PopTech Blog

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.


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.

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.


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.

The Countdown is On

The Millennnium Development Goals (MDGs) were on display recently in New York and simulcast around the world during UN Week, the Social Good Summit, and the Clinton GlobalInitiative (#cgi2010) in addition to countless other events, meetups and city-wide opportunities.

One of the only events open to the public was the Social Good Summit (#socialgood), hosted by Mashable, the 92nd Street Y and the UN Foundation (another was TEDxChange). The Summit included over 20 leaders who spoke to a few hundred attendees including some of the best and the brightest in the social good space. This innovative Summit focused on discussions around real solutions addressing one of the Millennium Development Goals.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight international development targets set forth by the United Nations. Adopted by world leaders in the year 2000 and set to be achieved by all 192 United Nations member states and at least 23 international organizations by the year 2015, the MDGs seek to spur development by improving social and economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries. The MDGs are as follows:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty.
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education.
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality.
Goal 5: Improve maternal health.
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.
Goal 8: Develop a global partnership for development.

Speakers from the Social Good Summit sparked and drove conversation around new and innovative ways to address the MDGs and included the likes of actors and activists Edward Norton (Crowdrise) and Geena Davis (See Jane) to the CEO of the Campaign, Susan Smith Ellis, and the CEO of MTV Networks, Judy McGrath. Co-Founder of Facebook Chris Hughes talked about his new, soon-to-be launched social network for change Jumo as did Jessica Jackley (Founder and former CMO of Kiva), who talked about her new platform, ProFounder. Ted Turner himself closed out the day in an interview by Pete Cashmore (Founder/CEO of Mashable).


This Week in PopTech: Introductions, Bus Trips and Microscopes


  • OK Go is hosting a remix contest for their song “White Knuckles.” The grand prize winner will be announced on October 29th and will have their version of ‘White Knuckles’ mastered and made available for download in Rock Band.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

Aydogan Ozcan on Mobile Diagnostics

UCLA professor Aydogan Ozcan has discovered how to convert cellphones into microscopes by relying on shadow imaging instead of expensive optics. In time, he told us, the ability to conduct tests and detect infectious diseases by leveraging mobile technologies in resource-poor settings could transform public health.

“This lets us do some extraordinary things,” Ozcan says. “We can diagnose sickle-cell anemia, count cell signatures based on their texture, get complete blood counts and detect bacteria like E. coli in water, potentially avoiding contamination.”

Aydogan was recently named one of PopTech’s inaugural 2010 Science Fellows. Field tests of the cell phone microscope began in Africa this past summer.

Introducing the Inaugural PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows

We are very proud to announce the 2010 Class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows – eighteen exceptionally talented and accomplished scientific leaders.

The Fellows are working in areas of critical importance such as energy, food supply sustainability, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security.

The program aims to develop a corps of emerging scientific leaders who can effectively communicate with and engage the public in their work and the importance of their fields.

Photography by John Santerre

The 2010 Fellows first met in August at the Banbury Center of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. That kickoff event began a longer term process of providing training, mentorship and access to a powerful social network – comprised of scientific media, corporate and academic leaders – and opportunities for public leadership and engagement.

Photography by John Santerre

The Fellows were identified after a year-long outreach effort that put us in touch with some of the most esteemed research institutions in the world and a network of renowned scientific advisors.

This vital 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.

The Fellows will be presenting at PopTech 2010 (registrations available here), but in the meantime, learn more about who they are and what they do.

We are delighted to welcome the Fellows into the PopTech network!

Announcing the PopTech 2010 Speakers and Performers!


We’re thrilled to unveil (almost all!) of the speakers, performers, artists and guests who will be joining us at PopTech 2010, convening October 20-23, in the picturesque New England town of Camden, Maine. The gathering will feature 50 remarkable presenters and performers, and bring together more than 600 visionary thinkers, leaders and doers in science, technology, design, the corporate and social sectors, entrepreneurship, education and the arts from around the world.

