PopTech Blog

Updates: Gaming Ushahidi, Governing Braddock, GSBI Cohort 2010, and Chimpanzees

A few updates from the PopTech network in the past week:

Ushahidi’s Patrick Meier (PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh are Director of Operations and Executive Director of Ushahidi, respectively) on information vandalism.

Read the great comment thread and watch video from the post:

(Ushahidi is also being used to monitor forests in Italy (video). Perhaps we are one step closer to hearing the sounds when trees fall…)

Mayor John Fetterman, who spoke at PopTech 2009 about the challenges of leading his town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, appeared on PBS’s NOW last Friday.

PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and FrontlineSMS creator Ken Banks was quoted in a Sunday New York Times article:

Ken Banks, a British entrepreneur who works in Africa and developed FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging service for aid groups, put it this way: “There’s often a tendency in the West to approach things the wrong way round, so we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things just because we can.”


The Santa Clara University Global Social Benefit Incubator 2010 Cohort includes three PopTech Fellows: Jason Aramburu of re:char, Nigel Waller of Movirtu, and Tevis Howard of Komaza—neat group of projects and people that will meet for a few weeks this August.

PopTech speaker Erica Williams blogged “Debunking the Millenials’ Work Ethic ‘Problem’” for Harvard Business Review (watch her 2009 PopTech talk on youth politics).

Three wild chimpanzee babies have been born in six months, cause for hope at Wildlife Direct, an organization directed by PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Paula Kahumbu.

A few days are left before the April 16th deadline for an Open Framework workshop in Breda with PopTech speaker Zach Lieberman (“Artistic practice is a form of R&D for humanity,” he told PopTech 2009).

And we find these folded solar panels interesting.

Assaf Biderman: When the City Starts Talking

Assaf Biderman, associate director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab spoke at PopTech 2009 about a number of the lab’s projects that explore how technology is transforming urban spaces. One project traced flows of garbage in Seattle in order to better understand the waste removal process in cities disposal. Another illustrates the global exchange of data between New York and other cities around the world.

Last week, PopTech caught up with Assaf to learn more about the lab’s latest initiative, “The Copenhagen Wheel,” that aims to help cities and individuals combat climate change, and about the value of combining real-time data with other kinds of information.

Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor, and Economics

Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor and Economics is a social media project spearheaded by Temporary Services, a three-person art collective based out of Chicago, IL. The Art Work Web site hosts information on a free social service Temporary Services is providing (an independent newspaper) and various contact information, news, and information on how to be involved. All content is related to the basic notion of art and work, emphasizing the role artists play in the economy, as well as various strategies artists can use to continue making socially engaging works during our ‘Great Recession.’

Temporary Services wants to highlight the many ways artists are making work and building local artistic cultures across the country. To do this, they have put together a rich network of people and ideas to compose the content of the newspaper, with essays, art historical analyses of the relationships of art to unions, labor and money markets, and several op-ed pieces (“Personal Economies,”) where anonymous art workers describe the myriad ways they survive and are still able to produce work.

Contents also include an essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Holland Cotter, a compiled history called “Selected Moments in the History of Economic Art” by Temporary Services, a complete transcription of conceptual artist Chris Burden’s 1979 radio broadcast on KPFK called “Send Me Your Money,” and the Manhattan-based 16 Beaver Group announcement on their global mega-merger between art and politics collectives into a mega-collective known as C.A.R.T.E.L. (16 Beaver did not specify what the letters in the acronym stand for).

Art Work Free Cover

Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labor and Economics, Temporary Services

The newspaper is free, and a pdf version is available for download at the project’s Web site, artandwork.us. Temporary Services will send free analog copies of the paper to anyone wanting to host a local event for the project.

In 2009, Temporary Services began distributing copies of Art Work to various colleagues across the globe to host local events. The events could be anything from a full-scale gallery exhibition to a small get-together for people to have a conversation about the business of working as an artist. Temporary Services formally showed Art Work at SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio from November of 2009 to January of 2010; SPACES worked as the distribution hub for the paper.

Art Work Spaces

Art Work at SPACES, Cleveland, OH

Local events for Art Work have occurred in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and a few other countries. One of the premises of the printed newspaper is that it is in itself an exhibition. The paper can be taken apart and taped to a wall for a gallery-ready text piece, like Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery did for a blue motif in the exhibit.

Art Work CMU gallery

Art Work at Carnegie Mellon University’s Miller Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA

The subject matter of the articles in the 40-page Art Work newspaper works as a catalyst for local interests inside of the national conversation. When the event was hosted in my hometown of Anchorage, we were most interested in the ideas associated with microgranting, which is an essay entitled “Micro Granting From the Bottom Up” by a group called InCUBATE, found on page 21 of the paper. Microgranting is one of the few ways in Alaska of supporting each other in making work that doesn’t fit into traditional formats.

