PopTech Blog

Posts by Mark Benjamin

The new Forbes '30 under 30' list features a series of PopTech Fellows

A number of members of the PopTech community have been named to Forbes' "30 Under 30" list of people who are changing the world. 

On example is Josh Nesbit, who has been a very active member of the PopTech community for years. Forbes praised Nesbit's Medic Mobile, which pioneered the use of mobile phones for healthcare, starting in a remote region of Malawi.

Nesbit was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow back in 2009, participating in one of PopTech's programs designed to help cultivate the work of promising innovators and bring their work to scale. Nesbit also gave a talk at PopTech's annual conference in 2010. 

In 2013, Nesbit returned to the PopTech annual convening, this time to mark his work as the first recipient of a disbursement from PopTech's Impact Fund — a program committed to leveraging resources and providing small catalyst investments that seed new initiatives that have high potential for disruptive impact. Nesbit received the support for his work with Raj Panjabia 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow. Panjabi co-founded Last Mile Health, which forges innovative partnerships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities. The model features community health workers trained to treat patients in remote locations.

2013 PopTech Science Fellow Christina Agapakis made Forbes' list as well. Agapakis is a microbiologist who makes cheese from bacteria collected in unusual places, such as from the human body. Armpits. Mouths. Between toes.


Forbes celebrates the work of Daniella Witten. She works in statistical machine learning, a field at the interface of statistics and computer science. In addition to her research, Witten has written a book intended to make cutting-edge statistical machine learning techniques more accessible. Witten was a 2013 PopTech Science Fellow. 

Forbes also recognizes Tevis Howard who founded KOMAZA, a profitable microforestry social enterprise, to help end extreme poverty for rural Kenyan families living in arid landscapes. Howard was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008.

In addition, Forbes features 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith's organization, Micromidas, which specializes in turning raw sewage into high quality bio-plastics. 

Banks' new book chronicles innovations from gritty fieldwork

As part of a fellows program several years ago, social innovation pioneer Ken Banks found himself at Stanford University where he was surrounded by young students studying social entrepreneurship. When Banks asked them about the focus of their academic work, those students responded that they were trying to learn the skills they needed to go out and change the world for the better.

This struck Banks as a noble academic pursuit, but also a little odd. After all, Banks had been a successful innovator in that field since the 1990s. In 2005 he released FrontlineSMS, one of the most effective text messaging field communication systems available that is now in use in more than 150 countries worldwide.

Ken Banks

But rather than classroom preparation, Banks came up with his successful innovation after growing increasingly frustrated with faulty communications in the field and deciding to do something about it. “My only qualification was that I’d spent enough time in the field understanding the problem I was solving, and that I knew how to code,” Banks told PopTech. “I didn’t go on an innovation course, or take a qualification in social entrepreneurship.”

That kind of hands-on, fieldwork ethos is a central thrust in Banks’ new book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator,” a collection of essays by successful social entrepreneurs edited by Banks. Banks also penned the introduction, which includes the advice, “The only qualifications you need to change the world are a little hope, faith and determination.” Banks also serves as faculty for PopTech’s Social Innovation Fellows program.

Hands-on experience is a unifying feature among the innovators featured in Banks’ book. (That list includes Brij Kothari, Erik Hersman, Joel Selanikio and Laura Stachel, among others). This isn’t so much disdain for the growing institutionalization of social innovation as it is a strong conviction that extensive fieldwork is an essential part of doing the job well. This echoes the guidance of other legendary social enterprisers, like Paul Polak, who have long emphasized deep, personal familiarity with a stubborn challenge as opposed to ivory tower social innovation from afar. “You may be the person best-qualified to solve a particular problem in the world, but that’s of little use if you don’t find it,” Banks writes. “There are very few short cuts other than to leave your comfort zone and get yourself out there.”