The theme of the 2010 gathering is Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs, and will explore the complex, sometimes contradictory paths innovations take along their path to impact.

An extremely limited number of tickets to conference remain. To request a registration, please go here.

Kathryn Schulz, author of the bestselling book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error about the nature of failure
Kevin Dunbar, psychologist who studies the impact of failure on our brains
Siddhartha Mukherjee, cancer physician and researcher, author of The Emperor of All Maladies
Adrian Owen, one of the world’s preeminent neuroscientists and an expert on consciousness
OK Go, renowned indie band & video artists changing the way people think about music and the Internet
Deborah Kenny, founder of Harlem Village Academies, one of the world’s most innovative charter school networks
Donald Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute for Bioinspired Engineering at Harvard, and an expert on what we can learn from nature
Ben Goldacre, debunker of “bad science” quackery and the way science is abused in public discourse
Marcia McNutt, director, US Geological Survey, led the US scientific response to the BP Oil Spill
Elizabeth Dunn, psychologist who studies the surprising truth about what makes us happy
Stephanie Coontz, renowned expert on the past and future of marriage, and the author of Marriage, A History
Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy: Education for Everyone, and educator of hundreds of thousands of children worldwide
Laura Poitras, Oscar-nominated filmmaker of “The Oath,” which follows the life stories of two members of Al Quaeda
David Eagleman, neuroscientist and Author, of Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlife
Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation, and an expert on what works (and doesn’t) in social innovation
Daryl Collins, director of Bankable Frontiers, and an expert on how people live on $2/day
April Smith and the Big Picture Show, Brooklyn based swing & country band
Tom Darden, builder of ultra-green homes in New Orleans
Susan Casey, author of The Wave, about colossal, ship-swallowing rogue waves and the surfers who seek them out
David de Rothschild, adventurer, ecologist and captain of the Plastiki Eco-Expedition
John Legend, Grammy-award-winning musician and education activist
Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, leader in water and sanitation programs worldwide
Alan Rabinowitz, the “Indiana Jones” of conservation and a leader in the protection of big cats.
Larry Smith, creator of the ‘Six Word Memoir’
Patrick Meier and Josh Nesbit, collaborators on the 4636 project in Haiti
Vijay Anand, Indian anticorruption crusader
Simon Hauger, Science teacher at West Philadelphia High
Nathan Eagle, mobile pioneer and leader in ‘AI for Development’
Riley Crane, winner of the DARPA Balloon Challenge
Orlaugh Obrien, design researcher on the aesthetics of human emotions
Dan Ariely, behavioral economist and bestselling author of The Upside of Irrationality
Eli Pariser, Founder of MoveOn and Internet personalization researcher
Jad Abumrad, journalist and host of RadioLab
Colin Rich, high-altitude balloon maker
Patrick Flanagan, creator of the Jazari percussion ensemble
Mike Blum, evolutionary biologist studying environmental impacts on Louisiana’s protective barrier islands
Chris Chabris, psychologist a who studies how our intuitive beliefs about the human mind can easily lead us astray.
Erika Wagner, head of the XPrize Laboratory at MIT
Lisa Gansky, entrepreneur and author of The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing
Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, a ‘marketplace of challenges’
Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures & Composites Center at the University of Maine, and an expert on the future of wind power
Annemarie Ahearn, Owner & Chef at Saltwater Farms, Maine
Philippe Newlin, former Associate Editor and Tasting Director at Wine & Spirits
Rachel Wingfield, designer of environmentally responsive textiles and sustainable urban habitats
Mathias Gmachl, multidisciplinary artist and founding member of farmersmanual
Nigel Waller, founder & CEO of Movirtu – mobile for the next billion
Assaf Biderman, Associate Director of the SENSEable City Laboratory, MIT

The PopTech 2010 Social Innovation Fellows and Science and Public Leadership Fellows, announced separately, will join these presenters, and other surprise guests, on stage.

Request a registration, or help us spread the news!