PopTech Blog

VIDEO: Luis von Ahn Harnesses Brainpower

As the latest tech products and applications launch at CES this week, we are releasing Luis von Ahn’s talk about the power of big groups and small increments of time to solve problems computers cannot. What other forms of social good are possible in this new decade as we turn more attention to microcontributions of time and energy?

Watch Luis von Ahn on harnessing brainpower.

Computer scientist Luis von Ahn’s programs harness the human brainpower to solve complex problems. von Ahn invented ReCaptcha, a program that uses squiggly characters that humans easily decipher but blocks spambots – and helps digitize millions of old texts. The CMU professor also makes games that use human knowledge to improve computers. Find them at gwap.com.

Go Deeper:

- Luis’s blog and personal site

- See more examples of transcription accuracy and reCAPTCHA resources

- ZDNet on new questions for reCAPTCHA (December 2009)

An Interview with Better World Books

While in Atlanta over the holidays, I asked Xavier Helgesen, Co-Founder of Better World Books, a few questions about what the social enterprise book company does—how they find used library books, why they are located in Atlanta (change.org blogger for Social Entrepreneurship Nathaniel Whittemore includes Atlanta in his recent post on burgeoning “regional innovation ecosystems”), and why Better World Books is a B Corp (find out more about B Corps in our December blog post):

Questions for Xavier? Tell us what you think in the comments—we are planning to highlight more B Corps in the coming months.

The Future Has a Future Again

As we’re nearing the end of a year and the end of a decade, it’s time to look back and ahead.

Photo: Gardard Eide Einarssons’s installation on the Louisiana Museum photographed by Finn Broendum.

With at least three formative events in this young 21st century (9/11, the Tsunami, and the Great Recession) providing some sort of apocalyptic arch and instilling a profound sense of anxiety, it is no wonder that former visionaries are gathering at conferences asking “Where did the future go?” But, at the end of the day, the end of all days didn’t occur, and as the New York Magazine points out in its comprehensive review of the “Aughts”: “The Times is still published every day. There are more bicyclists on the streets than sanity would dictate.” Plus, we got Barack Obama, Mad Men, the iPhone, Twitter, and Foursquare…. and and and….

In the last days of a restless decade, we can lean back and enjoy again, with cautious relief, a modicum of optimism. When even the newsletter of management consultancy Arthur D. Little – not necessarily known for being conducive to enthusiasm – arrives in your inbox with the bold subject line “The Future of the Future,” it indeed seems to indicate that, yes, the future has a future again.

Therefore it feels appropriate to end this year, this decade, with a super-list on the future curated by super-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (and first presented in his lecture at the “Where do we go from here?” symposium at the Louisiana Museum during the UN climate conference in Copenhagen):

"The future will be….

(List compiled by Hans Ulrich Obrist; via @Andrian Kreye/sueddeutsche.de)

The future will be chrome. Rirkrit Tiravanija

The future will be curved. Olafur Eliasson

The future will be in the name of the future. Anri Sala

The future will be so subjective. Tino Sehgal

The future will be bouclette. Douglas Gordon

The future will be curious. Nico Dockx

The future will be obsolete. Tacita Dean

The future will be asymmetric. Pedro Reyes

The future will be a slap in the face. Cao Fei

The future will be delayed. Loris Greaud

The future does not exist but in snapshots. Philippe Parreno

The future will be tropical. Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster

Future? …you must be mistaken Trisha Donnelly

The future will be overgrown and decayed. Simryn Gill

The future will be tense. John Baldessari

 

 

A future fuelled by human waste. Matthew Barney

The future is going nowhere without us. Paul Chan

The future is now – the future is it. Doug Aitken

The future is one night, just look up. Tomas Saraceno

The future will be a remake… Didier Fiuza Faustino

The future is what we construct from what we remember of the past – the present is the time of instantaneous revelation. Lawrence Weiner

