PopTech Blog

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.

Meaning-Driven Brands: A List

As the world slowly emerges from the economic gloom, and the “hyper-social real-time web” requires new organizational designs, it’s clear that business as usual will not be so usual anymore. Yet fundamental concerns remain, both for business leaders, who face the challenge of innovating in a hyper-transparent and always-on environment, and for consumers, who are increasingly searching for non-economic values amidst the shattered trust in business and the information overload. Smart companies recognize the historic opportunity to transform the way they do business and provide customers with more value-rich, sustainable, and meaningful products, services, and business models. From “un-entitlement” to “disruptive realism” to “for-profit activism” — here are some of the new paradigms that shape meaning-driven brands.


GE, which is widely known for its rigorous, metrics-based performance management, is changing course and shifting attention to social intelligence, empathy, and listening skills. The company is putting 1,000 managers through their paces to learn how to react to sometimes imperceptible signs of change. While this is not entirely new at GE or any other company, GE is striking a refreshing tone, admitting that: “We don’t have all the answers.” In A Whole New Mind – Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, Dan Pink wrote several years ago that “Creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers are holding the keys to the new empire,” and GE, humbled by the recession, is catching up with that insight. It emphasizes context over text, the Big Picture over details, listening over brand control and messaging discipline.


Ma Yun, the president of Alibaba, the world’s largest online B2B marketplace, requested that the 18 co-founders resign from current positions in the company and re-apply for jobs – a radical measure to reshape the company’s culture and administration in order to face new challenges in e-commerce after one decade of fast growth.


The employees of large US retailer Costco are known to be incredibly loyal, which can be attributed to a host of exceptional programs and benefits to motivate them. It doesn’t hurt that Costco pays, on average, $17 an hour, which is 42 percent higher than the average hourly pay of its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogeish. Costco’s CEO, James Sinegal, firmly believes that keeping employees satisfied and committed will result in profitability for the organization in the long run. With such a loyal employee base, Costco can maintain the luxury of relying only on word-of-mouth, not having a PR department, and striving to connect with its customers solely through the in-store experience.


On the Social Web, companies may soon need to share everything about their business, including complaints, profit margins on particular products, and even corporate strategies. In the spirit of Radical Transparency, companies could even make their live email correspondence public. An open and interactive email feed may propel knowledge sharing and collaboration, but also an ongoing conversation that customers, partners, and global media can join. A first step in this direction is the list of outbound emails (“ABC just sent an email to XYZ”) that the Dachis Group, a global social business consultancy, publishes on its web site. It draws the visitor into a stream of real-time events and provides a snapshot of the company’s social graph. This openness, not to mention the implied social references (in a sense, the email recipients vouch with their name), builds trust.

OPEN INNOVATION: Nike + Creative Commons, Best Buy

Nike is committed to developing products that use sustainable materials and are designed for easy disassembly. In its commitment to protecting the environment, the company is sharing its knowledge so other businesses can do the same. Nike has partnered with Creative Commons and Best Buy to support a shared vision of “creating a platform that promotes the creation and adoption of technologies that have the potential to solve important global or industry-wide sustainability challenges.” Together they have formed the GreenXchange. The project aims to develop strategies for using patents and know-how to facilitate and promote open innovation. In late October, 2009, Nike also entered a partnership with social innovation network PopTech as the first participant in the PopTech Labs to “foster open collaboration on key innovation challenges.” Each of the PopTech Labs will bring together a select group of leading scientific researchers, engineers, designers, corporate leaders, policymakers and other key stakeholders around a single topic of research in areas of vital importance to business, society, and the planet.

Best Buy‘s mantra is “the company as wiki.” The company is tapping into its 130,000 employees to market its brand rather than just relying on the marketing staff to do so. It is a great example of how a major company has redefined its attitude towards control and information.

NOWISM: Zara, TCHO, Zappos

Customers always want it faster, that’s not news. But the implications of the real-time web are more profound and affect the way organizations operate and adapt their business models to the new and ever-changing demands of immediacy. Zara, the Spanish clothing chain, uses customer feedback to develop new clothes, in near real-time. TCHO, the San Francisco-based chocolatier, relies on continuous flavor development and customer feedback to drive constantly evolving versions of its dark chocolate, with variations emerging as often as every 36 hours. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, successfully combines real-time customer service on Twitter with near-real-time product delivery.


