PopTech Blog

At PopTech: The courage to summon creativity

Courage was a common theme expressed on the first day of PopTech’s 2013 gathering, “Sparks of Brilliance,” a convening to explore the nature of creativity. Athletes, artists and engineers all described overcoming fear as an integral — even paramount — component of the creative process. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of physical pain.

Rodney Mullen is a legend among street skaters. He invented most of the tricks in any great skateboarder’s toolbox: the flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip.

And his body has paid the price. At times in his life, Mullen has had so much scar tissue in his hip joints it has impaired his ability to walk. He showed the Camden audience some frightening videos of skaters going down in some horrific, frightening wrecks. “This may come as a surprise to you,” Mullen joked. “Skateboarding can be hard on the body.”

Mullen

But he insisted that the courage and tenacity to get back up, continue trying and continue inventing despite fear and physical pain was a part of coming up with new stunts and continuously improving. “What we do as skateboarders is we fall. We get back up and we fall,” Mullen explained. “There is a correlation between overcoming, resilience, drive and success.”

For Mullen, the creative process also includes relaxing the mind and ignoring any conventional wisdom that says something can’t be done or achieved. “The biggest obstacle to creativity is piercing through this obstacle of disbelief,” he told the Camden audience.

Helen Marriage is a co-director of Artichoke, a creative company, which she founded with Nicky Webb in 2005. Artichoke enables artists to create breathtaking, city-wide art installations that she calls, “large-scale public interventions.”

Helen Marriage

For example, “The Sultan’s Elephant” in May 2006 was the largest free theater ever seen in downtown London. It included a giant, 42-ton mechanical elephant, joined by a 20-foot tall girl, that entertained audiences for four days with sprays of water and rides. 

Marriage is mesmerized by the transformation of public spaces into theaters for shared artistic experiences. “The point is the brilliance of these artists in reimagining our world,” she says

But some of her job is surprisingly mundane: She has to convince public bureaucrats — transportation officials, police, public administrators — to agree to allow these huge interventions to move forward. Mostly, Marriage says those officials are often afraid. They are afraid that traffic will be snarled. They are afraid people will be angry. They are afraid that people won’t like it.

Marriage’s job, in part, is to convince those officials to have the courage to let the creativity happen. “There are many reasons why people are frightened. One of my jobs is to identify those anxieties and take them away,” she says. “The point is the transformation of the human being.”

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson are aerospace engineers.  They recently won the 33-year-old AHS Sikorsky Prize, for the first flight of a human-powered helicopter to exceed 60 seconds duration and reach 3 meters in height.

Todd Reichert

The machine they built is a sprawling, complex monster with four sweeping blades and a bicycle at the center —  big enough to fill up an airplane hangar. “It has the wingspan of a 737 and weighs less than a seat in that aircraft,” Robertson explained.

Cameron Robertson

But to do it, both engineers described a process of setting out to design something that many other engineers believed could not be achieved. They also failed many, many times. The pair thrilled the Camden audience with a video of their prototype violently crashing again and again before they finally achieved stable flight. “Impossible is nothing,” Robertson said.

This was also true of Zach Lieberman, who helps kids summon the courage to be creative at his School for Poetic Computation. “One of the things I promote as a professor is this idea of fearlessness,” he said. And it was true of artist Shantell Martin, who has to have the courage to let her pen have a life of its own in order to create her stunning illustrations. “I don’t know where the pen is going,” she said “The pen is going and I am just following.”

And for the many speakers and Fellows who presented on day one of PopTech 2013, the strength, courage and resolve to be creative formed a unifying theme. What revelations will day two bring?

Photos by PopTech.



At PopTech: A clutch of scientists sparks innovation in the Middle East

The Arab world was once such a hotbed of innovation that the torrent of technological breakthroughs that took place there starting around the 7th century is sometimes called the “1,001 Inventions.” The era witnessed the first flying machine, the first hospitals and the paramount invention of coffee.

But today the same region is often considered a consumer culture that often lacks the means to promote and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and is largely devoid of the kinds institutions and informal networks that recognize and cultivate innovation.

Hayat

Saudi scientist Dr. Hayat Sindi believes that the region is awash with youth and talent that remains largely untapped. “We have been consumers for a long time,” Sindi said about that part of the world. “It’s now time to transform into an industrialized society that can match the world’s most advanced economies.”