Art workers would rather see interesting work being made instead of waiting for a gallery or other cultural authority to become interested, which is how the current moment of social media becomes relevant: it simply takes too long for established analog spaces like museums and galleries to be harbingers of our changing culture. If we want to see something different, we can put it online.

Art Work gallery

Art Work at Gallery 400, Chicago, IL

Several art workers have stated that Art Work as a social media enterprise was a psychological comfort to them. They felt connected to other art workers across the country who (like themselves) are always coming up with creative ways of keeping their non-profit’s doors open, or keeping their artistic practice alive. At the very least—all of the local conversations, which are happening because of this project, people who live near each other are being made more aware of others in their area who are willing to give some of their own valuable time to work together on making a better future for each other. On page 10 of the paper, in large type is printed, “Nothing changes when people do not engage in the long and difficult work of building a diverse, multi-cultural, working class movement from the ground up.”

School's Out: An Interview with Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz, a technology and innovation writer for Fast Company, has just published her second book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. In it, Kamenetz explores how technology is upsetting the traditional hierarchies and categories of education, putting students in the driver’s seat of the learning process – versus at the effect of it.


“Increasingly,” she writes, “this means students will decide what they want to learn; when, where, and with whom; and they will learn by doing.” She urges young people to step up to the changes; to start planning how to bypass the aspects of today’s educational system that keep them from learning what they need to succeed and thrive economically. Kamenetz also argues passionately for new online educational models that will make it possible for “millions of kids now forced out of the system” to change it into a more inclusive, relevant, and collaborative experience.

I caught up with Kamenetz yesterday at her Fast Company desk, between deadlines. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

You were thinking for a long time about writing a book about problems regarding access to higher education, the cost of education and the relevance of it, but what finally convinced you to make this book happen?

It’s true. I found a groundswell of students who felt their degree wasn’t giving them the preparation they needed. But what really pushed me over the edge was realizing that I had a bead on some solutions. Working at Fast Company and covering the technology space, I have seen that there is a lot of destructive change happening in a lot of different areas. But in the education space, it’s been increasingly clear that it’s a domain where people are asking this question a lot: Why hasn’t technology transformed education as it has so many other institutions and industries?

So why hasn’t it, in your view?

I had been delving into education’s 1,000-year history to try to answer that question, and I found that education has been the institution of institutions, particularly as our society started to get more organized in the 20th century. During the post-WW2 era in America, every institution got larger and had a bigger impact in people’s lives — and universities generated the experts that made these institutions possible. So universities sort of gained in power, as did the federal government and large corporations and the military, and science. And so educational institutions, especially, are very locked up and locked down. They are “the complex.” They hold the keys in terms of money and prestige and many different kinds of social proof in our society, and so to disrupt that model requires disrupting a lot of different apple carts.

What’s got to fall before some new approaches to education, radical innovation, can occur more broadly, and how painful do you think it’s going to be in the transition?

It’s scary, obviously, to talk about the collateral damage. But okay, one way of looking at it is that college now provides three main functions for most students and those are: content — instructional content and knowledge; socialization, or human development and also initiating people into networks of peers and teachers and professionals, and finally, accreditation. That’s the social proof, that piece of paper that says you’re good to go. Content has been exploded in the last 10 years. Full suites and complements of academic materials have become free and open commodities on the Web. Socialization [over the Web] is transforming young people.

It was college students who had created things like Facebook, and young people tell me that the way they relate to each other and find communities is continuing to change because of the Web. We are all changing the ways we communicate, so the socialization factors of the traditional educational experience can now be provided over the Web in very interesting ways through social media. So what’s really still missing from that picture is accreditation – but it may be surprisingly easy [to provide that on the Web, too.] What is required for that to happen is for people to get better at recognizing that people can now use the Web to acquire knowledge and socialization skills directly, bypassing the institutional middleman. Once this becomes more apparent, that people are doing this, you will start to see a lot of new [educational] value being released.

You wrote something recently about Startl, a first-of-its-kind social innovation hub for education that’s being backed by some of the best-known foundations, including Gates, Hewlett, and MacArthur. You quoted Startl founder Phoenix Wang as saying that today’s new generations of kids don’t want to be told what to learn but “expect they should be able to have control over how they learn, what they learn and where they do it, as co-collaborators.” That triggered a lot of responses from people. There’s a lot of discomfort here.