The future is this place at a different time. Bruce Sterling

The future will be widely reproduced and distributed. Cory Doctorow

The future will be whatever we make it. Jacque Fresco

The future will involve splendour and poverty. Arto Lindsay

The future is uncertain because it will be what we make it. Immanuel Wallerstein

The future is waiting – the future will be self-organized. Raqs Media Collective

Dum Spero/ While I breathe, I hope. Nancy Spero

This is not the future. Jordan Wolfson

The future is a dog/ l’avenir c’est la femme. Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron

On its way; it was here yesterday. Hreinn Friðfinnsson

The future will be an armchair strategist, the future will be like no snow on the broken bridge. Yang Fudong

The future always flies under the radar. Martha Rosler

Suture that future. Peter Doig

‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow’ (Shakespeare). Richard Hamilton

The future is overrated. Cerith Wyn Evans

futuro = $B!g(B Hector Zamorra The future is a large pharmacy with a memory deficit. David Askevold

The future will be bamboo. Tay Kheng Soon

The future will be ousss. Koo Jeong-A

The future will be…grains, particles & bits. The future will be…ripples, waves & flow. The future will be…mix, swarms, multitudes. The future will be…the future we deserve but with some surprises, if only some of us take notice. Vito Acconci

In the future…the earth as a weapon… Allora & Calzadilla

The future is our excuse. Joseph Grigely and Amy Vogel

The future will be repeated. Marlene Dumas

Ok, ok I’ll tell you about the future; but I am very busy right now; give me a couple of days more to finish some things and I’ll get back to you. Jimmie Durham

Future is instant. Yung Ho Chang

‘The future is not.’ Zaha Hadid

The future is private. Anton Vidokle

The future will be layered and inconsistent. Liam Gillick

The future is a piano wire in a pussy powering something important. Matthew Ronay

In the future perhaps there will be no past. Daniel Birnbaum

The future was. Julieta Aranda

The future is menace. Carolee Schneemann

The future is a forget-me-not. Molly Nesbit

The future is an knowing exchange of glances. Sarah Morris

The future: Scratching on things I could disavow. Walid Raad

The future is our own wishful thinking. Liu Ding

Le futur est un étoilement. Edouard Glissant

The future is now. Maurizio Cattelan

The future has a silver lining. Thomas Demand

The future is now and here. Yona Friedman

is a fax best to use as facsimile G&G FAX is: THE FUTURE? SEE YOU THERE! AS ARTISTS WE WANT TO HELP TO FORM OUR TOMORROWS. WE HAVE ALWAYS BELIEVED IN THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE. ITS GOING TO BE MARVELLOUS. LONG LIVE THE FUTURE WITH LOTS OF LOVE ALWAYS AND ALWAYS. Gilbert & George

The future is without you. Damien Hirst

The future is a season. Pierre Huyghe

The future is a poster. M/M

We have repeated the future out of existence. Tom McCarthy

The future has two large beautiful eyes. Jonas Mekas

less, few tours in my future. Stefano Boeri

Future is what it is. Huang Yong Ping

The future is the very few years we have remaining before all time becomes one time. Grant Morrison

FUTURE MUST BE HERE TODAY. Jan Kaplicky

Future is more freedom. Jia Zhangke

My art is very free, I don’t know what to do in the future. But I am positive. Xu Zhen

The future is inside. Shumon Basar, Markus Miessen, Åbäke

NO FUTUREPUNK IS NOT DEATH ! Thomas Hirschhorn

The future will be grim if we don’t do something about it. Morgan Fisher

The future is reflexive and coming together. Olafur Eliasson

The future is listening. Shilpa Gupta

The future lies in the unknown. Ann Lislegaard

Nothing stinks, only thinking made it so. Sissel Tolaas

What the future is, you only know next morning. Die Zukunft kann man nur ueber Nacht definieren. Peter Sloterdijk

The future is a disease. Peter Weibel

VIDEO and MP3s: Zee Avi, John Forté, and Zoë Keating

This week, new videos and the accompanying mp3s from Zee Avi, John Forté, and Zoë Keating, three of the talented musicians who graced the PopTech 2009 stage in October. Find out their upcoming tour dates and how to support their music with the links below.

