PopTech Blog

Donald Ingber is Uncovering Nature’s Design Principles to Inspire Bioengineering

Donald Ingber studies how the natural patterns that have often been dismissed as design flaws might transform the field of bioengineering.

Ingber is the founder and director of the Wyss Institute for Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard. He proposes applying the adaptive and competitive responses of living systems to the fields of engineering in a way that might bring revolutionary advances in engineering, nanotechnology, synthetic biology and computer science.

Donald Ingber

Ingber’s perspective is based, in part, on his discovery while in an art class in college, that cells are built more like tents than like balloons. This critical insight dramatically changed how he thought about living cells. Hey came to see that they structure themselves in much the same way that inventor Buckminster Fuller dubbed the “tensegrity.” This balance between tension and compression, which Fuller employed to construct his famed geodesic domes, reveals that the design of materials could be viewed as dynamic systems.

Ingber spoke at PopTech as part of an session titled “Noise in the System.” In Ingber’s case, this noise refers to the amount of variation, such as DNA mutations, that naturally occurs in nature. Conventional engineering views this kind of variation as a design flaw, Ingber says, and works to eliminate or minimize it. Nature, by contrast, make use of these slight variations to better respond to environmental shifts.

The Watts Riot at PopTech/Patrick Flanagan breaks out the Big Glove

For the unitiated, it can be hard to tell when Reggie Watts is having you on.

Reggie Watts

A moment of awkward fumbling with mic cords and equipment goes on for too long until it becomes obvious that he’s having fun at your expense – you laugh even though you know he’s essentially mocking you for feeling sorry for him; a rich professorial English voice pontificates about meaningless topics, stringing together nonsensical phrases (“The last thing on our minds is the first thing we hate the most…” “As a race of androids, we…”) in an effort to sound as PopTech-like as possible.  Later he flips the script, using street vernacular to talk about the conference like it was an urban event (“What is PopTech?  You know what I’m saying..”), carrying on for almost too long until you realize he’s gone completely meta on you – NYC teenager meets philosphy grad student.

He fills in the spaces with a sophisticated (but still silly – “Got two kidneys and a pancreas/Keep your hands where they are…”) one-man beat box/hip hop set that uses a drum machine and keyboard to create looped sample madness.  The subject matter seems inane but for those who can keep up, it’s deeper than it appears at first listen.  He wants you to laugh but he also wants you to know he’s smart enough to play to the Camden Opera House crowd.

Endearing is a strange word to use for someone like Reggie, but it fits – nerd chic (if PopTech has a style, it’s as good a term as any) meets the kid at the back of the class. It’s easy to figure out why he’s a friend of the organization.

Patrick Flanagan

Throwing over the two-Wiimote approach that launched his YouTube career, Patrick Flanagan rocked a new Edward Scissorhands-like glove of sound Thursday.  Replete with arcade buttons and springbok horns, the glove allows Flanagan to use all of the fingers on his right hand as well as regulating pitch, volume, and tempo through motion control as he works a massive percussion set without ever touching a drum.

How does it work?  Everything starts of with two controllers one Wiimote and his new glove – that are attached to a laptop that is then attached to various robotic pads, sticks, belts, and shakers that make the magic happen on a large assortment of traditional percussion instruments.

Informed by the percussive style of Armando Borg, Flanagan has a deep appreciation for the essential imperfect humanity of music; but the engineer in him just wants to make his robots sound more human.  Above all else, the evolution of Flanagan’s set up gives him a chance to stick it to YouTube critics who wonder why he doesn’t just learn how to play the drums.  After listening to five bongos banging out staccato 1/32nds in overlapping patterns, it becomes obvious: only a robot can play that fast.

(Photos: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)

2010 PopTech Fellows: Ben Lyon & Sinan Aral

The 2010 PopTech Fellows have been in Camden all week getting training from PopTech Faculty, networking and learning from and about each other. To introduce the Class of 2010 Fellows and the good work they are all doing, Andrew Zolli ran a short video produced by Beth Cohen of PopTech.

Meet the PopTech Social Innovators class of 2010!

First of the SI Fellows to actually take the stage was Ben Lyon, who launched Frontline SMS:Credit in 2009. Lyon stated that he was there to talk about the cost of money: specifically the cost of credit. He asked the audience: How much do you pay every year to credit cards? The average person in a developed country pays on average 14-15%. In developing countries it’s significantly more: an average of 35% percent. Small retailers pay closer to 50-75% due to loss of wages, transportation costs and other factors. Additionally, a significant number of impoverished people have no access to financial institutions or assistance.

Daryl Collins on understanding how the poor manage their money

Co-author of Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day, Daryl Collins is a senior associate at Bankable Frontier Associates where she’s focused on research around the demand-side dynamics of development finance.

“When you think about the poor, you need to understand how they’re managing money firsthand,” especially since 40% of the world’s population live on $2 per day. Collins continued that the general assumption is that the poor have very little financial life, but when she and her colleagues started to interview poor households in Bangledesh, India and South Africa, they saw something different. 

Ned Breslin Rethinks Water Aid

Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, is a self-professed critic of most water and sanitation interventions worldwide — and has set out to challenge longheld assumptions about the role of foreign aid in these projects.

He doesn’t doubt their initial good intentions, but laments the enormous disconnect between these intentions and long-term change. Drilling a water well can save lives, but what happens after the development organization has gone away? “Is the water still flowing,” Breslin asks. Quite often, the answer is no.

Ned Breslin

“Sustainability is NOT measured by how many handpumps you install, how many beneficiaries you(r organization) can claim, or how many microfinance loans have been given out.” Africa, Asia, and South America, Breslin notes, are littered with broken technologies and infrastructures. “ The problem isn’t a lack of good ideas, Breslin says. “The reality is that the developing world is constantly hammered with ideas, but is the intervention happening, and is it happening over time?”

Instead, success needs to be measured where change actually occurs. “Success is if somebody turns on a handpump and water comes out,” Breslin says. To continue using the same development models if there’s no water flowing is replicating failure. In other words, according to Breslin, “You can’t NGO it, but instead sort out what happened in the past and get water flowing again.”

Water for People's FLOW screenshot

This fall, Water for People released a monitoring tool called FLOW, for Field Level Operations Watch. The tool relies on smartphones and global mapping technologies to provide networked information about the state of water and sanitation projects. (Click here for more on the details about how the project works.) The ability to track projects allows organizations and individuals to respond quickly as problems arise. Because this technology promises to provide a clear view of what’s working and what ‘s failing, as well as the ability to track results overtime, Breslin hopes that this tool will make it easier to inject accountability in water development projects.

He also hopes that this effort will pull water project out of the hands of NGOs and into the hands of the people who are most impacted by poor water conditions. And that doing so, will provide a voice to the voiceless.

Breslin’s paper on overhauling hydro-philanthropy can be downloaded here.

(Photo credit: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)

"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.”

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.

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.”

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.