Empathy and grit are two other common characteristics among Banks’ innovators. And those traits are central to his use of the term “reluctant” to describe the entrepreneurs in his book, rather than, say, “accidental.” Banks explained to PopTech that the innovators profiled in “Rise” also discovered sticky problems in the field and are people who are “fundamentally disturbed, angered or frustrated at what they see.” They are determined to help. He writes in his book: “Many of these people weren’t looking for a cause to occupy their time or dominate their lives. The easy option isn’t the one they took. They took the hard one for the greater good.”

There are other common attributes among the kinds of pioneers featured in “Rise.” Banks says the most successful of these innovators try to leave their egos behind when they pack their bags and head off to some remote area. “It always saddens me when I think of the progress that could be made if people weren’t so busy worrying about who gets the credit,” he said. “To succeed, social innovators need to be selfless, open, egoless and always looking at the bigger picture.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t value in studying social innovation as an academic pursuit at a place like Stanford. But Banks and his coterie of innovators say that the big breakthroughs are more likely to come far from its hallowed campus. “To really understand the world and to find something that truly switches you on,” Banks said, “You need to get out and experience it.”

"The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator" is available from Nov. 20th in all good bookshops, and via Amazon and other online retailers. Further details can be found at www.reluctantinnovation.com.

Community takes center stage in ‘The City Resilient’ Edition

The latest PopTech Edition focuses on community as the central element in this deep examination of the tenets of urban resilience. PopTech is releasing this Edition to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy slamming into the East Coast.

This collection of in-depth articles and videos examines the basic definitions that help us study resilience, explores common attributes of communities that seem to bounce back and it begins to unpack some of the key cutting-edge techniques and technologies in the field.

Peter Durand's City Resilient

While community is the nucleus of this Edition, the constellation of information brought to that concept is markedly diverse. The opinions come from a distinctly multi-disciplinary panel of experts in an effort to bring the broadest possible aperture to subject matter that is pressing, complicated and difficult to define and measure.

The format varies widely as well. “The City Resilient: Enabling communities to bound back” is a formidable blend of videos of prepared talks, interviews and short documentary films, as well as written pieces submitted by outside writers and text profiles of a handful of provocative resilience innovators.

Brooklyn Children's Choir

The videos and articles attempt to examine such fundamental issues as the definition of community in the 21st century and how to measure resilience. The authors and speakers delve into the preparation, response and recovery from sudden, intense disasters like killer storms, as well as slower, creeping afflictions like economic decline. And finally, the group of experts weighs the best ways to manage the complex web of overlapping authorities and institutions before, during and after a crisis.

Each PopTech Edition explores an emerging theme from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. This particular Edition grew out of an urban resilience summit by PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June 2013. Please enjoy PopTech’s fourth Edition, “The City Resilient.”

At PopTech: Immersions for creativity of all kinds

Day three of PopTech consisted of a series of  “immersions,” opportunities to engage in structured discussions on pressing topics of innovation, study the creative process with a pair of skilled artists, or go out on a selection of Maine-oriented activities from sailing to chowder making.

In one of these immersions, Artist Shantell Martin and self-described “nerd artist researcher hacker” Zach Lieberman invited a small group of around 10 PopTech attendees to explore the creative process and work on a series of exercises to provoke visual creativity. Gathering in a sunlit room of the historic Camden Opera House, the pair spent two hours discussing creativity, drawing, instructing and talking.

At work at PopTech's art immersion

Lieberman described the instruction as “exercises around conditional design.” They began with simple tasks of collaborative drawing using only straight lines and dots, and then into creating drawings out of one long, continuous line. “Lines can tell us where we come from. Lines can tell us where we are going,” Lieberman said. “I think there is something really beautiful about an infinite line.”

PopTech attendees learning new techniques

Martin shared an intimate treat with the small class. She invited the participants into a large room hung with tall sheets of white paper. She then created one of her trademark, large-scale black-and-white drawings using thick black magic marker.

Shantell Martin shares some secrets

The whole time, Martin described what she was doing, what she was thinking and invited the clearly enthralled audience to ask whatever they liked about the process. “Thinking that you are finished and feeling like you are finished are two different things,” she explained near the end of her work.