If you are still seeking gift ideas, you might donate a goat (and hear a new track with Zoë!), contribute to the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows’ organizations, join the PopTech Impact Fund, and purchase books from 2009 PopTech speakers.

Watch Zee Avi perform at PopTech 2009

Shortly after posting self-styled videos on You Tube, singer songwriter Zee Avi woke up to 3,000 emails one morning. One offered her a recording contract with Brushfire Records. Since then, Avi left her home in Kuala Lumpur for Los Angeles. Avi performs melodic, melancholy songs tinged with irrepressible optimism.

Download mp3s: Honey Bee, Bitter Heart, Poppy, Just You and Me

Go Deeper:

- Zee’s personal site, zeeavi.com, and her MySpace page
- Zee’s upcoming tour dates
- Zee’s Twitter, @zeeavi

Watch John Forté perform at PopTech 2009

John Forté is an accomplished musician and producer who recently released StyleFREE the EP, his first album since serving seven years in federal prison. Forte’s career was interrupted by a 14-year sentence for a first-time non-violent drug offense; Former President Bush commuted his sentence in 2008.

Download mp3s: Face You World, Play My Cards For Me, Running Up That Hill, The Breaking of a Man

- John’s personal site, johnforte.com, and his MySpace page
- John’s upcoming tour dates
- John’s Twitter, @john_forte

Watch Zoë Keating perform at PopTech 2009

Cellist Zoë Keating uses a cello and a small box of electronics to create a one-woman avant-garde orchestra. A former member of the cello-rock trio Rasputina, Keating has played live on radio and television, in the Nevada desert, in medieval churches, punk clubs, and in venues across North America and Europe.

Download mp3s: 1 and 2

- Zoë’s personal site, zoekeating.com, and her MySpace page
- Zoë’s upcoming tour dates
- Zoë’s Twitter, @zoecello

More music in 2010!

Co-working for Social Good

Editor’s note: Heather Fleming is a 2008 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and the CEO of Catapult Design, an organization that develops “human-centered products” for BoP (bottom of the pyramid). Below, she tells us why her company works from a co-working space for social entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

“It’s kinda like a third world command center,” is how Tyler Valiquette, (Catapult Design co-founder) described his first visit to 972 Mission, now Mission*Social, a co-working space aimed at social entrepreneurs in San Francisco.

Coworking at Mission Social
Mission*Social in San Francisco’s SoMa

Indeed, Mission*Social is stocked with organizations serving communities in India, Rwanda, Guatemala, the DRC, Zambia, Kenya, etc. and it’s got the extensive Skype conferencing setup to prove it.

Founded by Inveneo, a leading non-profit in ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development), Inveneo’s CEO Kristin Peterson describes the space as a “DIY environment” for its tenants.

Each conference room has monitors, speakers, and web cams rigged to the walls for frequent international video Skype calls; next to the kitchen is an open work area for assembly and de-bug littered with monitors, keyboards, wires, and electrical components; most of the IKEA furnishings in the space are perched on wheels to make changes fast and easy.

Coworking at Mission Social
Mission*Social in San Francisco’s SoMa

Catapult moved into Mission*Social at the beginning of October, joining Samasource and Inveneo. We immediately felt the benefits of sharing space with other mission-driven companies. Within two and half months of moving in, we’ve tapped Inveneo for legal resources, solar vendor recommendations for our client work in Rwanda, an accountant for the 2009 tax season, and even guidance on IRS filings. Resources like this are invaluable and save newbies (like me) loads of time and grief.

Co-hosting Catapult’s holiday party with the immensely popular Samasource fueled the expansion of our social circle. And naturally, being in a proximity of twenty feet with Inveneo has already resulted in a joint proposal on a new project.

The solidarity component also plays a valuable role in a space serving social entrepreneurs. Did I mention that I now get to sit next to two successful female CEOs running technology organizations?

