PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Happiness, gifts and saving civilization

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.

  • Social Innovation Fellow Yasser Ansari has something to be excited about: Project Noah contributor Isabel Rubio Pérez made history when she submitted her 1000th spotting. As one of Project Noah’s earliest supporters, she has contributed an amazing assortment of beautiful photos from all over the world.
  • Just in time for the holidays, Lisa Gansky has released the Mesh Holiday Gift Guide, an offbeat take on holiday giving where there are “no boxes, no gift wrap, no batteries required.”

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Images: Isabel Rubio Perez

Share the wealth and spread the word with Elizabeth Dunn and Sinan Aral

Happiness and money do go hand-in-hand, explained Elizabeth Dunn during her PopTech 2010 talk. But, it’s not the simple more-money, more-happiness equation that we might assume. In fact, during studies Dunn and her team conducted, it became apparent that there was a threshold at which point greater wealth led to a decreased ability to savor.

In addition, they found that those people who spent their money on others – friends, co-workers, teammates, charitable organizations and so forth – felt a greater sense of well-being than those who spent it on themselves.

So what if we could channel those good vibes associated with spending money on others to a broader audience and create a movement?

Which leads to 2010 Science Fellow Sinan Aral’s work: how does behavior spread throughout a population? If we can tap into that know-how, Aral believes we can leverage the power of networks, new technologies, and modes of communication to promote positive behaviors like financial responsibility, tolerance, and exercise and stifle detrimental behaviors like fraud, dirty needle sharing, and violence. The implications of Aral’s work can be applied to diverse fields including, for starters, epidemiology, innovation management and development economics as well as, perhaps, the correlation between wealth and contentedness.

Hayat Sindi talks science and leadership with high school girls

Hayat Spark Event

As part of PopTech’s Spark youth initiative, biotech entrepreneur Dr. Hayat Sindi visited Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, Maine this past Thursday. Sindi shared her story about how she became a world-class scientist and innovator and discussed challenges the participating 10th grade students face in achieving their goals.

Sindi recounted how, as a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, she dreamed of becoming a scientist. Despite significant social pressure to remain at home, Sindi moved to the U.K. to pursue her studies. Once there, Sindi said, many doubted her ability and resolve. Undeterred, she earned her PhD in biotechnology and achieved international recognition for her work. Not content to just succeed in the lab, Sindi has become a social innovation leader, helping to develop a portable, low-cost diagnostic tool that makes it possible to monitor patients in even the most remote settings.

While her work could transform global health worldwide, Sindi revealed that she still faces significant challenges. She told the students that some critics have dismissed her accomplishments, suggesting that true science is only practiced in the lab. Sindi brushed off this criticism. “We need to extend the social benefits of nanotechnology to the poorest in this world,” Sindi explained. “They are the ones who could benefit most from this kind of work.” Sindi is also developing more opportunities for scientific research, and for women in the sciences, in the Middle East.


Lisa Gansky wants us to join the sharing economy – and give better gifts this holiday season

With the recession lingering on, technology entrepreneur Lisa Gansky thinks it’s the perfect reason to give experiences rather than more stuff this holiday season.

Gansky introduced the idea when she spoke at PopTech 2010 about her predictions for the future of business. She revealed how the interconnected relationships and information of the emerging “mesh” economy is making it far easier to share goods and services without the expense of ownership. Gansky recently published a book on the subject, called The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing.

A number of companies, among them Netflix and the car sharing service Zipcar, are taking advantage of the data-rich “mesh” to build richer experiences and stronger brands by providing people with what they need the moment they need it. [Other companies can be found in her book, and in the accompanying online directory.]

The “mesh” is not just good for business, says Gansky. It’s also good for consumers. Web-enabled mobile devices and social networks are “taking the friction out of sharing,” unleashing the true impact of peer-to-peer relationships by helping consumers buy less but use more.

Mesh Gift Guide

Gansky’s gift guide is a great way to join the experience marketplace, presenting an offbeat take on holiday giving where there are “no boxes, no gift wrap, no batteries required.”


Talking trash and making monsters with Tierney Thys

On November 20th, marine biologist Dr. Tierney Thys met with students and artists/scientists from Monterey County and Fresno, California schools to talk trash as part of PopTech’s Spark initiative. Thys explained how trash makes its way to the ocean, gathers in ocean gyres and endangers the lives of countless marine creatures. In fact, some forms of pollutants, like plastics, can become exponentially more dangerous as they transform from physical threats to chemical threats. In fleshing out ways to combat this growing problem, participants considered various solutions including the four Rs: Refuse single-serving plastic containers as well as Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

Keeping those ideas in mind, the monster-making began. Drawing from five wheel barrels brimming with beach trash collected by the community days before the event, participants quickly transformed the mountains of plastic, Styrofoam, cigarette butts, juice boxes, wrappers and lids into sculptural masterpieces. Students wrote and recorded descriptions of their creations.

Emma Finch, a 12-year old participant, described the sculpture she titled "The Three UnWise Men”:

This piece exemplifies three types of foolishness we see in the world today. On the far right is the Polluter, an “Average Joe” who is in denial about environmental concerns and continues living the “disposable” life. Front and center is the Pyromaniac, an unsavory individual whose incessant smoking harms himself and others. On the
far left is the insidious Perpetrator of Lies. This is the guy who will tell you that global warming is fake and smoking is good for you. He’ll do anything to make a profit.

On December 15, all works of art will be exhibited at the Monterey Plaza Hotel as part of National Geographic’s Marine Recreation Community Workshop. Thys hopes to continue her work with Trash Monsters by partnering with the Ocean Conservancy as well as making Trash Monster events an annual part of the International Coastal Cleanup.

