PopTech Blog

Goldacre, Smith, and Abramson school us on science fails, short form storytelling and conflict resolution

As we head into the new year, we’ve just released talks from a motley assortment of folks who spoke at PopTech in 2010. Although they cover an array of topics from science to storytelling to conflict resolution, the talks’ overarching theme centers on a willingness to tilt our heads, squint our eyes, and reframe our assumptions about the way we engage in the world.

In his rapid fire talk, Ben Goldacre gives us the low down on debunking fuzzy science. From fishy studies about a fish oil remedy to improve children’s behavior to false claims about the healing power of vitamins to cure HIV, Goldacre digs deep into scientific claims to uncover the truth.

With his Six-Word Memoir Project, Larry Smith captures the “the chicken’s eye view – the little guy pecking at the world trying to make sense of it.” Stories of a mere six words from religious groups, veterans associations, suicide prevention organizations, schools, speed-dating events, and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine are submitted to and published on Smith Magazine. This framework gives anyone an opportunity to voice quite a bit with not too much.

Check out the video compilation of six-word tidbits that Smith collected at the PopTech conference.

Lauren Abramson, PopTech 2010 Social Innovation Fellow, introduced her work with the Community Conferencing Center by sharing an anecdote about how a car theft in Baltimore was resolved. By shifting the emphasis from punishment to learning and accountability, Abramson believes society can reframe how it deals with crime and conflict.

Steve Johnson on how good ideas really emerge

Where do good ideas come from? What kinds of environments make them more likely, and how can we use this knowledge to generate more innovation?

PopTech 2005 speaker Steven Johnson tackles these questions in his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation., which explores interesting stories about scientific, technological, and cultural breakthroughs. They include how Darwin’s “eureka moment” about natural selection was actually the slow evolution of ideas that eventually crystallized into an articulate theory; how Gutenberg borrowed a crucial idea from the wine industry to invent modern printing; and why GPS was accidentally developed by a pair of twenty-somethings messing around with a microwave receiver.

His most ambitious work to date, Johnson integrates many of his earlier ideas from Everything Bad is Good for You and The Invention of Air. into a kind of how-to book. With this latest work, Johnson has crafted a “natural history” of innovation by exploring the unusually successful spaces of innovation across cultural and natural systems. This “long zoom” approach moves from the complexity of the coral reef and the chemical soups from which life emerged to the architecture of successful science labs and the information networks of the Web.


Spark: Green Power's powerful simplicity

Growing Power (left) and Spark Connector Sarina Chawla (right).

About a week ago, high school senior Sarina Chawla immersed herself in the world of innovative agriculture when she visited Growing Power, an urban farm and community food center located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Chawla had attended PopTech 2010 as part of the PopTech Spark initiative, designed to inspire and encourage science, technology, engineering and math- (STEM) related endeavors—and Growing Power provided a look at how STEM is used in all aspects of the organization, from the science of composting to engineering stormwater systems. Founded by PopTech 2009 presenter and Spark Innovator, Will Allen, Growing Power utilizes urban spaces that farms typically don’t use to grow food and community. Allen explains his motivation, “I realized people didn’t have access to healthy food and I thought I could bring farms into the city.”


This week in PopTech: Mushrooms, waves and plastic bottle sailboat adventures

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.

  • Ecovative Design, founded by Social Innovation Fellow Eben Bayer, just launched its first consumer product, the MycoBowl, made out of 100% mushrooms and seed husks.
  • 2010 PopTech speaker Susan Casey, author of The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean took on tsunamis and science on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a couple weeks ago.
  • Brooklyn Denim Co. invited four artists and designers to rethink Time Warner Cable’s logo for a series of limited edition t-shirts. Proceeds from t-shirt sales will support initiatives here at PopTech.

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.

Images: Ecovative

Lost and Found: Colin Rich's <em>PopStar</em> journeys to near space and is recovered on the Canadian coastline

The weather conditions weren’t ideal, Colin Rich recalled in a recent phone interview.


The artist planned to release one of his DIY camera-balloons at PopTech 2010. In preparation for the balloon’s release, he had installed two secondhand digital cameras inside a Styrofoam mannequin head he’d dubbed PopStar, attaching the head to a homemade high-altitude weather balloon with a bit of duct tape and some string. The plan was that once in flight, the cameras would regularly collect videos and still images until, around 125,000 feet, the balloon would burst and deploy a parachute. Rich hoped PopStar would safely land within 100 miles of the central Maine launch site but gusting winds threatened to whisk it hundreds of miles away.

Rich launched the device and hoped for the best.

“Something went wrong near the apex [of the flight]. Maybe there was a gust of wind or the parachute deployed too early,” Rich recalled. When he recovered the PopStar rig in a blueberry field using the GPS that had been attached to the contraption, he only found the mannequin head and one of the cameras. The parachute as well as the base — and the second camera within it — were missing. Somehow, the rig had fallen apart in midair.

Colin presented images from the one recovered camera on the PopTech stage “We were at a conference on necessary failures so it seemed to fit the theme. I figured the [second] camera was lost forever.”

Then, in early December, Rich received a Facebook message from St. Andrew’s Oceanographic Institute researcher Josh Nunn: I have the missing camera!

Rich learned that the camera had landed off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada, floating in the Bay of Fundy for several weeks until researchers fished it out of the water. The external case was battered. Salt and battery acid had corroded everything. The camera was ruined but the camera’s memory card was still intact!

It would have have been thrown away except that Nunn noticed that the card contained footage – and Rich’s name embedded in the files. After finding a Huffington Post article on Rich, Nunn realized that these images might be important so he found him on Facebook.

Within a week, Rich received a box containing the missing media. Some of the footage had been corrupted, but Rich has been able to salvage much of the material, including this video.

To find its way back to Rich, the camera had traveled 24 miles into the air, over 150 miles across North America, and then across cyberspace. “Out of the sheer vastness of space, someone had tracked down the missing camera and found me through the Internet,” Rich laughed. “I think that’s the really cool thing to come out of this.”

Meet the Spark Connectors

If you’ve checked out Spark, PopTech’s pilot youth initiative, you might have noticed that high school students are a critical part of the campaign.



Four rising seniors were selected as this year’s Spark Connectors: Keziah Green and Anthony Morris, both from BCAM High School in Brooklyn, New York; Molly White, from Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, Maine; and Sarina Chawla, from Tesla Engineering Charter School in Neenah, Wisconsin.

In advance of PopTech 2010, all four Connectors attended a one-day workshop, learning how to visualize ideas with Peter Durand, tell stories with Radio Lab’s Jad Abumrad, and produce video with Chris Walker-Spencer. During the conference, the Connectors used these tools on the Spark blog to record their thoughts and interviews about the speakers they’d seen present.

Molly met and interviewed a couple of her favorite speakers, eco-adventurer David de Rothschild and Graham Hill. Sarina practiced the visual approach to telling stories, capturing two views on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Keziah learned what being wrong reveals about memory and human nature. She and Anthony also found time to celebrate the hard-working staff that produces the PopTech conference every year.

When asked what they had learned at PopTech, Anthony summed it up nicely. “It only takes one person to change the world. I want to be part of that.”

PopTech contributor Jonathan Laurence captured these students’ participation with the Spark program at PopTech 2010. Check it out!

Photos:Thatcher Hullerman Cook

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.”

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

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.”