Generally, San Francisco’s loft spaces in the South of Market (SoMa) area are some of the most viable and affordable office spaces for budget-minded social entrepreneurs—within walking distance of Catapult: blueEnergy Group (providing sustainable energy to marginalized communities), Impact Carbon (improves accessibility of clean tech for the international carbon market), Public Architecture, and many others.

The SF Chronicle, directly across the street from Mission*Social, recently announced that the TechShop, a membership-based DIY workshop, and the Hub, a network supporting business incubation, are moving in next year. And appropriately, the site of the upcoming TEDxSoMa will be in a popular SoMa co-working space, ParisSoMa.

Mission*Social is now open for those seeking permanent space as well as those passing through San Francisco. A final perk? The eclectic SoMa neighborhood is one of the only places in San Francisco where you can both guild your teeth and buy a cup of the city’s chicest coffee on the same block.

Great blog posts on the co-working trend:

- Change.org’s Nathaniel Whittemore, “Top Trend of 2010 #4: Coworking and Startup Incubation”

- The Guardian, Bobbie Johnson, “Co-working Silicon Valley Job Crisis”

Investing in You, Inc.

Editor’s note: PopTech Fellow Kushal Chakrabarti of Vittana has a similar project to Ashni’s Enzi, that she discusses below. Find Vittana gift certificates here.

How many times have you heard the words ‘investing in people’ as a nonprofit slogan or a corporate tagline or touted as an international development policy? That phrase has been recycled into many different avatars in as many contexts. But what if you took this phrase literally? What if you could actually invest directly in people, the way you would in a company, and receive dividends per an equity stake in their future income?

Hold your horses – this isn’t as crazy as you think. Investor, visionary, and fan of PopTech Rafe Furst, just invested in “Marge,” someone he believes is a superstar in the making, for a lifetime share in her income. Furst wrote an incendiary blog post about his decision, spawning a litany of polarized opinions ranging from praise (“brilliant”) to aversion (“this is a form of slavery”) to personal attacks (“you’re an a@# with more money than sense”). Change.org’s Social Entrepreneurship blogger Nathaniel Whittemore picked up the story and began a discussion with a number of social entrepreneurs and investors.

Three distinct models of people-to-people investments emerged in the ensuing discussion:

I. Furst found a single superstar he trusted who he thought was worthy of investment and added a lifetime equity stake to a deal built on a personal relationship of mutual trust. The Personal Investment Contract (PIC) Furst placed in the public domain is just three pages long because it stems from that trust. Furst’s deal is replicable by other investors but not scalable because of its personal nature.

II. SE Fund: Equity investment can be a funding apparatus for select superstar social entrepreneurs through a nonprofit trust issuing shares in their aggregated future income. Four entrepreneurs in the discussion put their lives on the line, eager for this type of investment. Interestingly, they all plan to re-invest the funds in their own organizations, whereas Furst’s original intent was for such funds to ease the investee’s life and not replace investments in their startups. He sees the two types of investments as complementary.

III. Enzi: People investments can be scaled in the context of education. Whittemore included me in the discussion because I founded Enzi, a social venture that lets people invest in students’ education in return for a share in their future income for a set period of time. Enzi is currently conducting a pilot at Stanford and securing investments in its first class of Masters EE students.

The following issues arose for discussion across these three models of people investments:

I. Legality – Can investments in people for an equity stake in future income be considered legal? Yes, certainly. Furst and Enzi had legal counsel write the people investment contracts in use. SE Fund advocates will consult a law firm in the new year to sort out possible tax issues that might arise with their model. Depending on the number and types of investors involved, any people investment model might have to investigate securities law.

II. Buyout clause – While it’s psychologically important to have a buyout clause from a future income contract, it can serve different purposes, depending on the model. Furst’s contract has a buyout clause that he considers a red herring – if it isn’t triggered, it’s a bad deal for somebody. A potential SE Fund investor was hesitant about including a buyout clause because it might incentivize the investee to leave the social mission-focused world for a high-paying job to afford buyout. Since Enzi’s investments are specifically for education and don’t involve lifetime income, its buyout clause is more akin to an early loan payoff for students who experience financial windfall such as cashing out on the soaring star of a startup company.