FC Barcelona (“Barca”) was one of the first soccer clubs to be founded in Spain, and it became a haven for Catalan sentiment when Catalan self-government and culture were proscribed during Franco’s dictatorship. The club emerged as the playful manifesto of Catalonia’s spiritual independence, and since then, nowhere has soccer been more fundamental to the sense of identity than in Barcelona. It is ironic that a club rooted deeply in Catalan nationalism has such an international following. But Barca’s appeal is so global precisely because its roots are so local. Barca represents the Catalan people while at the same time creating a sense of belonging to “beauty and excellence.” The meaning of Barca transcends the boundaries of sports and nations, and embodies the universal values of sportsmanship and integrity. Barca is fully owned by its members, unlike most other big soccer clubs – which are either in the hands of large corporations or American (Manchester United) and Russian (FC Chelsea) billionaires – and the members possess significant voting power. Based on its spirit of independence, the club has always taken on broader social issues and played a pivotal role in promoting diversity, tolerance, and peace worldwide. Barca’s partnership with UNICEF is a statement of the club’s continuing efforts to be at the forefront of solidarity projects with a global reach. Under the agreement, which bears the slogan “Barcelona, more than a club, a new global hope for vulnerable children,” Barca contributes to the financing of UNICEF humanitarian projects and endorses UNICEF on its shirts – it is the only major European team not to wear an advertisement.


Etsy is an online marketplace for buying and selling all things handmade: clothing, music, furniture, software, jewelry, robots. Since launching in June, 2005, the company has experienced incredible growth with hundreds of thousands of sellers globally. A grassroots community has developed amongst its buyers and sellers, and Etsy facilitates these interactions. For example, Alchemy is a space on Etsy where members can post requests for custom handmade items, and sellers submit bids to create them. Etsy also helps bring its online community to real-world teams (organized by location or type of craft) for its sellers to connect and share ideas. Etsy’s mission is “to enable people to make a living making things, and to reconnect makers with buyers. Our vision is to build a new economy and present a better choice. Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade.”

CAN-DOISM: Coca-Cola

With its Expedition 206 campaign, Coca-Cola is tapping regular people to be their “Happiness Ambassadors” and travel the world throughout 2010, documenting their quests via blog posts, tweets, YouTube videos, TwitPics, and other social media tools. The goal of the campaign is to “find happiness” in 206 different countries that sell Coca-Cola products around the globe. The winning three-person team, selected out of numerous applications, began its journey on January 1, 2010 and is attempting to travel more than 150,000 miles in 365 days. On the way, the team will experience the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and the World Expo in Shanghai. The team’s duty is to engage with locals and uncover what makes them happy, openly document and share their experiences online, and complete tasks in each country as determined by online voters. The campaign connects the ambassadors, and by proxy, the global Coca-Cola customer base, with locals. Through immersion, it will generate empathy and understanding for local cultures. On the web, the campaign will “activate” a dormant network of Coke fans that will follow the ambassadors’ travels and connect with each other. By connecting people from different cultures, Coca-Cola offers a way of looking at the world and creates social wealth: better mutual understanding through enhanced intercultural knowledge.


For the first time in 23 years, Pepsi Co. decided not to run any advertisements during the Super Bowl in 2010. Instead, the nation’s second-biggest soft drink maker plowed marketing dollars into its Pepsi Refresh Project, an online community that allows Pepsi fans to list their public service projects, which could range from helping to feed people to teaching children to read. Visitors to the site can vote to determine which projects receive money. The program will pay at least $20 million for projects people create to “refresh” communities. Last year, Pepsi Co. spent $33 million advertising products such as Pepsi, Gatorade, and Cheetos during the Super Bowl, according to TNS Media Intelligence, $15 million of it on Pepsi alone. Ad time last year for the NFL championship game cost about $3 million for 30 seconds, on average. Pepsi Co. spokeswoman Nicole Bradley said Super Bowl ads don’t work with the company’s future goals: “In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement.”


Two Crispin Porter + Bogusky alums have launched Victors & Spoils (V&S), “the world’s first creative agency built on crowd-sourcing principle.” V&S says it will “provide businesses with a better way to solve their marketing, advertising and product-design problems by engaging the world’s most talented creatives.” V & S is eating its own dog food. The first line you notice on its web site (after the humble “Welcome to Victors & Spoils. Let’s Change an Industry”) is “Why does this site look so plain, Jane?” and the answer is: because the site design, the look and feel, and even the logo are being crowd-sourced. V&S received thousands of applications for crowdsourced projects in the first week after launch.