Shantell Martin at work

The immersions were the last wrinkle in “Sparks of Brilliance.” See you next year in Camden.

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: A deep dive into creativity on day two

Day two of PopTech 2013 featured a deep dive into the mysterious origins of creativity inside the human brain and some examination of creativity in fields as diverse as science, medicine, photography and business.

Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman is working to unravel some of those mysterious origins. He is deeply immersed in research that is rapidly mapping out the creative process inside the human brain with the help of brain scanning equipment. Kaufman explored with the Camden audience the specific portions of the brain that activate and deactivate during creativity and how those patterns differ in some highly creative people.

Scott Barry Kaufman

The precuneous, for example, is a region of the brain heavily involved in “looking in,” or producing and following thoughts such as daydreams or thinking about the future. Other parts of the brain are “looking out,” or paying attention to the outside world as we go about our business.

For most of us, our brains concentrate largely on one or the other. “The more that you are focusing on your inner stream of chatter, you are oblivious to what is going on out there,” Kaufman explained as an example.

But brain scans of particularly creative people show they are actually doing more of both at the same time. They are able to “simultaneously activate these two brain networks,” Kaufman said.

Just as deeply as Kaufman is interested in some of the good things going on inside our brains, brain cancer researcher Jim Olson has come up with some potentially revolutionary ways of getting something bad out: cancer.

Jim Olson

Olson has invented “tumor paint,” that lights up cancer cells, showing surgeons precisely what to cut out while leaving healthy cells in place. The paint is based on the venom of a scorpion and is 100,000 times more sensitive than an MRI in detecting cancer cells.

Tumor paint illuminates brain, prostate, breast, colon, skin and other cancers and human clinical trials are set to begin in Australia late this year. “In a few years, surgeons will have a hard time going back to surgery as they have done it in the past,” he said.

A series of speakers also brought the Camden audience along on an exploration of some of the creative processes at work in a variety of other fields.

Photographer Adam Magyar develops ingenious digital camera systems and employs high-tech, digital tools adapted from industrial applications. He is particularly interested in urban environments and city dwellers. His riveting work transforms otherwise mundane situations into compelling and magical images. “I was always interested in the rest — the unimportant moments,” he told the audience. ‘I always capture a lot of details. I love details.”

Adam Magyar

Similarly David Robertson, a professor at the Wharton School, used the history of innovation at LEGO to show how creativity sometimes needs boundaries to excel. At LEGO, this has meant disciplined market research before inventing new toys and forcing designers to work within relatively strict parameters.

David Robertson

Robertson admits that the trick is knowing how much to let business creativity bloom and how much to set some limits. “It is a hard balance. A lot of companies get it wrong,” he admitted. LEGO is getting it right. Profits are soaring.

Lisa Servon, who conducts research on urban poverty, community development and economic development, brings hands-on creativity to her work trying to develop financial tools that are useful to poorer Americans. Part of that work has involved Servon working at a check-cashing facility in the Bronx. “Poor people know best what they need,” she said. “It is not the policy makers and the researchers.”

Lisa Servon

They joined a full slate of speakers and PopTech Fellows who took the stage in Camden to help the audience better understand the creative process in all its glory. See you next year in Camden.

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: Violence interruption leveraged by mobile phones

A raft of data supports the public health approach to preventing violence and cultivating peace. Treating violence like a communicable disease that spreads rapidly among people and groups provides a proven effective stratagem for tracking and interrupting an outbreak and preventing further spread.

For years, those kinds of violence interdiction efforts have utilized “boots on the ground,” relying mostly on the physical efforts of trained personnel who go out to trouble spots and leverage their local knowledge and contacts in communities to help tamp down outbreaks of violence or prevent it in the first place.