III. Investor preferences – Most people agreed that social return, not just financial, is an enormously motivating factor in all these people investment models. According to Furst, depending on whether the investee was ‘for-profit’ (ex. businessman), ‘non-profit’ (ex. researcher), or in-between (ex. social entrepreneur), he would rely on the percentage of income, the buyout, or a blend of both for his return.

A potential SE Fund investor was willing to take a discount on financial return for the entrepreneur to remain focused on social mission. If his investee jumped ship for the security of McKinsey, he would consider his investment a failure. Another investor considered it a worthwhile deal only if she could add value to the investee beyond money, in the form of a network or connections.

Enzi will entertain the preferences (ex. major, school, national origin) of investors who can invest in a fund of students with those criteria. We believe we’ll attract investors who altruistically re-invest their returns in other students as well as those who are drawn to sound financial returns.

IV. Investee preferences – Furst didn’t disclose much about his investee “Marge” except to say that he shared a close mentor relationship with her.

The entrepreneurs considering the SE Fund deal have personal preferences regarding their investors. One entrepreneur cautioned – ‘you become who invests in you.’ He would take the deal if only for the privilege of having someone he trusted and respected literally invested in his future. Some were inclined to have several investors as a board of trusted directors for their lives while some hated the idea of pitching to a forum of angels because one dissenting investor can influence the judgment of others.

Enzi aims to unlock latent potential in students. Its income-aligned education funding keeps students from fixed-amount crippling debt, enabling them to pursue their passions. In addition, students are paired with investor mentors who help support their professional growth.

The major differences between the three models lie in motivation, desired outcomes, and scalability. Furst has already determined that “Marge” is a winner and is motivated to add value, both personal and financial, to her hard work. His desired outcome is the value they will collectively generate over her lifetime. He pointed out that his model is inherently non-scalable because everyone has different ideals for a superstar candidate they would link with for life. The motivation of the SE Fund is to use people investments as a solution for the funding problems social entrepreneurs face, and the expected outcome is the social impact on the world that these entrepreneurs will generate on account of the investment. The SE Fund can be scalable if its advocates are able to agree on the right mix of investors and entrepreneurs. Enzi is motivated to create a paradigm shift in education finance by providing equity investments in education as an alternative to student loans. Its desired outcomes are removing the financial barrier to education and facilitating increased lifetime earnings and improved quality of life for students. Enzi’s model is scalable: it offers time-limited contracts explicitly for the purpose of education and lets several accredited and non-accredited (‘retail’) investors collectively invest in funds of talented students.

It’s exciting to witness the evolution of these people investment models. Though they target different stakeholders, they can and should coexist – they have potential to be powerful forces of social change. Here’s one vote for people investments as a panel topic at SoCap10! Do I hear another?

Ashni can be contacted via email (ashni [at] enzifutures [dot] org) or Twitter (@ashnimohnot).

New York Designers Propose Ideas for New York Transportation, Navigation, and Waterfront Development

Two weeks ago, GOOD and CEOs for Cities held a Manhattan event where Alissa Walker, a design writer, and Scott Stowell (of NY design agency Open) moderated six design teams proposing solutions to New York societal problems.

Below, excerpts from presenters Jake Barton (Local Projects) on the appeal of bicycling as alternative transportation, Brett Snyder (Cheng+Snyder) and Guy Zucker (Z-A Studio) on wayfinding in Times Square, and Colin Brice and Caleb Mulvena (MAPOS) on waterfront development in Sunset Park:

What do you think about these proposals?

VIDEO: Balance of Systems: PopTech 2009's Nocera, Kurgan, and Kuepper

“You’ve got to start from the bottom and work up. And if you don’t, I guarantee it will always be too costly.” Dan Nocera, PopTech 2009

With global leaders in discussions about climate change, PopTech releases three talks this week from energy researchers approaching the problem from other angles. MIT chemist Dan Nocera shows how we can move from the grid to personalized energy, spatial designer Laura Kurgan demonstrates there are no neutral maps, and scientist Nicole Kuepper creates photovoltaic cells out of nail polish, inkjet printers, and pizza ovens.