Images: Tierney Thys

Alan Rabinowitz saves big cats and Brian Hare gets schooled by bonobos

Panthera CEO Alan Rabinowitz’s debilitating stutter as a child led him to seek refuge amongst animals. He felt most comfortable during trips to the Bronx zoo where he hunkered down at the great cat house to watch powerful jaguars, lions, and cougars locked in a cage with no voice of their own. As a child, he vowed to be their voice. Since then, Rabinowitz has devoted his life to do whatever possible to conserve these animals and their habitats.

For years, he worked to set up safe havens for these animals including the world’s only jaguar sanctuary in Belize and the largest tiger reserve in Myanmar. But for Rabinowitz, that wasn’t enough. “No matter how fast I ran, no matter how many hours I stayed up in a day, no matter how many protected areas I set up, I was losing. And at this point in time, I had set up about eight protected areas over 15,000 square kilometers of pristine habitat for these animals to live and I could not keep pace with human kind. I couldn’t keep pace with the way people were killing and mistreating these big cats.”

Then Rabinowitz had an epiphany. He discovered that jaguars, without being cordoned off in their own sanctuaries, were surviving, thriving, and finding their way through the human landscape from Mexico to Argentina. So what if he could create a corridor in which these animals could move freely, a space still inhabited by humans, but safe for these animals? That idea has been set in motion with a corridor of private and public land established in Central and South America, the result of tireless collaboration between governments, local communities, and conservationists. Next up: Rabinowitz is working on developing a similar model for tigers throughout India, China and Southeast Asia.

From cats to chimps, Duke University Evolutionary Anthropology and Cognitive Neuroscience professor Brian Hare studies the origins of human nature as it relates to bonobos. Looking at the evolution of these primates’ social skills has informed how he considers humans’ abilities to problem solve and resolve conflict. His findings, which he shares with us on the PopTech stage, have left him doubting the generally held viewpoint that humans are the most highly evolved species.

The Economist dissects the meaning of failure

Shirley Tilghman from PopTech on Vimeo.


In exploring the theme of PopTech’s 2010 conference, “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs,” we turned to our friends at The Economist, who conducted interviews on the subject at their Ideas Economy conference.
Ten presenters, including John Maeda, Shirley Tilghman, and Stephen Pinker, were asked to describe the role failure plays in their innovation process. Award-winning Economist correspondent Vijay Vaitheeswaran introduced the series from the stage at PopTech. Check out all the videos, and visit The Economist’s new online ideas forum, the Ideas Economy, for more.

Imogen Heap and Yasser Ansari reconnect with nature

Imogen Heap had two objectives when she took the PopTech stage last month. She introduced the audience to her newest initiative, a collaboration with social entrepreneur Thomas Ermacora entitled Love The Earth. The film and sound project combines crowd-sourced videos of nature with music scored by Heap herself. Heap hopes that capturing these images of the natural world for this project will renew each participant’s own sense of wonder about something we so often overlook.

Shifting gears, she then played a tune for the PopTech audience.

Yasser Ansari also thinks the key to reconnecting with the planet is reinvigorating that child-like wonder we used to have about the world around us. His organization, Project Noah (Networked Organisms and Habitats), is giving us the tools to make that happen. Through a mobile platform, users can upload images of their own encounters with nature, experience the wildlife around them with a location-based field guide, and participate in scientific research projects.

Ansari elaborates, “So whether it’s an oil spill in the Gulf coast, rain forest deforestation in Central America, or an invasive species, like a beetle here in Maine, our users are going to be on the front lines documenting those encounters in nature. Maybe down the road they’ll discover a new species or make a new discovery for science.” A new generation of citizen scientists has just been given its toolkit.

Popular Science recognizes Pieter Hoff's Groasis waterboxx

If you attended or watched the PopTech 2010 conference, you might remember Pieter Hoff’s Groasis waterboxx presentation. Well, the folks at Popular Science noticed his invention, and they gave him a couple of awards for it — the Grand Award of Green Tech and the Overall Award of Popular Science, to be exact.

If you missed the talk, here it is.

Or, read about it to get a quick idea.

And be sure to check out our short interview with Pieter during the conference.

Siddhartha Mukherjee and Nina Dudnik fill significant scientific gaps

On the heels of his PopTech talk on the history of cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book on the topic, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, has just been published. Already receiving rave reviews by The New Yorker and The New York Times, the concept behind the book was first developed when Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, was treating a patient who pressed him for what seemed like pretty straightforward information about her disease.

He recalls, during his PopTech talk, the questions to which she was seeking answers: “What was it that she was fighting? How old was it? Since when has it begun to envelop our lives the way that it does today? Where are we going? What happens next and how did we get here in this moment of time with cancer being what it is?” Recognizing there was no resource he could direct his patients to for those answers, he took matters into his own hands to become “cancer’s biographer” and close the gaps about what we don’t know about cancer’s storied past.

Nina Dudnik, a 2010 Social Innovation Fellow, is also working to fill in scientific gaps, but in a very different way. With Seeding Labs, the organization she launched in 2003, Dudnik matches labs in the U.S. that are discarding a surplus of up-to-date gently used supplies with their counterparts in developing countries that could benefit greatly from the reclaimed equipment. Furthermore, to address the sense of isolation that many scientists with whom she was working feel, she established a network to connect them with one another. As a result of Seeding Labs’ facilitation, labs in 16 countries throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia have linked up with those in the United States to share skills, resources, and training as well as to cultivate the talent pool and strengthen the scientific community.