PopTech Blog

This Week in PopTech: Microforestry, Mockumentary and Money


  • Last week marked the opening of Studio H, the core educational initiative of Project H Design, a nonprofit design organization founded by 2009 PopTech Fellow Emily Pilloton to mobilize innovative product design for social good.
  • Recent photos from Carolyn Porco Imaging Science Team on the Cassini mission to Saturn include stunning shots of Saturn’s moons, Epimetheus, Tethys and Dione.
  • The microforestry organization KOMAZA has a beautiful video that shows how a half-acre tree farm can change a woman’s life in rural Kenya. KOMAZA founder and 2008 Social Innovation Fellow Tevis Howard partners with poor families to plant high-profit commercial tree farms that generate life-changing income and help preserve indigenous biodiversity.
  • What we’re watching: The Majestic Plastic Bag – A Mockumentary by Heal the Bay, narrated by a straight-faced, fully emoting Jeremy Irons, tracks the tenacious migration of a plastic bag from a grocery store parking lot to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • What we’re reading: The new “Money and Mission” blog from PopTech board member and Nonprofit Finance Fund CEO, Clara Miller.
  • Failure quote of the week: “There is no failure for the man who realizes his power, who never knows when he is beaten; there is no failure for the determined endeavor; the unconquerable will. There is no failure for the man who gets up every time he falls, who rebounds like a rubber ball, who persists when everyone else gives up, who pushes on when everyone else turns back.” – Orison Swett Marden

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This Week in PopTech: Sustainable Development, Aquaponics and Speaking Human

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.

  • This week PopTech contributor Joshua J. Friedman interviewed Water For People’s Ned Breslin about why it’s important to shift from short-term to long-term thinking — and move from charity work to sustainable development.
  • Designer and typographer Marian Bantjes has designed the wildest graphically enhanced sailboat we’ve ever seen. You might remember the special poster Marian created for the attendees of our 2008 conference, which was inspired by the theme, ”Scarcity and Abundance.”
  • Our pals at Ushahidi announced a free “Ushahidi in the Cloud” for non-techies called Crowdmap.
  • Friend of PopTech and designer Joey Roth has a great new poster out — are you a Charlatan, Martyr or Hustler?
  • Failure quote of the week: ""Hint: there is no category of: ‘does risky exploration, never fails.’" – Seth Godin

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Learning from the Water Crisis of Our Making

The world is facing a water and sanitation crisis, but not the one you think. True, nearly 900 million people lack clean water and 2.5 billion lack a safe toilet, but perhaps the greater tragedy is that decades of efforts by philanthropists and NGOs have been pursued in such a short-sighted way that today many of the poorest regions of the world are littered with broken hand pumps and failed latrines—an enduring reminder of promise unfulfilled. Of the 600,000 to 800,000 hand pumps installed in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past 20 years, approximately one third fail prematurely, according to the International Water and Sanitation Centre in the Netherlands, a total failed investment of more than $1 billion.

Ned Breslin, the CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, caused a stir in January when he published a critique of water and sanitation development practices titled “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy.” Breslin argues that donors, NGOs, and local governments are letting down the people they serve by refusing to properly evaluate their work and confront past mistakes.

“Africa, Asia and Latin America have become wastelands for broken water and sanitation infrastructure,” Breslin writes. “Go to schools throughout developing countries and you will often find a broken hand pump around the corner, or a disused latrine that filled years ago. Sector agencies intuitively know this but the general public is shielded from these hard truths as perceptions of failure could threaten ‘the cause’ of reaching the unserved. Poor people do not benefit from this disingenuity.”

The pump pictured above was not maintained by the NGO that installed it nor was a successful plan made for it to be maintained by residents. In order to access water, the residents broke through the top (called the cement apron) and now adults and children alike dangerously hover over the edge to dip in their jugs. Image by Julia Lewis, courtesy of Water for People.

For water and sanitation development projects to have a chance of succeeding, Breslin says, the sector must move from short-term to long-term thinking, from charity work to sustainable development. Local governments must invest their own money in development projects to create a sense of ownership. Philanthropists must form more substantial relationships with development agencies and apply their business expertise when choosing and monitoring the projects. Above all, organizations must honestly evaluate their projects over time.

I interviewed Breslin over e-mail about his ideas and how they are being received in development circles.

How did you decide to write your article?

I lived and worked in Africa for close to 20 years and spent well over half my time there rehabilitating failed water projects and poorly designed sanitation initiatives. People received clean water, celebrations ensued, photos were taken, and then the NGO or volunteer group would return to the U.S. or Europe and never learn that the project they had installed failed. I have a good friend whose child died because, after first tasting clean water when weaned from his mother’s breast, his body could not cope when the water supply broke and the family returned to the polluted source they had hoped was abandoned forever.