Watch Dan Nocera on personalized energy:

MIT Professor Dan Nocera believes he can solve the world’s energy problems with an Olympic-sized pool of water. Nocera and his research team have identified a simple technique for powering the Earth inexpensively—-by using the sun to split water and store energy—-and thus making the large-scale deployment of personalized solar energy possible.

Go Deeper:

- See Dan’s MIT Nocera Lab group page
- Read Dan’s MIT faculty page where he explains his work
- View the National Geographic solar energy slideshow Dan references in his talk

Watch Laura Kurgan on human geographies:

Architect Laura Kurgan is the Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University. Kurgan visualizes complex political and social data to advocate for social reform. One project, “Million Dollar Blocks,” shows how the government spends more than one million dollars to incarcerate prisoners who live within a single census block.

Go Deeper:

- Learn more about the Spatial Information Design Lab
- See Laura’s Terre Natale, that has been on display during COP15
- Laura was named a United States Artist Rockefeller Fellow on December 14th

Watch Nicole Kuepper on low-cost solar

Ph.D. candidate Nicole Kuepper has been passionate about solar energy since she received a toy solar-powered car for her 8th birthday. Kuepper has recently patented a simple low-temperature process for printing low-cost solar cells that could make solar energy affordable across the developing world.

Go Deeper:

- Watch a video of Nicole working on photovoltaic cells in the lab
- Read the abstract for the UNSW inkjet solar cell scientific paper
- Learn more about the UNSW School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering

For more, follow PopTech photographer Kris Krug’s Flickr photostream for the latest Copenhagen images, find out why activists the Yes Men (who presented at PopTech 2006) helped coordinate and release a fake press release on behalf of the Canadian government Monday.

More climate change links:

6 PopTech Climate Change videos from the archive

Mother Nature Network’s Copenhagen Climate Talks section

Reuters liveblog from Copenhagen

Inhabitat reports Copenhagen has been “Causapalooza”

Kofi Annan in The Guardian on climate change, December 10, 2009

Updates and reporting from Mother Jones, The Uptake. Treehugger, Grist, The Nation, Center for Investigative Reporting/ Frontline/World, and The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Data visualizations of global climate temperatures (follow #climatedata for more)

What do you think about these energy ideas? Where are you following COP15 coverage?

Frieder Weiss on Light Design, Creative Process, and Breaking Flatness

This year at PopTech, choreographer Gideon Obarzanek, who directs Chunky Move (an Australian dance company) spoke about designing movements for dancers that play with light.

To play with light, his Chunky Move dancers interact with software designed by Frieder Weiss, an “engineer in the arts.”

Frieder is in New York this week with Chunky Move for their “Mortal Engine” run at BAM (performances until Saturday, details below).

He talked yesterday afternoon about his EyeCon software (released for use), the unreleased Kalypso program used in “Mortal Engine,” how his lighting is live, why sound can be less accessible than light, and the frozen project he is working on next:

For more of Frieder’s thoughts on how to explore visual planes, he is speaking tonight at 6 pm at Harvestworks, and then with Gideon and the Chunky Move dancers tonight at BAM after the performance.

You can buy tickets to Chunky Move at BAM, tonight through Saturday.

And here is Gideon Obarzanek’s 2009 PopTech talk:

Questions for Frieder? Leave a comment below.

Winter in Camden

Editor’s note: Beth Cohen is PopTech’s Director of Media Production. She made the below video to give everyone a taste of winter in Camden, Maine, where PopTech holds its annual ideas summit and where one of the PopTech offices is located. Here’s how she describes the weather yesterday.

First snow day of the year. All the local schools were closed, and many businesses closed early.

First it snowed, then it got really windy, then it started pouring rain. Winter is finally here.