CREATIVE CONVERGENCE: British Airports Authority and Alain De Botton’s Heathrow Diary

The Swiss writer Alain De Botton was commissioned by the British Airports Authority (BAA) to spend a week in the middle of Heathrow’s bustling Terminal 5 and write about life at the airport. Dan Glover, creative director at Mischief, BAA’s PR agency, said that “If we funded a brochure that said how wonderful the airport was, people would switch off because they’d think they’re being marketed to.” Instead, he added, the Heathrow Diary campaign sought to stimulate “branded conversations” among travelers “through the experience of seeing a top literary figure at the airport — and potentially being a character in the book — and by receiving an exclusive copy to read on your travels. The overarching objective is to make a passenger’s time at Heathrow the best memory of the trip.”

PRESENCE THROUGH ABSENCE: Maison Martin Margiela, +/-0

Instead of crafting a story around its clothing line, Cult fashion brand Maison Martin Margiela (MMM) has remained swathed in anonymity throughout its 20-year history. Namesake designer Martin Margiela chose to remain out of the spotlight, and it was this invisibility that helped to develop the brand. MMM became a household name and its admirers, devout acolytes of the brand. This cult of impersonality spread through the aesthetic of the brand: Stores are never listed in phone books or identified with signage; staff at stores and at Margiela HQ wear standard white lab coats; white is also the ubiquitous color of all stores, MMM’s HQ, and the sheets that cover all in-store furniture and displays; packaging is monochrome and logo-free; models at MMM often appear on the runway with covered faces; seating is mostly first-come, first-served, avoiding the industry standard of seating hierarchy; and the company uses a first person plural response to all inquiries, emphasizing the collaborative, disciple-like consensus of their thoughts.

Japanese brand +/-0 strives to offer “only the things we need.” In response to a belief that many of the products found in the global marketplace are superfluous, +/-0 seeks to design necessities that last a lifetime. The firm has dedicated its business to creating things that “people feel they have truly wanted. Things that seemed like they already existed but didn’t.” These things enter the market without fanfare. The products are carefully designed so the fact that they are unseen makes them appear to have always been there: “Because these things ‘seem to have already existed,’ people feel comfortable with those things, even though they have never seen them before. It is the feeling of having seen the actual shapes of things that people have obscurely, or even unconsciously, felt they have wanted. That is why these things naturally ‘dissolve’ into people’s behavior and into the space around them.” +/-0 began in September, 2003 in Tokyo. The website launched in December of the same year with the quiet unveiling of the first collection by design director Naoto Fukasawa. Since then, the company has garnered widespread attention in the design world for its understated composition. Fukasawa’s personal philosophy is that he’s designing for the gaps, bringing to life a “shared sense” of what should be there.


Disruptive Realism is an expression presented in an everyday context that disrupts people’s perceptions about different things. The most prominent example to date has been Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which was meant as entertainment and commentary on how evolution had been twisted into Social Darwinism. Regardless of its intention, the broadcast caused mass hysteria. More recent examples include Banksy’s graffiti, Bruno Taylor’s work, which involves physical designs such as the swing set in the bus stop, or Reverse Graffiti artist’s Paul Curtis’ “Pictures by Cleaning.” Disruptive Realism was also used in a campaign conducted by UNICEF in Finland. Wanting to raise awareness of children’s rights, the “Be a Mom for a Moment” campaign placed unattended blue strollers with a crying baby audio track in crowded places in 14 cities. When passers-by looked in the strollers, they found a note with the message: “Thank you for caring, we hope there are more people like you. UNICEF – Be a mom for a moment.” The media and public reaction was overwhelming, with coverage in all major TV, radio, and web news.


The San Francisco-based venture fund Virgance aims to support social causes through multi-pronged campaign platforms that resemble the way Obama for America mobilized its supporters, and it typically consists of four core elements: A web-empowered network of volunteers, a presence on Facebook, a team of paid bloggers to promote the campaigns, and YouTube viral videos. Virgance is not the first for-profit-do-gooder of course; there have been plenty of others whose business models combine bottom line thinking with social value. But Virgance is more like Facebook Causes. It adopts the forces of amateur self-organization described in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody and builds its entire business on a social web platform, embracing the principles of open-sourcing, mass collaboration, and transparency: “If a for-profit company did the type of work that non-profits often do, but did it more efficiently, would people trust it the same way they trust non-profits?”