Several years ago Sindi set out to establish an organization to cultivate an ecosystem of innovation that would embrace and assist young scientists from the Middle East who have particularly promising ideas or prototypes in the fields of energy, health, water and the environment. She called it the i2 Institute (imagination and ingenuity) and her work is coming to fruition. The institute formally launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in November 2012.

The central focus of i2 is a robust fellows program. In May, the first six i2 fellows began an intensive training program focused on entrepreneurship, business and social sciences. Sindi’s program has attracted the support of the MIT Media Lab, PwC, IBM and Harvard University, and it includes five weeks of training in Cambridge, Mass.   

The idea is to elevate the fellows’ ideas, improve and broaden their skill sets, and help bring their projects to scale. But the program is also supposed to create examples of entrepreneurial success from the Middle East and to cultivate a culture of innovation. “We need to connect the dots,” Sindi explained. “Good inventors need the right environment and part of my job is to contribute to the creation of a larger ecosystem.”

Hayat by Durand

The social science portion of the fellows training includes a trip to PopTech, and Sindi’s fellows are in Camden this week, meeting, observing the conference and networking. Sindi was previously a PopTech Science Fellow and a Social Innovation Fellow and benefited from that training and networking herself.

Sindi says PopTech deserves considerable credit for i2’s success thus far, and she traces the idea for the fellows program back to a pivotal meeting with PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli and President Leetha Filderman at PopTech’s annual conference back in 2009. “That was very important,” Sindi said. “They gave me connections to the right people who would help me. Their constant support has really inspired me.”

Saudi microbiologist Hosam Zowawi is one of the first i2 fellows. Zowawi was working on his doctorate at the University of Queensland in Australia studying the spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the Middle East. He was overwhelmed with the burden of studying around a thousand samples of bacteria looking for superbugs.  “I was thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to analyze all these samples?’” So Zowawi came up with a new, rapid diagnostic tool that now promises to aid in initial medical management and the implementation of infection control precautions.

It’s a promising breakthrough, but has not yet been brought to scale. “I have a science background and no business background at all. It was hard to figure out how I would commercialize this tool,” he said. “Thankfully, I found i2.”

Like Sindi, Zowawi is similarly evangelical about cultivating an atmosphere of innovation in the Middle East. “The current belief is you can’t do this type of thing in this culture,” he said about that region. “This shows that the culture of entrepreneurship is starting to grow.”

All revolutionary eras start somewhere. Perhaps Zowawi is one of the first pioneers of the next 1,001 Inventions.

Get Social at PopTech 2013

This week on Oct. 24-26 our annual showcase of world-changing people, projects and ideas takes place in Camden, Maine. Whether you're joining us in Camden or watching the livestream at home, here are a few ways to maximize your PopTech 2013 experience. 

  • The official hashtag for this year's conference is #poptech. 
  • Be sure to stop by the Camden Village Green Oct. 24-26 (across the street from the Camden Opera House) to check out "parkSPARKS," an interactive art installation from By Design involving hammocks, reclaimed float rope, mesh and local lumber from a Maine barn.
  • On Saturday, Oct. 26, speaker and skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen will be at the Camden Skate Park, located just uphill from the Opera House at 10 Knowlton Street. Be sure to stop by and say hello to the man who invented numerous skateboarding tricks, including the flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip. The park will open at 2:00pm and Rodney will stop by at 2:30pm. Please note that children 10 years old and under who will be skateboarding need to have a parent or guardian present. Additionally, anyone under 18 who will be skateboarding needs to have a parent or guardian sign a release form at the skate park. 

Image: Peter Durand

Friday Flashback: PopTech playlist

We're thrilled that HEM will be performing at PopTech 2013 in just two weeks! To celebrate, we put together a playlist of a few hits from HEM, Olivia Chaney, and other artists who have graced the PopTech stage over the years. From Rodrigo y Gabriela, OK Go, John Legend, to Blitz the Ambassador - enjoy this eclectic mix of sounds and genres. 

PopTech 2013 schedule, band, new Immersions

PopTech at the Camden Opera House

In just two weeks, many of you will be gathering in the Camden Opera House at PopTech's "Sparks of Brilliance." We have exciting updates to share and a few peeks into what you can expect to see and do while you're in Camden. As usual, we have a few surprises up our sleeves as well. Care to join us? There's still time

Schedule: Our schedule of daily sessions is live! Find out when speakers and Fellows will be taking the stage. 

Music for your listening pleasure: Get ready to tap your feet! Brooklyn-based band HEM will be performing. 