In March, just five years after vicious post-election violence rattled Kenya, a similar contagion-style effort was employed there during and after elections, which this time proceeded peacefully for a variety of reasons. But there was a twist in this violence prevention effort: It may have been the first time that mobile phones were used to expand the reach and impact of the disease-control approach to preventing violence.

That exercise included a hybrid of research in the field long before the elections, personal networking in tandem with the use of mobile phones, sharp discipline in the vetting of intelligence on potential violence, and careful diligence in text messaging. These techniques may provide an invaluable blueprint if that high-tech violence-interruption model goes to scale at other locations around the world.

PeaceTXT is a PopTech-initiated collaborative effort to understand how new communication technologies can be integrated with face-to-face violence prevention to reach scale. PeaceTXT is a cooperative endeavor that began by looking at how the mobile phone might be used as a fulcrum in PeaceTXT partner CureViolence’s approach to violence prevention. CureViolence worked in Chicago to explore the possibility of using text messaging to amplify their approach and to identify possible communications mediums that could be used for violence prevention.


Sisi ni Amani Kenya is an organization founded specifically to enhance local peace-building in Kenya with a text-message-based approach to civic education and violence prevention, and received support from PeaceTXT to further develop and scale its model.  The program also relies heavily on the technological expertise of the Praekelt Foundation, Medic Mobile and QCRI.

During the 2013 elections, Sisi Ni Amani implemented its programming on the ground and across mobile networks. The organization was established, in part, in response to the devastatingly effective use of mobile phones in 2007 to spread rumors and stoke political violence. “If our approach to using mobile technology is modeled after anything, it is from the people who wanted to cause violence in 2007, and did it really effectively,” said Founder Rachel Brown.

Rachel Brown

But members of the Sisi Ni Amani team emphasize that local intelligence, networking and knowledge were every bit as important as the use of the mobile technology, and that the messages might have been useless — or worse, potentially inflammatory — without it. “Some of the places where we are working, we have lived there,” explained George Ooko, one of the Sisi Ni Amani coordinators who spent the election season embedded in Kenyan neighborhoods armed with a cell phone, three extra cell phone batteries and a spare charger.

When text messages are sent, they have to be carefully formulated to consider local language and mores. Each 160-word text, in fact, is vetted by a small group of local volunteers before it is sent, in order to maximize impact and minimize the risk of untoward results. “You have to be very careful which word you use,” said Ooko, who is attending PopTech in Camden. (Sisi Ni Amani also relies on deep local knowledge to carefully vet incoming intelligence on potential violence through a variety of sources.)

The texting that did take place was also highly disciplined and targeted. Messages could be sent to users in specific geographic areas, allowing messages to be tailored for particular threats and using language most likely to prove effective to a niche audience. Sisi Ni Amani also learned some valuable lessons about limiting overall messages to avoid overload, and sending messages at the most effective times of day.

But surprisingly, Ooko and his colleagues say that one of the most important facets of their election work was determining when not to send a text. Mary Njambi, another Sisi Ni Amani coordinator attending PopTech, described receiving reports from voters who said they were being locked out of a voting facility. In that case, Sisi Ni Amani decided it was better to contact local elections officials directly, and no text was needed. In other cases, the organization delivered intelligence directly to police. “You shouldn’t always send a message,” Njambi said.

All of that discipline may have helped, and Sisi Ni Amani’s statistics from the election are impressive. Around 65,000 Kenyans signed up to receive messages during the elections. The group sent out more than 680,000 text messages during the election season. A Sisi Ni Amani post-election survey showed that 46 percent of respondents forwarded a Sisi Ni Amani message to others. Around 85 percent of respondents reported talking with others about messages, and 92 percent reported that the messages had a positive impact.  

PeaceTXT is an effort that grew out of a markedly diverse group of collaborators. CureViolence, for example, early on dispatched their international director to Nairobi to help Sisi Ni Amani incorporate the disease-control model into their high-tech hybrid. “We had a disease-control approach, the same as you would have for tuberculosis, cholera or AIDS,” said Josh Gryniewicz, the director of communications at CureViolence. “How do we amplify the work? That is here SMS came in.”