So I decided to write this piece because I believe the water and sanitation sector has misdiagnosed the challenge. Yes, there are hundreds of millions, even billions of people who do not have clean water, but this is also because we as a sector have not done particularly well at providing lasting solutions. We constantly see the pictures of women or girls scooping water from a muddy puddle, but what we don’t see is that they often walked past broken hand pumps and taps to get to that puddle. This is not acceptable, and is lost on the public and philanthropists who are being fed a somewhat inaccurate story of the crisis.

The real crisis is that the investments we have made in water and sanitation have not succeeded in transforming lives through sustained water supply and sanitation services. And, sadly, poor people around the world will not benefit from new campaigns or larger amounts of aid until we acknowledge that hard reality and take meaningful steps to change the way we work.

This Week in PopTech: Radical Innovation, 100 Hammers and Inception


  • Our friends at Project M have a new project called 100 Hammers, a collaborative effort inspired by Maine artist David McLaughlin, a locally known craftsman and collector who passed away in early May of 2010. David spent his life inspiring others not just through his art but through his passion to see new life in otherwise unwanted materials. The M’ers gathered 100 second-hand hammers with the intention of keeping David’s dream alive by passing the hammers along to people who could give them a life they otherwise wouldn’t have had, creating a new and unique history for each hammer.
  • Social Innovation faculty member John Balen, a General Partner at Canaan Partners and a board member at numerous early-stage firms (including Blurb and ID Analytics), tells us about pitching a VC.
  • 2009 PopTech speaker Jonah Lehrer explores the The Neuroscience of Inception. (About this post – Jonah says the entire post is a spoiler. Stop reading if you have not seen Inception, because 1) It will reveal major plot points and 2) It will make no sense.)
  • Failure quote of the week: “If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments.” -Peter Norvig

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Using Contests to Drive Radical Innovation

Last week, the X PRIZE Foundation announced a $1.4 million contest for new technologies to clean up ocean oil spills. The competition was spurred, in part, by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which has become one of the largest oil spills in history.

The educational foundation relies on carefully designed contests to drive breakthrough innovation. It builds on the success of the Ansari X PRIZE, a competition modeled after early 20th century aviation prizes and one that spurred the development of commercial space flight. (Founder Peter Diamandis spoke at PopTech in 2005. His talk can be found here.) The prize model rests on the assumption that carefully-designed contests can promote paradigm-shifting innovation, namely in exploration (space and ocean), energy and the environment, life sciences, and education and global development. Three competitions currently underway focus on dramatically improving vehicle fuel efficiency, finding cheaper and faster ways to sequence the human genome, and building lunar landers that are able to transmit images and data back to the Earth.

As part of its Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, PopTech is exploring how competitions might spur the development of greener materials. PopTech recently caught up with Erika Wagner, Executive Director of the X PRIZE Lab @ MIT, a partnership between the university and the X PRIZE Foundation, to talk about the relationship between competitions and innovation.

The X PRIZE focuses on “prize philanthropy.” What is that and why is it important?
We offer prizes for achievements. This focuses the field on a very specific objective based on what we believe will catalyze the industry.

If you look at the amount of money that VCs have sunk into really hot fields, a $10 million prize would be a drop in the bucket. We’re looking for market failure. In the case of space flight, it was because you had a government monopoly. So some might say it was a failure of imagination. In the auto industry, you’ve got the oligopoly of the big automakers. In the genomics space, there were a lot of small labs that were pushing boundaries, but they were not necessarily working toward the rapid deployment of personalized medicine.

“We look for problems where a $10 million award will be disruptive to an industry, and even society.”

The Ansari X PRIZE demonstrated that a $10 million purse could generate $100 million in research and development and a follow-on market of well over $1 billion. As soon as you offer a prize, it says to the world that somebody believes that this challenge is worthy of real investment.

It’s also why prizes tend to attract outsiders. The GM Volt and the Nissan Leaf are not competing in the [Progressive Automotive] X PRIZE. There’s nothing in it for them to win, and everything in it for them to lose going up against the small players. It’s really an opportunity for every other inventor that has a transformative idea but has trouble getting heard in the marketplace. It’s mavericks like Burt Rutan [who won the Ansari X PRIZE in 2004] and West Philly high school kids. They have been running a high-efficiency auto program, out of their shop class basically. They were one of the top 21 teams in our Auto X PRIZE.