It’s a revolution. There is potential to do a lot of new things. I think technology tools can go both ways; just because you have technology doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have democracy or, conversely, anarchy. But I’ll give you a good example of the discomfort from another domain. I was speaking to a [college] architecture student yesterday who talked to me about how she’s done a lot of work at her school to try to get a joint program going between the architecture school and the [environmental] sustainability, or forestry program. But it didn’t really work out because there was no support from this faculty. It was very much a situation where there was a generational divide and all of this young woman’s fellow architecture students understood that they needed to be thinking about sustainability in every project that they made. But none of their professors understood that, and they didn’t really know how to do it. They didn’t have the content or the domain knowledge to do it. And when they set up this joint program, it became really clear that the forestry teachers didn’t necessarily know how to teach architecture students, either – or that they didn’t have the wherewithal to collaborate across these two domains as flexibly as the students would have liked them to do.

I think that you see this kind of thing happening a lot across a lot of different areas where young people are coming up, and they are not necessarily respecting the old disciplines and hierarchies. They’re sort of taking for granted the fact that teaching on these topics has to become more fluid and also that new solutions have to be created all the time to solve the challenges that are facing us as a society. It’s this type of transformation in education that existing institutions are not well set up to do. These new and evolving organizations on the Web are.

New media thinker Mark Pesce predicted at last spring’s Personal Democracy Forum that the rise of Web-wired, self-organized groups won’t necessarily topple existing institutions but will be abrasively reshaping them, “like sand against limestone.” Is this, in your view, a good description of what’s happening with regard to online communities and social networks and traditional colleges and universities?

I’m going to offer you a counter metaphor. Last year, I was in the MIT Media Lab, and I was interviewing a young scientist [it’s impossible to describe what she does without a lot of hyphens.] This person, Neri Oxman, showed me in the basement of MIT — a pretty traditional institution — that there is a 3-D printer that uses sand and it prints buildings. At this point, it prints small buildings. But at some point, it will be able to print entire buildings. And the assumption that we make about what is permanent and what kinds of investments in resources does it take to create an institution like MIT might be totally changed by something like that. And in fact, at MIT, they are changing. In the virtual world, they have created a courseware site where many of their courses are being offered online, for free, and something like 93 million people have accessed them, so who’s an MIT student and who isn’t? How much more influence is MIT having on the world because of this? [Editor’s note: Watch Neri Oxman’s 2009 PopTech talk for more on her work.]

What would you tell a student, or someone who is just entering high school or college, how to compensate for what traditional institutions today aren’t able to deliver?

The last chapter of the book is sort of written as a guide for students in that position. As a student, you have to start by changing your own whole mental model, right? A lot of students, especially really good students, have gone through the whole [educational] system by having an external locus of control. In other words, they are well attuned to what institutions or parents think about them and what their work is all about. But they are not as good at learning on their own. They are not as good at following their own curiosity and they may not have an internalized idea of what they’re good at or what it is that they really want to do. These are skills they really need to work on.

If I had an 18-year-old kid going off to college, I’d encourage him or her to spend the summer in some sort of self-discovery process, where they are taking lot of responsibility for their own existence and are getting lots of insights into who they are and what they want. That, really, has to be a starting point for any education. Maybe that sounds a little bit woolly or vague, but what I’m saying is that you have to forget what the institution wants from you and you have to start thinking about [education] in terms of what is my goal? And what are the resources I can assemble to make that goal happen? I think people today need to assume it won’t be one institution, and it won’t be one kind of experience, and it won’t just be online, and it won’t just be a person. It won’t be a workplace experience or travel and it won’t be just coursework. It won’t just be research, nor experimentation, either. What you’re going to want to do is combine as many of these as possible into a plan, always with your own goal in mind but not simply the goal of getting a diploma.

It’s kind of like what’s happening in health care – the move by many patients to take control of their own health amid a broken system.

I think a lot of people would agree that the health care system is broken but we have to be really careful here, because a major reason I wrote this book is that the education system is broken – not just for our children or for me as the child that I was, but for the millions and millions of kids forced out of the system who are not getting the education they need and can’t afford to get a decent degree that will translate into a decent job. That’s the major reason why education has to change, not just to make things better for kids at MIT.

Has technology, during this evolution we’re talking about, given us too much information/knowledge too fast? Is both the amount of information and the speed at which it can be shared overwhelming us — not only with the reality of how much more there is to know but how inadequate our institutions have been in delivering it to more people?

I think that our [educational] institutions are too slow to keep pace with digital technologies but I also think we are evolving new types of institutions. You know, Jefferson talked about how the human store of knowledge must be growing and enlarging, advancing accumulating until the end of time – if not infinitely then indefinitely. And he lived in a time when he was broadly thought to be a person that was an actual Renaissance Man; he had top-level knowledge in every major domain of life in that time, whether it was botany or astronomy or cooking or politics. I don’t think anyone would argue that today, very few people have the ability to have the knowledge that Jefferson had, and so I think that in general, [the rapid evolution of the Web] is a good thing and change is speeding up. The fact that it’s speeding up is a good thing and the fact that there is more information than ever before is a really good thing.