Gryniewicz also acknowledged PopTech’s leadership spearheading the work of PeaceTXT over the last several years. “None of this would have happened without PopTech,” he said.

PeaceTXT will be sharing its experiences and methodologies in the coming months and will continue to work toward the development of an integrated model of violence interruption and prevention that builds on the success of the early work in Chicago and Kenya.

At PopTech: Impact Fund will assist remote health care effort

Josh Nesbit, a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow in 2009, pioneered the use of mobile phones for health care in a remote region of Malawi. He then went on to co-found Medic Mobile, which is bringing these innovations to broader parts of the developing world. The model features a central clinic laptop running FrontlineSMS software, enabling community health workers to use mobile phones to coordinate patient care.

Josh Nesbit

Raj Panjabi was a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow the next year, in 2010. He co-founded Last Mile Health, which forges innovative partnerships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities. The model features dispatching community health workers trained to treat patients in remote locations.

Raj Panjabi

At PopTech’s annual convening in Camden this year, it was announced that the pair are the first to receive support from the PopTech Impact Fund — a program committed to leveraging resources and providing small catalyst investments that seed new initiatives that have high potential for disruptive impact. It is one of the ways PopTech nurtures its network of change agents and precipitates collaborative endeavors.

 Through the Fund, Nesbit and Panjabi plan to combine the power of their two programs. The idea is to equip Panjabi’s remote community health care workers with the technological tools utilized in Nesbit’s program. This has the potential to dramatically improve the delivery of health care by providing those health care workers with virtual access to medical expertise and coordinating capabilities they would not otherwise have in remote locations. “Do we have the moral imagination to make things better?” Nesbit asked the Camden crowd. And Panjabi seemed to answer: “We have a chance right now to change the way an entire country cares for its people in the most remote areas.”

At PopTech: The courage to summon creativity

Courage was a common theme expressed on the first day of PopTech’s 2013 gathering, “Sparks of Brilliance,” a convening to explore the nature of creativity. Athletes, artists and engineers all described overcoming fear as an integral — even paramount — component of the creative process. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of physical pain.

Rodney Mullen is a legend among street skaters. He invented most of the tricks in any great skateboarder’s toolbox: the flatground ollie, kickflip, heelflip, impossible, and 360-flip.

And his body has paid the price. At times in his life, Mullen has had so much scar tissue in his hip joints it has impaired his ability to walk. He showed the Camden audience some frightening videos of skaters going down in some horrific, frightening wrecks. “This may come as a surprise to you,” Mullen joked. “Skateboarding can be hard on the body.”


But he insisted that the courage and tenacity to get back up, continue trying and continue inventing despite fear and physical pain was a part of coming up with new stunts and continuously improving. “What we do as skateboarders is we fall. We get back up and we fall,” Mullen explained. “There is a correlation between overcoming, resilience, drive and success.”

For Mullen, the creative process also includes relaxing the mind and ignoring any conventional wisdom that says something can’t be done or achieved. “The biggest obstacle to creativity is piercing through this obstacle of disbelief,” he told the Camden audience.

Helen Marriage is a co-director of Artichoke, a creative company, which she founded with Nicky Webb in 2005. Artichoke enables artists to create breathtaking, city-wide art installations that she calls, “large-scale public interventions.”

Helen Marriage

For example, “The Sultan’s Elephant” in May 2006 was the largest free theater ever seen in downtown London. It included a giant, 42-ton mechanical elephant, joined by a 20-foot tall girl, that entertained audiences for four days with sprays of water and rides. 

Marriage is mesmerized by the transformation of public spaces into theaters for shared artistic experiences. “The point is the brilliance of these artists in reimagining our world,” she says

But some of her job is surprisingly mundane: She has to convince public bureaucrats — transportation officials, police, public administrators — to agree to allow these huge interventions to move forward. Mostly, Marriage says those officials are often afraid. They are afraid that traffic will be snarled. They are afraid people will be angry. They are afraid that people won’t like it.