PopTech Immersions - your pick: After two days of stage talks, presentations and performances, you may be ready for an adventure with fellow attendees or you may crave additional structured discussions. It's your lucky PopTech - we're offering both on Saturday, Oct. 26!

Carefully designed excursions such as sailing, a photo workshop, a farm tour and a cooking class are available for registation. We're also offering smaller structured discussions focused on issues shaping the future, such as Hacking the City and The Meaning of Making, for you to atend. In addition, attendees can soon sign up for a drawing workshop with artists Shantell Martin and Zach Lieberman, which will investigate the space where drawing, electricity and computation meet. 

Demonstrations: The PopTech experience goes far beyond the stage. In and around the Camden Opera House you'll encounter 3-D printing with MakerBot, a crash course on music production and coding with the team behind EarSketch, speaker and artist Shantell Martin bringing her illustrations to life, and much more. 

See you soon!

Photo: Dan Austin  

PopTech 2013 - Less than one month away!

The one month countdown has begun! We’re finalizing logistics and designs, putting final touches on the program, and counting the days until “Sparks of Brilliance” officially kicks off on Oct. 24.

If you haven’t already, now is the time to secure your seat for next month’s convening in Camden, Maine. Here are a few reasons why:

1.   Meet and learn from creative leaders
Sparks of Brilliance” promises to be a fascinating discussion, as creativity crosses industries, personalities and cultures. Where does creativity come from? How is it expressed and maintained? You’ll leave Camden informed and inspired by our amazing roster of speakers, including designers, psychologists, artists, gamers, NASA scientists, comedians and many more.

2.   World-changing projects and research
Our newly announced 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows will take the stage to present their work. How can statistical machine learning help to personalize disease treatments? In what ways do art and design impact how we engage with and practice science? How are marginalized communities empowered with technology to defend their rights? How can the U.S. manufacturing process be simplified for small businesses and makers? They’ll explain how.  

3.   You asked and we listened
This year we modified the schedule to allow more time for networking opportunities with fellow attendees, speakers and Fellows. In addition, you can continue to count on randomly assigned lunches and evening soirees. You’ll meet new connections and enjoy quality time with old friends. We’ve also lowered our ticket price to make the PopTech experience more accessible.

4.   When in Maine…
PopTech Immersions are exciting additions to the 2013 program. These carefully designed excursions bring you into the heart of beautiful Maine and provide a unique opportunity to bond with fellow attendees. Named one of “America’s Prettiest Towns” by Forbes, see for yourself what makes the Camden area so extraordinary by sailing on the Appledore, touring a sustainable farm on North Haven Island, or making a traditional Maine meal of chowder and bread. More Immersions to be posted soon.

There’s still time to join us but only a limited number of tickets remain – register today!

The potential of human ingenuity and creativity: Part II

The PopTech Fellows network consists of 116 alumni, with 22 new Fellows soon to join their ranks. In just a few short weeks, you’ll be able to hear the new Fellows present their work at the PopTech conference. Secure your ticket to attend or tune in on the PopTech site via Livestream.

Each of the Fellows is a living example of impact that can be created from a commitment to positively affecting the world. Below you’ll find another 20-minute dose of inspiration that brings to life the potential of human ingenuity and creativity.

Uncovering new uses for robotic systems
Katherine J. Kuchenbecker – 2011 Science Fellow
Katherine J. Kuchenbecker researches the design, control, and performance of robotic systems that enable a user to touch virtual objects and distant environments as though they were real and within reach. These haptic interfaces combine electromechanical sensors and actuators with high-speed computer control to fool the human sense of touch. By studying applications such as robot-assisted surgery, stroke rehabilitation, educational computer games, and assistance for the blind, Kuchenbecker seeks to improve our understanding of haptic feedback and uncover new opportunities for its use in interactions between humans, computers, and machines.



Turning agricultural waste products into sustainable packaging
Eben Bayer – 2009 Social Innovation Fellow
Eben Bayer is the cofounder and CEO of Ecovative Design. He is a key leader in the biomaterial industry, and is spearheading efforts to create products that are both sustainable and affordable. Bayer co-invented Mycobond, which uses a growing organism to turn low-value agricultural waste products into strong, natural composites. Compared to environmentally damaging materials like Styrofoam, Bayer’s innovative technology requires one tenth of the energy to create, and can be composted. In 2009, the company won the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Clean Energy Venture Award and the OG25 Award, and in 2010 was featured in the National Design Triennial exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.