Design Revolution Road Show Rolls Into Brooklyn

PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Emily Pilloton (her PopTech 2009 talk) is in the middle of a Design Revolution Road Show on behalf of her organization, Project H Design, visiting 35 schools in 75 days.

Design Revolution Road Show

On Tuesday, the Road Show Airstream was on the Pratt campus in Brooklyn, New York near PopTech Fellow James O’Brien’s Brooklyn Community Arts & Music (BCAM) High School, where he serves as Principal (his PopTech 2009 talk).

Some of his BCAM students visited Emily’s Road Show and learned about products designed to change the world, and Emily and James caught us up on what’s happened for them since they appeared on the PopTech stage in October:

More in Emily’s great blog post about Tuesday, and you can see the Design Revolution Road Show today in Syracuse and on the rest of the tour (through April 18th!) before the Airstream parks in North Carolina for its next project.

What is your favorite social innovation product?

The Moment of Happy

Editor’s note: Dan Austin is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of 88 Bikes, a foundation that he explains below. For more, watch his recent appearance on CBS’s “Weekend Journal.”

During several years endowing orphanages around the world with bicycles, we often wonder why someone else hasn’t done it first.

88 bikes at rural Vietnam orphanage
88 Bikes at a rural Vietnam orphanage; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

“We never thought of that,” said my friend Sulakshana, who directs a partner NGO in Nepal. “But look at the kids! They’re so happy!”

What before was overlooked, becomes a no-brainer. Humanitarian efforts have historically focused on sustaining people: rescuing them from hunger, abetting their survival. But something was missing.

Greg Mortenson, celebrated mountaineer and school builder of Central Asia expressed it well in his recent memoir: "Playgrounds [for their schools] had not exactly been at the top of the priority list…”

Happiness is an amazing thing. It’s the ultimate renewable resource. The amount of happiness in the universe, unlike energy, has no limit. Some have called the bicycle the most efficient, self-powered creation in the history of humanity, but it may well be the most efficient engine of happiness, as well.

Dan Austin showing 88 bikes card
Dan Austin showing recipient his 88 Bikes sponsor card; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

My foundation, 88bikes, gives bicycles to children in difficult circumstances. We endow orphanages, ashrams, centers and schools around the world. One person sponsors one bike for one child. We give the child a picture of her sponsor in addition to her bike. There’s a world map on back showing where the child lives, and where her sponsors lives. Kids love it. They ask questions and turn their heads and squint and pull the card right up to their noses calculating the vast distance between two points on a map. They carry the cards around with them like talismans.

The whole event is called The Moment of Happy.

The first time it happened, in Cambodia 3 years ago, my brother Jared and I were caught off-guard by what I can only describe as a “tsunami of happiness.” It was so incredible, people 2700 miles away in Tokyo stopped mid-stride and wondered why they suddenly felt so good; people across the ocean in Los Angeles skidded to a stop in unison on the Venice Beach bike path and gazed out over the Pacific for an impromptu “Damn, that’s beautiful” moment.

Back in Cambodia, a happy ruckus had ensued. There was one scraped knee. One kid wanted a blue bike and got a red one. 100% efficiency, in physics—or happiness—is probably not going to happen. Just ask any parent on Christmas morning. But overall, it was such a scene of exuberance that we knew we’d have to do it again.

88 bikes in Peru
88 Bikes in Peru; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

And so we did. Hauling 200 bikes 10 hours up awful roads to a remote refugee camp in Uganda during a gas crisis on New Year’s Day was a gut-wrenching, but rewarding second act. A year later in Peru we gave bikes to kids in the Mantaro Valley, many of them HIV-positive, and shunned by family and society. And just a few weeks ago: 300 bikes to heroic kids around the world rescued from slavery.

The kids we worked with in Vietnam, Ghana, Nepal and India had endured conditions and treatment no human being, let alone a child, should ever confront. For many of these kids, childhood is a distant memory. But one thing remains the same: give her a bike and she becomes a child again.

We all do, really. I asked people around the world, young and old, rich and poor, to tell me about their first bike. I won’t forget a bikeshop keeper in Allahabad, India: a gruff old fellow with a gigantic face and fat fingers filled with rings. He gestured out over his small but impressively packed bike warehouse like a pontiff, “30,000 bikes a year! That is what we sell!”

We sat down at a rickety table to work out the deal. The chai wallah came bearing tea. He was a tough negotiator (the shopkeeper, not the chai wallah) and didn’t seem too impressed with the idea of giving bikes to kids. Business was business.