This Week in PopTech: Ecomaterials, Grasshoppers and Caterpillars


  • This week we released Kurt Andersen’s talk on renewing America, accompanied by an interview with Kurt in which he explores the concept of failure as it relates to the insect world: “For some people, it will take hitting bottom to behave like the ant instead of the grasshopper. Some people are just naturally virtuous ants, sure. But it’s a lot more fun to be a grasshopper and dance and play and sing until winter comes and you have no choice but to figure out a way to get inside.”
  • The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has selected Lincoln Schatz’s 2008 commission for Esquire magazine, Portrait of the 21st Century, for inclusion in their collection.

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Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

Available positions:

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  • Media and Marketing Associate
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PopTech Network and new Low-Impact Materials

Last week, PopTech convened a PopTech Lab at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in the New Research Building of Harvard Medical School in Boston. The three day PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab kicked off our long-term commitment to fostering breakthroughs in next-generation, ‘ultra-green’ ecological materials and industrial processes, and discerning new pathways to accelerating their widespread adoption.

PopTech Concierge Keryn Gottshalk greets Lab participant Anil Netravali, Professor of Fiber Science, Cornell College of Human Ecology. Photography by John Santerre.

PopTech Labs are a yearlong, open, collaborative investigation of a critical area of disruptive innovation in a domain of vital importance to business, society and the planet, such as water, energy, materials and health. Each PopTech Lab harnesses our ability to bring together a network of innovators and decision-makers, brilliant and unconventional, to explore new ideas and identify areas for collaboration in a crucial field and to find new ways to accelerate change. We rigorously map the issues, challenges and opportunities around a specific area of future change, and identify new incentives to unlock further innovation. The resulting recommendations are used to guide further development and are shared with the larger PopTech community and the world at the following year’s conference.

Lab participants going through an introductory exercise led by creative guru Peter Durand. Photography by John Santerre.

The Ecomaterials Innovation Lab brought together a network of eminent and emerging leaders in material science, sustainability, corporate leadership, design, academia, and policy circles. We began the program focused on getting to know one another and exploring the current landscape, system conditions and impediments surrounding the adoption of ecological materials.

Reset, Rinse and Repeat

Editor’s note: Kurt Andersen, best-selling author and host of the radio program Studio 360, has turned his unflagging curiosity to the current economic crisis. He believes it is an opportunity to get the nation back on track. Part of the answer, Kurt suggests, lies in reconnecting to the amateur spirit that first helped create America. Regular contributor Marcia Stepanek spoke to 2009 PopTech speaker Kurt Anderson, whose talk we release today.

Radio host Kurt Andersen wrote in Reset, his 2009 book about America’s uncertain future, that the last 25 years of American life have been years in which Americans have been guilty of magical thinking – living too large, defining success as more of everything, instantly, and behaving, more or less, like spoiled children oblivious of their impact on the world. [“We (Baby Boomers) took Peter Pan too seriously; we took Bob Dylan’s lyrics too seriously,” Andersen told PopTech conferees last October in Camden (see podcast, below). “We committed to never growing up and we didn’t.” The 1980s – until the 2008 financial meltdown — “just kept going, and kept going, and kept going,” Andersen said.]

We are now, Andersen says, in a “reset moment” that presents a great opportunity “for getting ourselves and our nation back on track.” Sure, America has always moved back and forth between economic booms and busts and between the left and right politically. But this time is different, he says. “It’s a time when all of these cycles are shifting dramatically and simultaneously; when complacency is forced to end; when outdated structures are being inevitably and necessarily challenged, and when change is rapid and difficult to predict.”

Since speaking to PopTech and writing Reset in the thick of the 2008 financial meltdown, how does Andersen think the nation is faring so far in reset mode? I caught up with Andersen last week; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

On last fall’s PopTech stage, you declared the 1980s era of hyper-excess to finally be over; indeed, some nine months later, here were are, still cleaning up after ourselves. Just today, President Obama signed into law the most sweeping financial overhaul since the Great Depression; BP oil spill compensation czar Kenneth Feinberg just told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that not everybody who files a claim against the oil company will be compensated for their losses. Are we, as a nation, getting on with setting a new course for ourselves, or do we still need to hit bottom – to fail even bigger – in order to bring about large-scale, mass reinvention?

