PopTech Blog

Carlo Ratti's conveyor belt oil extractor

During the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, 800 skimmers were deployed to recover oil from the water’s surface. Through this method, only three percent of the oil was collected. Because the boats need to collect and then separate oil from water but return to shore to do so, it’s an inefficient process.

So what if there were a way to create an inexpensive, scale-able, and self-organizing system to address this problem?

Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti and his team at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab took on this challenge. They were looking to create a system of small units that could extract oil from the water’s surface onsite, collect energy from the sun to continue the process and finally, burn it off. They began by working with some material, created by an MIT professor, which separates and collects oil and leaves water behind. They then collaborated with the ocean engineering department at MIT to create a prototype that works like a conveyor belt rolling on the surface of the earth but nimble enough to adjust to waves. With small and large oil spills happening all the time (unfortunately), let’s hope they start producing this model for use in the near future.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

2010 SI Fellow Brooke Betts Farrell

“The smell of money.”

That’s how 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Brooke Betts Farrell described the stench of this country’s garbage piles. The amount of resources – money, energy, land, water — that go into dealing with the things we throw away is staggering. Her idea is simple – she wants her company RecycleMatch to be the eBay of trash. Take polyester scraps from the clothing manufacturer and sell them as seat stuffing to the chair manufacturer; make bags out of billboards. Match those who have waste with those who need it.

Brook Betts Farrell

“Recycling in this country is inefficient. Only about 30% of what we throw away is recyclable,” Farrell said. “That’s not good enough. I want companies to see their waste as a resource.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Marcia McNutt on Uncertainty in the Flow

In the days and weeks after the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill, teams of scientists worked quickly to determine the exact nature and flow rate of the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Marcia McNutt, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, managed the scientific response.

Marcia McNutt

McNutt says that scientists played a critical role in the response effort. “We never ordered BP to do anything. There were no lawyers involved. If there had been, there’d still be oil spewing into the Gulf today.” This allowed them to manage numerous scientific and technical uncertainties, and rely on the current science on hand. “We had no analogy to a blow-out one mile deep,” notes McNutt. “No research had been done on this, so we had to rely on every technique possible.”

Under the constant threat of hurricanes, researchers needed to manage conflcting evidence around the exact amount of oil flowing in the Gulf of Mexico, and conflicting opinions around the adverse impacts of applying dispersants to break up the oil.

It will be years before the full impact of the spill will be understood. Among them, scientists still don’t know the long-term ecological consequences of deploying large quantities of dispersants at the well head rather than at the surface. In addition, there might be large amounts of oil trapped on the ocean floor that could be “remobillized” in storms.

There is some good news to come from managing all of this uncertainty. McNutt revealed that the massive spill has led to the formation of an industry consortium ready to quickly and effectively respond to the next oil disaster, wherever that might be in the world.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Michael Blum and the trouble with Deepwater

As Andrew Zolli points out in his introduction to speaker Michael Blum, you cannot talk about failure in 2010 without talking about the Gulf oil spill. Blum, a professor of ecology at Tulane, was at the frontlines of both the spill and the clean-up efforts. For better or worse, so were 47,000 other people. Lacking a clear leader, the volunteers, BP suits, contractors and federal workers were often at odds with how best to handle the situation.

Mike Blum

Blum gave a measured breakdown of the failures that caused the accident: operational failure (inappropriate drilling practices); organizational failure (lack of clear management); and technical failure (the fail-safes failed and set the stage for additional failure.) The response effort was using methodologies that had been used in previous oil spills, which were unsuccessful because all of the previous spills had been shallow water spills. The Deepwater Horizon leak was over a mile beneath the sea.

The true failure, in Blum’s opinion, is that of separating the “built” world from the “natural” world. The interconnectedness of these two environments, often regarded as disparate, has been a running theme at PopTech this year. Blum suggests that in order to better handle these types of events, our response needs to couple these two worlds, not contrast them.

New Orleans culture, offers Blum, is one of resilience. The city exists at the delta of the Mississippi river and as such, its fate is intricately intertwined with that of the natural world. “Whether its future is one of decline or of celebration,” said Blum, “is entirely up to us.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith

Inevitably, 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith opened his Friday presentation with a poop joke.

“It was irresistible,” he said of the “Poop!Tech” logo on the screen behind him. Natch. Smith, after all, is co-founder and chief technical officer of Micromidas, Inc., a biotech company that uses an innovative microbial process to convert raw sewage into high quality disposable plastics.