After we’d finished, I said coolly: “I have a question for you,” and turned on my camcorder.

He steeled himself, his pursed lips disappearing beneath a large mustache, his eyes narrowing. "Yes,” he said dismissively.

I mustered my best, equally-dismissive look and leaned in, nostrils flaring for effect: “Tell me about your first bike.”

50 hard years and who knows how many disappointments, heartbreaks, failed friendships, rebellious children—it all just fell away…“My first bike?” He said in amazement, stunned, his voice suddenly high and light, "My first bike?”

I nodded. The camera rolled. The shopkeeper leaned back in his chair. “It was blue,” he said wistfully. “I rode it everywhere, I was six years old.”

“Did you have some great adventures?” I asked.

“Many, many…” he said, almost smiling as he watched some slideshow I couldn’t see play a few feet above my left shoulder.

“Do you still have this bike?” I asked.

“Oh no,” he said with an easy chuckle.

“So, what bike do you have now?" I nodded out over the hundreds of bike frames hanging behind him like gigantic, plastic-wrapped bats from the ceiling.

“Now?” He looked a bit perplexed. “I don’t have a bike now,” he said softly, as if just realizing this, his eyes falling to his clasped hands on the table.

It may not always be as simple as this—but then again, it may. Give a child a bike and her world is transformed. Give her a bike and she can get to school and in many cases, avoid rape and danger.

88 Bikes in Cambodia
88 Bikes in Cambodia; image courtesy of Dan Austin.

But most important of all, and purely and completely indefinable and unquantifiable: give a child a bike… and she will be happy.

Perhaps this is why it took Greg Mortensen ten years to realize the benefits of building playgrounds at their schools (“You really need to put them in,” chided his daughter. “All children need to play, especially ones suffering and hurting like the kids in Pakistan.”) Maybe this is the reason why well-meaning, effective NGOs fixate on sustaining the body and mind, while overlooking the needs of the heart. Maybe this is why we hear it from almost every one of our bike sponsors: “The reason I got involved is because I wanted a child to be happy.”

Happiness. You can’t measure it, you can’t put it on a graph, but you can see it. Oh, can you see it. And you can feel it, too. Many of the kids who received bikes in Uganda had been former child soldiers; some had watched both parents die of HIV. Many of the girls who received bikes in India and Nepal were survivors of unimaginable abuse as sex slaves. But even in these cases, where the kids were more subdued, their understated happiness was just as evident as that of the rambunctious kids in Phnom Penh who got up at 5 a.m. the day after the Moment of Happy to ride their bikes around the center, rousing the orphanage staff with a symphony of little bike bells…

During all these travels (including 17 countries, 2 1/2 months on the road and 12 endowment sites on our just-finished Project FOUR), a thought keeps echoing in my mind: is our ignorance in addressing the desire and need for happiness for all people at the root of poverty’s pervasive grip? Despite clear research from Jeffrey Sachs and other economists that, comparatively speaking, it wouldn’t require that much to lift the caul of poverty for most; despite millions of NGOs, billions of dollars and countless courageous individuals, poverty remains, unabated.

But it makes sense: it’s difficult to get excited—and generous—about simply sustaining someone. We want to see our fellow human beings do better than languish; we want to see them progress and find fulfillment in their lives.

Perhaps if happiness were embraced as a need on par with food, shelter, water, love—the tide would turn. Not because happiness in and of itself can drill a well or sow corn or turn back climate change—but because making people happy is a mission a whole lot more transcendent and enjoyable than just keeping them alive.

Perhaps all this time the bar hasn’t been raised too high—but too low.

88bikes is a very small organization working to affect the lives of a very small population. We hope that those bikes will last for years to come, and we have a small army of volunteers working to make that happen. But at the end of the day, we’re under no illusion that the bikes will last forever; we’re under no illusion that a bike will single-handedly turn an orphan into the future president of Nepal. Bikes get stolen; bikes break down. We hope they help the kids get to school; in most cases they do. We hope that the bikes (and the workshops and apprenticeships we organize) are catalysts for careers. We’ll see.

But we do know one thing: Every time we give a bike, the happiness in the universe increases just a bit.

Perhaps you can remember your first bike. I can remember mine. Like the shopkeer in Allahabad, it’s long gone, too, but it’s a happy memory.

Every kid deserves to have a childhood, to be happy.

And I think every kid also deserves to have a bike.

88 Bikes in Camdodia
88 Bikes on a Cambodia bike ride; image courtesy of Dan Austin.