Marriage’s job, in part, is to convince those officials to have the courage to let the creativity happen. “There are many reasons why people are frightened. One of my jobs is to identify those anxieties and take them away,” she says. “The point is the transformation of the human being.”

Todd Reichert and Cameron Robertson are aerospace engineers.  They recently won the 33-year-old AHS Sikorsky Prize, for the first flight of a human-powered helicopter to exceed 60 seconds duration and reach 3 meters in height.

Todd Reichert

The machine they built is a sprawling, complex monster with four sweeping blades and a bicycle at the center —  big enough to fill up an airplane hangar. “It has the wingspan of a 737 and weighs less than a seat in that aircraft,” Robertson explained.

Cameron Robertson

But to do it, both engineers described a process of setting out to design something that many other engineers believed could not be achieved. They also failed many, many times. The pair thrilled the Camden audience with a video of their prototype violently crashing again and again before they finally achieved stable flight. “Impossible is nothing,” Robertson said.

This was also true of Zach Lieberman, who helps kids summon the courage to be creative at his School for Poetic Computation. “One of the things I promote as a professor is this idea of fearlessness,” he said. And it was true of artist Shantell Martin, who has to have the courage to let her pen have a life of its own in order to create her stunning illustrations. “I don’t know where the pen is going,” she said “The pen is going and I am just following.”

And for the many speakers and Fellows who presented on day one of PopTech 2013, the strength, courage and resolve to be creative formed a unifying theme. What revelations will day two bring?

Photos by PopTech.

At PopTech: A clutch of scientists sparks innovation in the Middle East

The Arab world was once such a hotbed of innovation that the torrent of technological breakthroughs that took place there starting around the 7th century is sometimes called the “1,001 Inventions.” The era witnessed the first flying machine, the first hospitals and the paramount invention of coffee.

But today the same region is often considered a consumer culture that often lacks the means to promote and nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and is largely devoid of the kinds institutions and informal networks that recognize and cultivate innovation.


Saudi scientist Dr. Hayat Sindi believes that the region is awash with youth and talent that remains largely untapped. “We have been consumers for a long time,” Sindi said about that part of the world. “It’s now time to transform into an industrialized society that can match the world’s most advanced economies.”

Several years ago Sindi set out to establish an organization to cultivate an ecosystem of innovation that would embrace and assist young scientists from the Middle East who have particularly promising ideas or prototypes in the fields of energy, health, water and the environment. She called it the i2 Institute (imagination and ingenuity) and her work is coming to fruition. The institute formally launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in November 2012.

The central focus of i2 is a robust fellows program. In May, the first six i2 fellows began an intensive training program focused on entrepreneurship, business and social sciences. Sindi’s program has attracted the support of the MIT Media Lab, PwC, IBM and Harvard University, and it includes five weeks of training in Cambridge, Mass.   

The idea is to elevate the fellows’ ideas, improve and broaden their skill sets, and help bring their projects to scale. But the program is also supposed to create examples of entrepreneurial success from the Middle East and to cultivate a culture of innovation. “We need to connect the dots,” Sindi explained. “Good inventors need the right environment and part of my job is to contribute to the creation of a larger ecosystem.”

Hayat by Durand

The social science portion of the fellows training includes a trip to PopTech, and Sindi’s fellows are in Camden this week, meeting, observing the conference and networking. Sindi was previously a PopTech Science Fellow and a Social Innovation Fellow and benefited from that training and networking herself.

Sindi says PopTech deserves considerable credit for i2’s success thus far, and she traces the idea for the fellows program back to a pivotal meeting with PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli and President Leetha Filderman at PopTech’s annual conference back in 2009. “That was very important,” Sindi said. “They gave me connections to the right people who would help me. Their constant support has really inspired me.”

