context and perspective that helps keep us in check as a society. We run the risk of growing chronically short-sighted and self-centered — cultural character traits that lead us to treat our planet and fellow people rather poorly.

I think a lot of our social and environmental problems stem from our inability to understand our place in space. We live on a tiny planet in a sea of stars; we run the risk of squandering what few resources we've been allotted.

MIT's Global Challenge launches

Last night, we stopped by the launch of MIT’s Global Challenge in New York City. At the intersection of “innovation, development, enterprise, action, and service”, the competition is part of MIT’s “celebration of 150 years of service to the world.”

Program Director Lars Torres explained that the Global Challenge came out of the success of MIT’s IDEAS Competition, which has awarded prizes to student teams for outstanding pubic service innovation since 2001.  Global Challenge takes that competition one step further by connecting students, alumni, and faculty via a web-based ‘marketplace’ to identify urgent needs from communities around the globe, addressing those needs through innovation and collaboration, and conducting an annual competition to award up to $25,000 to the best ideas that tackle problems in underserved communities. Read more...

Truly hearing Hackney

In preparation for the upcoming 2012 London Olympic games, Hackney Hear is an interactive GPS-triggered audio tour of London’s East End (host of the 2012 Olympic Games) that can be experienced on a user's iPhone or Android. Capturing the essense and vitality of Hackney, 400 interviews, features, poetry, and music specific to the borough will play depending on one's location. These audio clips, which provide artistic renderings, historical tidbits and introductions to the borough's diverse communities, will be triggered as a user walks through the streets, creating his/her own personal soundscape. It'll be free and ready for prime time in January 2012.

Collaboration alert: Lauren Abramson and Peter Durand sketch out their time together

This past fall, Peter Durand’s graphic facilitation expertise was in full effect as he trained PopTech Social Innovation Fellows to more efficiently convey their organizations' missions.  He particularly struck a chord with Community Conferencing Center Founder and 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Lauren Abramson, who could see the potential value of his particular communication style in relation to her work with the Community Conference Center (CCC), a conflict transformation and community justice organization.  So, recently Abramson invited Durand to Baltimore to graphically record her organization’s 20-hour Facilitator Training.  What came out of their meeting was so much more than either could have anticipated. In a conversation between Abramson and Durand with PopTech sticking its nose in occasionally, we got a first-hand account.

PopTech: Lauren, what were your goals when you asked Peter to join you in Baltimore?

Lauren Abramson: The original goal was to have Peter do his wonderful graphic recording during our 20-hour Community Conferencing Facilitator Training. That way we would have some engaging artwork that documented the concepts we convey during the training.  We figured we could then use that artwork in our training manuals, our ongoing skill-building work, and possibly for a “Community Conferencing Guidebook” that I’m working on writing.


Image-wise: Agricultural patterns from space

Agricultural fields near Perdizes, Minas Gerais, Brazil, are photographed by an Expedition 26 crew member on the International Space Station in February 2011

via The Telegraph

Image: NASA/SPL/Barcroft Media

The future of the book: Authors as Tamagotchis

Author James Warner's darkly humorous prediction of the future of books, publishing, authors and all things literary, which was foretold on McSweeney's last week, is one perspective on The World Rebalancing theme that'll be discussed at PopTech 2011. In 2040, he suggests that authors will become reminiscent of Tamagotchis:

Having determined that what readers want is a "sense of connection," publishers will organize adopt-an-author promotions, repackaging writers along the lines of Webkinz and other imaginary pets. "Feeding" your favorite authors by buying their books will make their online avatars grow less pale and grouchy. If they starve to death on your watch you will lose social networking points.

For more, read Warner's six-decade projection.

Image: Imeleven

Ecomaterials Lab: A fake leaf with real potential

Artificial leaf

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

It was announced yesterday that researchers from MIT’s Nocera Lab, led by 2009 PopTech speaker Dr. Daniel Nocera, had created an "artificial leaf," an advanced solar cell the size of a playing card that mimics photosynthesis, the process plants use to convert sunlight and water into energy.

Made from silicon, electronics, catalysts and substances that accelerate chemical reactions, the device uses sunlight to break water into hydrogen and oxygen that can then be used to create electricity in a separate fuel cell.  Placed in a gallon of water and left in the sun, Nocera said that these “artificial leaves” could provide a home in the developing world with enough basic electricity for a day.

In a press release from the American Chemical Society, Nocera said:

A practical artificial leaf has been one of the Holy Grails of science for decades. We believe we have done it. The artificial leaf shows particular promise as an inexpensive source of electricity for homes of the poor in developing countries. Our goal is to make each home its own power station. One can envision villages in India and Africa not long from now purchasing an affordable basic power system based on this technology.


This week in PopTech: Burning questions and documenting journeys

Burning Questions on Friendfactor

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.

  • Founder of Friendfactor, Brian Elliot (Social Innovation Fellow 2010) uses friendship to accelerate legal freedoms for LGBT people. A new Friendfactor feature, called Burning Questions, makes it easy to ask difficult questions when a friend or family member comes out. 
  • Gidon Eshel, (Science Fellow 2010) a statistician with a focus on food, is featured in the documentary Planeat, the story of three men’s search for a diet that's good for their health, good for the environment and good for the future of the planet.
  • In more photo related news, our 2010 photo manager, Morrigan McCarthy, is spearheading a new project called The Geography of Youth. It's a worldwide bike journey and documentary photography project exploring what it means to be a 20-something today.

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

Image: Friendfactor

Collaboration alert: Photographers journey to Midway

Photographer Chris Jordan (PopTech 2007, 2009) has returned to Midway, a remote island island in the middle of the Pacific, where he first began documenting, in 2009, the heart-wrenching scenes of countless birds killed by ingesting plastic. The project has since evolved into a feature film.

Following Chris Jordan’s expeditions to Midway and the lifecycle of the Albatross, “Midway” is more than just a documentary or a film about wildlife at risk. “Midway” brings us an opportunity for us to look at our world in close-up, to see how our lives are impacting the planet, and to find new approaches to moving forward.

Jordan’s crew includes Kris Krug, one of our official PopTech photographers, who is documenting the behind the scenes aspects of the trip.

Follow the Midway journey by blog or on Twitter.

The World Rebalancing: A Nigerian pop star in China

In keeping with the spirit of our conference theme for 2011, The World Rebalancing, we present, courtesy of the New York Times, Hao Ge.

A rather remarkable rebalancing act in his own right, Hao, also known as Emmanuel Uwechue, is a Nigerian who sings in Mandarin and is the first African-born entertainer to become a legitimate pop sensation in China. After moving to China in 2002, Uwechue quickly learned Chinese and now writes all of own songs in his adopted language.

Uwechue has undoubtedly achieved success because he is a captivating performer blessed with a great voice. However, in some respects, his success is also representative of the significant and complex relationship that has developed between Nigeria and China over the years.

From the Times:

Among nations with close Sino-African ties, Nigeria in particular has benefited from Chinese capital. China has invested more than $7 billion in energy, communications and infrastructure in the country, which exports some $4.7 billion in crude oil to China each year, according to a recent statement by Li Yizhung, China’s minister of industry and information technology.

“This is not just about Hao Ge,” said Long Hu, 38, a music producer and talent scout in Beijing who cultivates young musical talent. “It’s about China and Africa.”