We just need to start being very creative about how we deal with the acceleration. I want to be a friend of change. I think there’s been a little bit of a debate already about the book coming out. I get asked, Are you a Pandora opening up Pandora’s Box, or are you a Cassandra, declaiming that things are doomed and that other things are coming up in their place? I kind of don’t want to take responsibility for either of these [viewpoints]. I think we are all imagining a different kind of future and I want to be on the side of the future and not on the side of the past.

Reihan Salam on New Conservatism

Author and New America Foundation Fellow Reihan Salam spoke to the PopTech 2009 audience about the history of the New Deal, the legacy of putting Americans on installment plans, and what he sees as the future of conservatism:

“in which a city like New York or Portland is going to have free mass transit and free love…This country is going to be full of creative tension, and also, just tension period.”

For more, read Reihan’s The Daily Beast posts and his co-authored book Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

PopTech Reads: Chief Culture Officer

Author Grant McCracken spoke on the PopTech stage a few years ago about diversity and culture, and about a month ago, PopTech attended a “Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp” to learn about Grant’s latest book, Chief Culture Officer, an argument for placing someone with deep cultural knowledge in a very senior position at an organization.

Grant told us why he thinks social entrepreneurs need to understand cultural nuances to be successful:

Join PopTech staff as we read Chief Culture Officer during the rest of April.

You can buy Chief Culture Officer on Better World Books or find an independent bookseller on Indie Bound and join discussion about the book on the Goodreads community site.

We’ll ask if you have questions about the book in late April and follow up with Grant. (If you have questions now, please leave them in the comments.)

Know a great book we should read together in 2010?
Drop us a recommendation: hello [at] poptech [dot] org

Rethinking the Paper Cup

This guest post is by Marcel Botha, a partner at Colaboratorie Mutopo, a social product development firm based in New York City. Unlike other contests, where (charitable and non-profit) organizations compete for financial awards, the betacup Challenge rewards ideas that solve for the problem of non-recyclable paper coffee cups, with a jury-awarded prize and five community idea winners. It would be foolish not to begin treating the prodigious amount of waste produced by this consumption pattern as a serious problem.

58 billion paper coffee cups end up in landfill each year, with very few entering what is a technically challenging recycling process needed to separate the polyethylene waterproofing layer from the paper. The betacup challenge represents a unique opportunity to participate in finding a solution to this problem.

You can submit ideas in an open submission format, comment and rate others’ ideas, and engage in discussions with other betacup community members and contest jurors. Successful solutions could include innovations across the communication, product, experience and systems design space. Submissions should consider waste reduction, required resources, technical feasibility and experience design.

We, the betacup team, have had a very energetic and successful response from our peers in the design, experience, communication and engineering fields, and welcome PopTech network participation in finding a relevant world-changing solution.

Arduino Art: Breathing Books, Twitching Dolls, Blinking Textiles

On Saturday night the Brooklyn hacker collective NYC Resistor (PopTech 2009 presenter on “smart content” Nick Bilton is a founding member), hosted a show on Arduino art and design curated by Alicia Gibb with breathing books, twitching dolls, and a marvelous blinking jacket.

An Arduino is a microcontroller (small computer) that can be used as a tool for artists and designers (for more, see Alicia’s February 2010 thesis on the subject).

The Saturday show was, in the words of NYC Resistor founding member (and PopTech interview subject) Bre Pettis “a landmark event in the history of mechanized and programmable art!”

Bre’s blog post has great background on the artists and designers in the show; some highlights from Saturday night are in the video below:

What are your favorite pieces of computing art? And congratulations to Alicia—

Remixing Americana: Music for Your Tuesday

We are releasing a batch of music videos today from PopTech 2009 – two from alto saxophonist Logan Richardson (and see a clip of his appearance last week at Iridium in NYC below) and two from virtuosi Mark O’Connor and Ruby Jane Smith fiddling together.

What musical performers would you like to see at PopTech 2010? Let us know in the comments.

Logan Richardson at PopTech 2009 (.mp3)

Logan Richardson at PopTech 2009 (.mp3)

Logan Richardson at Iridium Jazz Club, NYC, March 24, 2010

Mark O’Connor and Ruby Jane Smith at PopTech 2009 (.mp3)

Mark O’Connor and Ruby Jane Smith at PopTech 2009 (.mp3)

Fellow Abby Falik on the PopTech Network

Tomorrow, March 31, 2010, nominations close for the new class of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows.

You can nominate a Social Innovation Fellow for the program.

Global Citizen Year CEO Abby Falik was in PopTech’s inaugural Social Innovation Fellows program in 2008. A year later, in October 2009, she talked about the impact the PopTech Fellows program has had on her work:

For more on the PopTech Fellows, their presentations, and their work, please see the Class of 2008 and Class of 2009 pages. We look forward to your final nominations.