The plastics made by Micromidas’ sewage-eating bacteria are completely bio-degradable and the implications of the technology are obvious. A non-petroleum plastic made from organic waste that completely degrades in six months to a year? What’s not to love?

Ryan Smith at PopTech 2010

“It’s a really elegant solution,” Smith said. “It’s not just what we’re making but how we’re making it. The extractive economy we’ve relied on for the last 100 years is not sustainable. It’s time to find better solutions and we hope we’re one of them.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)


Thompson-Cannino and Cotton on failure and forgiveness

The story of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton is one of forgiveness and liberation. In 1984, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was completing her college degree in North Carolina, working a couple of jobs, and dating the man she would later marry. Her life was full. Then she was raped that summer.

When she was assaulted, she did everything she could to remember the details of her attacker — his clothes, his height, his haircut — so that she could identify him later. She testified that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped her. He was found guilty and sentenced to multiple life sentences in prison.

“You can say what you say. I know I’m an innocent man.”

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

PopTech Accelerator unveils PeaceTXT initiative


As part of its ongoing commitment to fostering breakthrough social innovation and collaboration, PopTech unveiled Friday a new Accelerator initiative, PeaceTXT — a multidisciplinary project to explore the potential of mobile technology to amplify a proven approach to reducing violence.

A collaborative effort among CeaseFire, FrontlineSMS: Medic, and Ushahidi, PeaceTXT is seeking to use mobile mapping and cellular technology to provide CeaseFire team members with valuable new tools in their campaign against urban violence.

“It’s part of our mission to facilitate and orchestrate these kinds of collaborations,” PopTech Accelerator Director Leetha Filderman said. “We believe this has the potential to have a very big impact.”

Gary Slutkin, Leetha Filderman, Patrick Meier and Josh Nesbit during a PopTech 2010 Q&A session


Leila Janah on job creation and poverty alleviation through digital connectivity

More children are receiving an education around the world than ever before. There’s been a surge in human potential. At the same time, employment isn’t readily available to match that potential. Therefore many impoverished youth are going jobless. They don’t want charity. They want a job to help improve their lives.

Leila Janah

With the advent of the inexpensive technology, including $65 netbooks, it has become easier for people to work remotely no matter if they’re in the U.S., Haiti or Africa. Social Innovation Fellow Leila Janah founded Samasource to fuse that increased digital connectivity with people living in poverty to provide computer-based microwork via the Internet. Her philosophy: “Handouts are not going to end global poverty, but work — real work — just might.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Lauren Abramson: Resolving conflict with a handshake, not handcuffs

As the founder of the Community Conferencing Center (CCC), Social Innovation Fellow Lauren Abramson works to alter how society typically responds to crime and conflict — changing the focus from punishment to accountability, healing, and learning.

Lauren Abramson at PopTech 2010

Abramson shares a story about two kids in Baltimore who were arrested for stealing a car. Instead of heading to court, the CCC took the case. The kids and their families, along with the man whose car had been stolen, were brought together to discuss three points: 1) What happened? 2) How have you been affected by what happened? and 3) What do you want to do to make it better and prevent it from happening again?

One of the kids brought his grandfather, who had been raising him, to the reconciliatory meeting. He communicated to his grandson his disappointment at the young man’s behavior. Moved by this reaction, the man whose car was stolen expressed his desire to resolve the incident. The kid not only offered a genuine apology during the session, but also committed to pay the man’s insurance deductible. The kid’s grandfather hired them to work at his church for six weeks to earn the necessary money. All parties involved met again, exchanged handshakes, and the kids paid for the costs associated with the stolen car. In turn, the man then donated those funds back to the grandfather’s church.

This is one success story among the 8,000 people who have convened cases in Baltimore using the CCC, 95% of which have been resolved.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Project Noah and the future of naturalists

What has the power to stop a careening, kinetic child in his tracks and cause him to gently bend, enraptured, toward a flower? As PopTech Science Fellow and naturalist Yasser Ansari witnessed first-hand, it’s a bee. As children, we all possess a wonderment and curiosity about nature. We have a human need to connect with our planet. Or, as said child put it, “BZZZZ!” 

Yasser Ansari

Ansari’s effort, Project Noah (Networked Organisms and Habitats), strives to be what he calls “a field guide for every organism.” Inspired by Darwin’s Field Guide, bio-instruments, and a little bit of steam punk, the platform encourages citizen scientists to step into the world, eyes open, and begin documenting what they find.