PopTech Blog

"This is PopTech. We want to talk about impact..." Kevin Starr on how not to save the world


Kevin Starr has spent much of his adult life in the world’s most desperate places and his patience for the empty rhetoric of would-be do-gooders has worn thin.

“It’s really cool to be here and talk about philanthropy in the midst of all these people who actually do something,” he said by way of greeting the PopTech crowd Thursday morning.

As head of the Mulago Foundation and director of the Rainer Arnhold Fellows program, Starr is committed to finding the “best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest places.” He told the crowd he had spent the last two decades figuring out the best ways to deliver change to those who need it most, and he was there to help PopTech’ers figure out “how to be better at it than those of us who get paid for it.”
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Science and Public Leadership Fellows debut at PopTech 2010

Part Kirk, part Spock, the inaugural class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows stand ready to present their new and improved, more publicly engaged, selves to a waiting world.


The class itself is a testament to PopTech’s commitment to searching high and low for the best and brightest.  From studying the way behavioral contagions spread through social networks to probing the link between Eastern meditation and cognitive neuroscience to creating data-driven networks for understanding modern warfare, these are thinkers at the cutting edge of research and discovery. 

The mission was to put these emerging achievers in the same room with a diverse and distinguished group of mentors in an effort to build a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders who embody science as an essential way of thinking, discovering, understanding and deciding.

Over the course of the conference, these Fellows will present their work and share their insights into the workings of Science Fellows program.

This program would not be possible without PopTech’s partners and supporters, including Microsoft Research, Intel, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, National Geographic, National Science Foundation, Rita Allen Foundation, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and the New York Academy of Sciences.

Science and Public Leadership Fellows Kim Cobb on reconstructing climates and Brian Hare on studying bonobos

Kim Cobb

Kim Cobb, Associate Professor of Climate Change at Georgia Institute of Technology is a climatologist known for her work analyzing global climate change and  reconstructing tropical climates.

Cobb studies the fundamentals of climate change.  Her primary research site is Palmyra Island where she collects samples in her attempts to reconstruct climate.  The challenge: how to improve climate model projects of regional climate change including, for example, trends in rainfall. 

There’s a lot of information about predicting rainfall that we don’t know at this point especially because rainfall records only go back to 1970.  But since 70% of the world’s population lives in the tropics, having a clearer sense of future rainfall over the next 100 years would be incredibly valuable.  Cobb is working to study climate variability of the past in order to construct a sense of what we can expect in the future.
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Mistakes, errors, or epiphanies? Kevin Dunbar gets to the bottom of what happens when science goes wrong

Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind.  What Kevin Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a member of the University of Toronto program in neuroscience, wants to know is what that actually means.  How do scientists calculate chance?  How do they prepare?  How do they deal with unexpected findings and what do they learn from mistakes?
Kevin Dunbar Over the course of a year, Dunbar and his team studied the working habits of four molecular biology labs.  What they found was that scientists, like most people, tend to explain unexpected results through analogy.  But those labs with the most success turning mistakes into new theories tended to be more diverse both in terms of background and in the sorts of analogies they drew.

The familiar story is that scientists get an unexpected finding, explain it by discussing a similar finding, and then use that analogy as a way to determine what went wrong.  Labs that were not progressing tended to stick to local analogies – using e. coli findings to explain e. coli findings, for example – while more successful labs tended to use long-distance analogies – Dunbar used the example of Nobel Prize winner Francois Jacob getting the idea for genetic sequencing from looking at his child’s toy train.

Dunbar said scientists must also look at the particular history of labs.  As a group, research scientists are mostly risk averse, and they tend to hire people that think and work most like themselves.  “Risk aversion filters through the whole of what you’re doing,” Dunbar said. “Who you get in your lab shapes the kinds of analogies you use which then shapes the way you deal with unexpected findings.”
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Rethinking Mistakes, Misadventures, and Failed Efforts

Think you are a good judge of your own mistakes?

Turns out, according to Kathryn Schulz, we’re generally terrible at it. Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error and writes the “Wrong Stuff” column for Slate. Although being wrong is the stuff of human nature, notes Schulz, we have a very difficult time accepting how often we make mistakes.

Kathryn Schulz

This gap between perception and reality explains how things that really matter, from estimating the stability of our housing markets to the fidelity of our spouse, can go so wrong. “You might think it’s about a failure to look inward,” Schulz says. “I want to suggest that’s exactly backward. In fact, we spend a lot of time thinking about the accuracy of our perspectives.” According to Schulz, this deeper feeling of accuracy is incredibly seductive but it often fails to reveal what’s really going on.

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Opening Day PopTech 2010; Dan Ariely

A slightly imperfect, quite ambitious, creaking and low-tech Rube Goldberg machine constructed by Heather Knight and Syyn Labs used a combination of gravity and human intervention to kick off PopTech 2010’s opening day. PopTech curator Andrew Zolli took the stage amidst the machine’s finale of falling red balloons, which attendees popped to find little surprises hidden inside. The brief cacophony led Zolli to joke that this was the perfect way to kick off a conference where the theme is “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs.”

Zolli framed the conversation for the next few days during the conference by giving an example of a solution gone awry: a project where 500,000 wells dug in Bangladesh intended to provide clean water later found to contain arsenic, which created a new set of problems. He asked the audience to think about, over the next few days, what do brilliant accidents reveal about the nature of discovery and innovation? What happens when we don’t let failure happen? What is the right thing to die and how do we kill it?