Understanding key ecological processes in the ocean
Kelly Benoit-Bird – 2012 Science Fellow
Kelly Benoit-Bird is an oceanographer at Oregon State University, where she applies acoustics to the study of ecosystems in the open ocean. She has helped develop several new optical and acoustical instruments and has made fundamental acoustical measurements of species ranging from zooplankton to fish, squid, and marine mammals. Through her research into how predators target their prey, Benoit-Bird is creating a new understanding of key ecological processes in the ocean.



Harnessing the power of big data
Sean Gourley – 2010 Social Innovation Fellow
Sean Gourley is a San Francisco-based researcher splitting his time between mathematical research and his venture-backed startup Quid. Gourley’s varied research spans the fields of nanotechnology to complex systems and the mathematics of war and terrorism. With his work in advanced network visualizations and the computer modeling of complex systems, Gourley has acted as a political advisor to the Iraqi Government, briefed the U.S. military’s Central Command, addressed the United Nations in Vienna and dodged military checkpoints in Iraq. 

The potential of human ingenuity and creativity: Part I

Last week we had the pleasure of announcing the 2013 classes of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows. From clean energy to understanding human well-being, to cultural preservation and disaster response – these 2013 Fellows underscore the program’s commitment to harnessing the power of human creativity and ingenuity, and how perseverance and an innovative spirit have the power to change the lives of many.

In just a few weeks, the new Fellows will head to Maine for an intensive training retreat, followed by the presentation of their work at the PopTech conference. Interested in hearing them? Secure your ticket to attend or tune in on the PopTech site via Livestream.

Soon these 22 new Fellows will join the network of 116 PopTech Fellows alumni. We’ll spend the next few days highlighting Fellows from past years who have continued to make a huge impact on the world around them.

Helping Kenyan farmers through mobile technology
Jamila Abass – 2012 Social Innovation Fellow
As CEO of MFarm, Jamila Abass uses mobile technology to help Kenyan farmers increase their incomes. MFarm provides farmers in Kenya with real-time market price information and a group selling platform where they can connect with other farmers to jointly market their crops in greater volumes. By giving rural farmers more direct and powerful access to buyers, MFarm is positioned to improve hundreds of thousands - and potentially millions - of lives.


 
Increasing access to work and healthcare with virtual mobile phone services
Nigel Waller – 2009 Social Innovation Fellow
Nigel Waller launched Movirtu in 2008 to provide virtual mobile phone services for people earning less than two dollars a day. Movirtu designed a virtual mobile phone system which enables anyone to make and receive phone calls, text messages and mobile payments utilizing other people’s phones. By granting access to mobile communications even to those without their own phone, Movirtu enables people to find work, build micro-enterprises, access healthcare and better support themselves and their families.




Studying the mechanisms and effects of natural selection

Pardis Sabeti – 2011 Science Fellow
Using genomes as an archeological record, Pardis Sabeti studies the patterns of natural selection. She works to understand the mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation in humans and pathogens. What makes some people able to resist Lassa fever? How does malaria manage to evade efforts to fight it? Sabeti pursues the answers through computational analysis, investigating the mechanisms and effects of natural selection on human and other genomes.




Constructing buildings that heal

Michael Murphy – 2011 Social Innovation Fellow
Michael Murphy co-founded MASS Design Group in 2007 to provide design services for underserved populations in the most resource-constrained settings. Through projects in Rwanda, Liberia, Burundi, and Haiti, MASS is combining low-cost, locally available construction materials with innovative and appropriate design. MASS’s projects reduce the in-hospital transmission of airborne diseases, improve learning opportunities for construction trades, and serve as an engine for economic growth, leveraging the design and building process to create both well-built environments and social change.


Introducing the 2013 PopTech Fellows

PopTech’s Fellows programs aim to accelerate the impact of emerging innovators and scientists, who are working to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

The 2013 classes of Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows provide another big dose of inspiration. From human rights to clean energy, financial inclusion to data security, and from health care analysis and empowerment to soft robotics, they are tackling big questions and goals that can make a major positive difference to society and the planet.

SI

Check out the cutting-edge work of the new PopTech Social Innovation Fellows and PopTech Science Fellows.

science

Both classes of Fellows head to Maine in October for an intensive training program with expert faculty in order to concentrate on areas of importance to their endeavors. The Social Innovation Fellows focus on scaling their work by gaining new skills and visibility while the Science Fellows focus on becoming more effective communicators, collaborators and leaders both within and beyond academia. Both classes of Fellows form extensive networks of ongoing mutual support and mentorship that provide long-term benefits after their retreat.

