PopTech Iceland: Day 2 recap

The second and final day of our conference in Iceland has drawn to a close and yet again, it was quite a day! Today, we heard from a whale anatomist, a computer geek, a Sugarcube, an activist poet, and a risk assessment expert, all of whom spoke about resilience as it relates to their respective fields. PopTech’s Andrew Zolli kicked off the morning by posing a modquestion about the kind of resiliency that’s required when circumstances don’t present us with meaningful choices, but instead only have us considering our default options or what’s right in front of us. The audience truly responded to the eclectic group of presenters including:

Joy Reidenberg, a fast-talking, energetic anatomist captivated the PopTech audience with her talk, “Why Whales are Weird.”  With one amazing fact after the next (Whales evolved from deer-like creatures! Their spinal movement is more like galloping in the water! They don’t actually spout water! They have mustaches!), she took us through the story of evolution using whales as a model. She explained that evolution is the process to mediate resilience and thus, survival.

Geek extraordinaire Eben Upton founded Raspberry Pi as a way to get kids “lured into” programming again. Once he and his team realized that kids weren’t exploring computer programming the way he and his peers had back in the 1980s, which he foresaw as “a kind of slow motion disaster for the entire society,” they created ultra low-cost, compact computers that are competitive with other devices. His premise: If we don't provide children with the education or tools needed to become interested, they will not become empowered by technology. Raspberry Pi seems to have hit on something that’s meeting that need: In just a few months since they launched, the not-for-profit organization has already sold 100,000 computers and is well on its way to selling a projected one million computers by the end of the year.

Economic commentator and author Tim Harford presented a refreshingly creative, albeit somewhat depressing, perspective on financial systems, which he’s deemed are complex and tightly coupled. He drew upon numerous anecdotes (oil rig explosions, nuclear disasters, etc.) to make his point. He said, “If I really wanted to understand how to prevent crisis in complex systems that exist in the financial world, I realized I should be looking at engineering systems and the triggers that lead to terrible accidents.” But, he goes, on, “Banking is more complicated than any nuclear reactor I’ve ever studied.”

Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir was one of 25 people who helped rewrite the Icelandic constitution. She took the PopTech stage to explain how the citizens of Iceland responded after the banks collapsed in 2008, protesting politely outside of Parliament to a louder, angrier outcry, which the government eventually acknowledged. The government then suggested that Iceland's citizens should rewrite the constitution to understand who the Icelandic people really were, especially since the Danish had originally written the constitution. Ómarsdóttir explained the process by which those 25 elected citizens broke up into committees and, with considerable public input, worked for four months to overhaul the constitution.

Margrét Pála gave a no-nonsense, impassioned and entertaining talk about the Hjalli method, the approach she’s taken to children’s education for 22 years. This specific approach includes sex-segregated classes, natural play material instead of conventional toys and a long-forgotten belief in discipline as a way in training social skills. In addition to providing details about Hjalli, as well as her own upbringing, Pala described how the 2008  “economic change,” as she called it, made her feel like “We reclaimed our own Iceland.” When it comes to the financial crisis and its impact on the 2,000 children she teaches, she explained, “My greatest fear is that children will not have a chance because of lack of adversity. We need adversity to be the best people we can be.”

Before performing his final song, musician Alexi Murdoch said, “I’m going home to dream of water temples and whales.” We’d expect nothing else; this is PopTech after all.

Top panoramic image: Emily Qualey
Stage images: Árni Torfason for PopTech

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