Zolli then welcomed to the stage Duke University professor Dan Ariely as the first speaker of the day, for the first session entitled “Doing Things Wrong”. Last year, Ariely spoke to the PopTech audience about the role of emotions in the workplace. This year he explored adaptation, or how we “get used to stuff”. He recounted the story of the frog and boiling water: how, the tale goes, a frog immersed in hot water will jump immediately out, but in gradually heated water, it will stay in the water indefinitely, content even as its fate is being delivered one degree at a time. Although he notes that the example is not actually true, it is founded on a basic principle.

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Cloud Computing for Good

Update: Watch video of the Cloud Computing for Good session above! (11/29/2010)

Wednesday’s sessions kicked off PopTech 2010! Some of our bloggers dropped in on a couple of them. What follows is a sample of what took place today.

Tony Salvador, director of Social Insights Research at the Interaction and Research Lab at Intel, opened today’s session, Cloud Computing for Good, by stating that cloud computing provides both huge efficiencies and huge opportunities. The cloud, said Salvador, can also help display patterns, which can result in greater productivity and less capital expenditure as well as supporting the notion of local, sustainable production.
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Using prizes and challenges to drive innovation

Wednesday’s sessions kicked off PopTech 2010! Some of our bloggers dropped in on a couple of them. What follows is a sample of what took place today.

Dr. Erika Wagner, executive director of the X Prize Lab@MIT, and Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, got things started Wednesday with a session on “Using Prizes and Challenges to Drive Innovation” at the Camden Public Library. 

Erika discussed the importance of prizes to encourage the kinds of disruptive innovations that lead to breakthrough solutions to big problems, while Brandon spoke about the ChallengePost model in which challengers, supporters, and innovators collaborate in a self-sustaining system that relies on a combination of smaller and larger donations for support. 

Both emphasized that it is rarely the actual prize, which ranges from millions of dollars at X Prize to as low as hundreds at ChallengePost, that drives competitors.  “The prize purse is a tiny part of why teams choose to compete,” Erika said. “People are much more motivated by the chance to solve a big problem and work with interesting people.”

PopTech Board Member Andrew Rasiej emphasized PopTech’s commitment to encouraging innovation through incentives.  “We believe this is a milestone moment, a tipping point, in getting government and corporate interests to think about these kinds of challenges as a way to drive innovation.”

Andrew challenged attendees to Wednesday’s session to workshop together with Erika and Brandon to come up with breakthrough incentives centered on American public education.  He even offered his own prize: any particularly good ideas could potentially be revealed onstage during the conference.

Our guide to catching PopTech in whatever form you prefer from wherever you may be

PopTech is just about to get underway in Camden, Maine! This year’s theme, Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs explores the many ways that mistakes, glitches, and silly approaches to solving big problems have led to positive and significant impact. If you’re not here to catch the conference in-person, there are a slew of other ways to keep tabs on the 80+ speakers, Social Innovation Fellows, and Science Fellows scheduled to present from October 20-23:

  • We’ll be live streaming the conference every day from 9 am–6 pm EST and you can find us on Facebook and Twitter here as well.
  • You can follow @poptech on Twitter with hashtags #poptech or #poptech2010 for 140-character speaker updates, news, and musings from PopTech’s online producer, Emily Qualey.
  • Four of us will be live blogging throughout the conference:  

    • Colleen Kaman, a media producer and researcher focused on cross-platform storytelling, technology, and social change, is currently a media consultant for PopTech.
    • Kiley Lambert is Senior Research Associate in PopTech’s Brooklyn office.
    • Michelle Riggen-Ransom is a writer who focuses on social media, technology, nature, and parenting who’s covering this conference for her third year. She’s also co-founder and Communications Director for BatchBlue Software, which makes online tools for small businesses.
    • And me!  I’ve just come on board as PopTech’s editor-in-chief after working in social innovation, culture, and fashion. I’m thrilled to be here for my first PopTech conference. 

Finally, in the spirit of this year’s theme, we also want to hear about your brilliant accidents, necessary failures, or improbable breakthroughs in exactly six words. Post your response to Twitter @poptech, with the hashtag #poptech6 at any time during the conference. You may also submit your Six Words for PopTech 2010 to anyone you see during the conference wearing a t-shirt with six words on it. PopTech speaker, Larry Smith, will be presenting on the history of the Six-Word Memoir project, and then sharing many of yours throughout the weekend.

Photo: Kris Krug

Six Words on "Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs"

In the spirit of PopTech 2010, tell us your Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, or Improbable Breakthroughs in exactly six words. Your response can be in the form of a personal story, your work, an aphorism, lesson learned, advice given or received, or some part of your life that was, however you define it, a brilliant accident, necessary failure, or improbable breakthrough.

Examples:

The inevitable triumph of the nerds. —Craig Newmark
Yes, you can edit my biography —Jimmy Wales
Threw spaghetti at wall; some stuck. —Larry Smith
Life is one big editorial meeting. —Gloria Steinem
Never put bananas in your still-life. —Susan Winslow
Father: ‘Anything but journalism.’ I rebelled. —Malcolm Gladwell

Be as creative as you like—the only rule is that your story is just six words.

PopTech speaker, Larry Smith, will be presenting on the history of the Six-Word Memoir project, and then sharing many of yours throughout the weekend.

Post to Twitter @poptech, with the hashtag #poptech6, now, or at any time during the conference. You may also leave your submission in the comments area of this post, or hand your Six Words for PopTech 2010 to anyone you see during the conference wearing a T-shirt with six words on it.

Watch this brief (naturally) video for tips on how to write a Six-Word Memoir.