Join us to hear them present at PopTech 2013: ”Sparks of Brilliance,” Oct. 24 to 26 in Camden, Maine. 

The Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows programs are generously supported by the Rita Allen Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Omidyar Network, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and National Geographic.

We look forward to seeing exciting collaborations and major results from these amazing new classes of PopTech Fellows!

Front page photo credit: Peter Durand

PopTech's 'Better Banked' salon explores U.S. financial inclusion

Around 40 financial experts, researchers, anti-poverty activists and social innovators gathered on Tuesday for PopTech’s “Toward the Better Banked,” a daylong salon designed to advance discussion about how to improve the financial lives of unbanked, under-banked and unhappily banked Americans.

The diverse set of experts gathered for the event at Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center which was made possible with the support of Serve from American Express and Innovations for Poverty Action. The challenge that was under the microscope at the salon is daunting. Around 1 in 12 American households don’t have an account with an insured, traditional bank, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Financial stratification between affluent and financially challenged Americans continues to grow. Consumer debt has ballooned. Meanwhile, some of the novel financial service innovations that are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, such as mobile-phone-based payments, haven’t taken root and propagated the same way in the United States.

better banked

“Toward the Better Banked” was not designed to come up with solutions to these problems during the single day of presentations, brainstorming sessions, group breakout discussions and informal chats. But it set out to bring together a diverse set of experts who might not otherwise interact in order to pose some provocative questions, move the discussion forward and at least begin to shed some light on potential breakthroughs and solutions.

Some of the discussion focused on the need to gather hard, reliable data on income and spending behavior in American households that might benefit from the innovative banking tools under discussion. Timothy Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, is currently gathering rafts of that data as part of an in-depth study of 250 families. Early analysis of the data shows that a great deal of the problem facing many Americans is not just low income, but highly volatile income and expenses that are hard to predict and manage. “That is a different problem than just low income,” he said.  “What are the tools that people are using to meet these questions of volatility?” he asked. “What does that mean about poverty?”

better banked 2

Other questions focused on what lessons from overseas might apply in the United States. Billy Jack, associate professor in the Economics Department at Georgetown University, researches alternative methods of carrying out financial transactions in Kenya, where the mobile phone has become a leading tool for exchanging value. “Do we have to use mobile banking for financial inclusion?” he asked the gathering.

Some of the presentations began to probe innovative products and ideas that might help solve some of the problems facing under-banked Americans. As part of her research, Lisa Servon, associate director of the Community Development Research Center at The New School, spent four months working at a check-cashing operation in the Bronx that served mostly lower-income people. Servon noticed how the check-cashing operation cultivated fierce loyalty among its customers through personalized, forgiving, friendly service. “Whatever direction we go, the point I want to drive home is we are all here talking about people,” she said. “And relationships matter.”

Unconventional partnerships might be another path forward. Justine Zinkin, CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, and Dean Karlan, president of Innovations for Poverty Action, discussed a joint project to issue what Zinkin described as an “un-credit card.” The card is designed to consolidate a consumer’s debt, fix monthly payments, close other credit cards and ultimately reduce a consumer’s debt.

Another branch of discussion explored how the banking challenge among Americans poses some opportunities for innovative ideas and products. Jonathan Zinman, an economics professor at Dartmouth, discussed potentially huge business opportunities lurking in the $13 trillion in consumer debt. He suspects that fee-for-service liability management could be big business. “That is money that is sitting on the table — people are paying more than they need to for their loans,” he said. “If you can help consumers access this money, you, in turn, can get a slice of that money.”

Some presenters have already created products to serve under-banked Americans or leverage technology to lubricate global transactions for individuals or businesses of any size. Francisco Cervera, CEO and co-founder of eMoneyPool, a private microfinance company, is in the business of establishing virtual “money pools” — savings clubs where ad-hoc groups of individuals take turns borrowing from a common fund. And Chris Larson, CEO and co-founder of OpenCoin, discussed Ripple, a lightning fast way to trade value anywhere in the world across currencies.

The discussion will continue. Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth at American Express, said some of the best minds had come together at the salon for an exploration that had to start with some provocative questions. “How can you create change and a difference on a scale that is not millions but is tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions?” he asked. “How do you drive that kind of difference in the world?”