ANDERSEN: It’s a good question. Having created this “reset” prism through which I now look at the news, I sort of ask myself that question every day or every week. Some days or weeks, I go, ‘Oh well, we are moving forward and actually are reconfiguring our ways of thinking about life and business in encouraging and heartening ways.’ And sometimes, I think ‘Ah, well maybe not so much.’ I guess I think that I’m more hopeful than not. I think that a couple or three years hence, we’ll look back and say, ‘You know? We didn’t shift 180 degrees and become a different place, but the idea that there is a role for shrewd, effective forms of regulation, for instance, has returned.’ There is now the idea out there that maximizing how much we earn is not synonymous with personal contentment. Those things have changed. What hasn’t changed since I started writing about this is that, I guess by now, I thought we might be ready for more of an ideological flux than we are seeing. I’m not one of those people who believe that the country is as brutally and rigidly and ferociously divided between left and right and all of that, as it sometimes seems. But I guess I was hopeful that out of the terror and flux of the financial meltdown, more people in positions of leadership and power in Washington and elsewhere would begin to abandon their old, tired, auto-pilot talking points. And that hasn’t happened as much as I would have liked. In fact, I find that the most shocking thing, I guess, is the absolute, party line-ness that still exists on things like financial reform and most other of the big pieces of legislation now working their way through the sausage factory.

Of course, it’s not the worst of times nor the best of times in Washington, but there you have some version of health care reform that may or may not do what you want it to do, and you have now some version of financial reform that may or may not do good or bad. So things are moving forward but it’s all still somewhat ambiguous. I try to be even-handed, and I don’t consider myself a party line Democrat, but when I see 39 of 40 Republicans and the Republican establishment simply refusing to play, that doesn’t seem like what ought to be happening if the reset were proceeding as one hoped that it would.


This Week in PopTech: Braddock Revisited, Creative Commons and... We're Hiring


  • Earlier this week we released a talk by Braddock, Pennsylvania Mayor John Fetterman. In 2009 John shared his ambitious plans to revive Braddock (a town that has lost ninety percent of its buildings and most of its population) using measures that include repurposing abandoned lots and fostering numerous arts and community initiatives.
  • To complement our video release, we caught up with John to find out the latest news from Braddock. Postive developments include the building of a brand new mixed use facility, a grant from Department of Labor for a jobs training program and a partnership with the iconic denim company Levis.
  • We discovered that Maine-based Partners for World Health recovers useful medical supplies that U.S. hospitals must discard due to government regulations, and distributes them to organizations and people around the world who have great need.

We’re Hiring!

Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

Available positions:

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  • Evangelist / Blogger In Chief
  • PR / Communications Consultant
  • Media and Marketing Associate
  • Director of Operations
  • Executive Assistant


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Braddock Revisited

Editor’s note: Today we are releasing Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman’s 2009 PopTech talk. Braddock has lost ninety percent of its buildings, yet John is fighting for the town’s future. His ambitious plans include repurposing abandoned lots and fostering numerous arts and community initiatives.

Braddock Rubble
Image courtesy of shooting brooklyn

Just days before speaking at PopTech, John was shocked to learn that he was on the cover of The Atlantic; that same week he learned that the hospital, Braddock’s biggest employer, was shutting down, which was devastating news to both him and the community.

Yesterday, we caught up with John and asked him about the latest news from Braddock. Here’s an edited version of what he told us:

When we were at PopTech last fall, we were staring down the barrel of a gun. But over the last year, two great things have happened.

First, while we’re about to lose our hospital, in its place we’ll be getting a brand new mixed use facility. It’s a 29 million dollar development that will include a new health clinic and a county-wide culinary training program where the Community College of Allegheny County will house its training program for all of Allegheny county. The facility will provide housing for the college, and the culinary program will support a new restaurant. The culinary arts training program will have a profound impact on the community on a cultural and an economic level. Now when a 19-year old comes to me looking for a job, I have a place to send him.

Additionally, we’ve received a grant from Department of Labor for a jobs training program where locals can learn the trade of deep salvage. (This includes weatherization, environmentally sound land reuse and storm water management and demolishing buildings so that the materials can be reused.) When we lost the hospital, I’d say it was like we went minus 100; this new facility is like adding back 85. Given where we were, this is a home run. Clearly there are still huge challenges, but things are definitely heading in the right direction.

Braddock Farms
Image of Braddock Farms courtesy of Kristen Taylor

The second important thing that has happened is our partnership with Levis. This two-year partnership will help us fix up the Braddock Community Center. The recent Levis ad campaign features all local people as models with 100% of the benefit coming back to the community. How many other communities have their residents featured by an iconic brand like Levis?

Oh, and there’s a third big thing that happened since PopTech. My son’s walking around like a champion.

Watch John speak at PopTech 2009 on reviving Braddock, Pennsylvania.