Saudi microbiologist Hosam Zowawi is one of the first i2 fellows. Zowawi was working on his doctorate at the University of Queensland in Australia studying the spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in the Middle East. He was overwhelmed with the burden of studying around a thousand samples of bacteria looking for superbugs.  “I was thinking, ‘How on earth am I going to analyze all these samples?’” So Zowawi came up with a new, rapid diagnostic tool that now promises to aid in initial medical management and the implementation of infection control precautions.

It’s a promising breakthrough, but has not yet been brought to scale. “I have a science background and no business background at all. It was hard to figure out how I would commercialize this tool,” he said. “Thankfully, I found i2.”

Like Sindi, Zowawi is similarly evangelical about cultivating an atmosphere of innovation in the Middle East. “The current belief is you can’t do this type of thing in this culture,” he said about that region. “This shows that the culture of entrepreneurship is starting to grow.”

All revolutionary eras start somewhere. Perhaps Zowawi is one of the first pioneers of the next 1,001 Inventions.

PopTech's 'Better Banked' salon explores U.S. financial inclusion

Around 40 financial experts, researchers, anti-poverty activists and social innovators gathered on Tuesday for PopTech’s “Toward the Better Banked,” a daylong salon designed to advance discussion about how to improve the financial lives of unbanked, under-banked and unhappily banked Americans.

The diverse set of experts gathered for the event at Yale’s Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center which was made possible with the support of Serve from American Express and Innovations for Poverty Action. The challenge that was under the microscope at the salon is daunting. Around 1 in 12 American households don’t have an account with an insured, traditional bank, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Financial stratification between affluent and financially challenged Americans continues to grow. Consumer debt has ballooned. Meanwhile, some of the novel financial service innovations that are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, such as mobile-phone-based payments, haven’t taken root and propagated the same way in the United States.

better banked

“Toward the Better Banked” was not designed to come up with solutions to these problems during the single day of presentations, brainstorming sessions, group breakout discussions and informal chats. But it set out to bring together a diverse set of experts who might not otherwise interact in order to pose some provocative questions, move the discussion forward and at least begin to shed some light on potential breakthroughs and solutions.

Some of the discussion focused on the need to gather hard, reliable data on income and spending behavior in American households that might benefit from the innovative banking tools under discussion. Timothy Ogden, managing director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, is currently gathering rafts of that data as part of an in-depth study of 250 families. Early analysis of the data shows that a great deal of the problem facing many Americans is not just low income, but highly volatile income and expenses that are hard to predict and manage. “That is a different problem than just low income,” he said.  “What are the tools that people are using to meet these questions of volatility?” he asked. “What does that mean about poverty?”

better banked 2

Other questions focused on what lessons from overseas might apply in the United States. Billy Jack, associate professor in the Economics Department at Georgetown University, researches alternative methods of carrying out financial transactions in Kenya, where the mobile phone has become a leading tool for exchanging value. “Do we have to use mobile banking for financial inclusion?” he asked the gathering.

Some of the presentations began to probe innovative products and ideas that might help solve some of the problems facing under-banked Americans. As part of her research, Lisa Servon, associate director of the Community Development Research Center at The New School, spent four months working at a check-cashing operation in the Bronx that served mostly lower-income people. Servon noticed how the check-cashing operation cultivated fierce loyalty among its customers through personalized, forgiving, friendly service. “Whatever direction we go, the point I want to drive home is we are all here talking about people,” she said. “And relationships matter.”

Unconventional partnerships might be another path forward. Justine Zinkin, CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, and Dean Karlan, president of Innovations for Poverty Action, discussed a joint project to issue what Zinkin described as an “un-credit card.” The card is designed to consolidate a consumer’s debt, fix monthly payments, close other credit cards and ultimately reduce a consumer’s debt.

Another branch of discussion explored how the banking challenge among Americans poses some opportunities for innovative ideas and products. Jonathan Zinman, an economics professor at Dartmouth, discussed potentially huge business opportunities lurking in the $13 trillion in consumer debt. He suspects that fee-for-service liability management could be big business. “That is money that is sitting on the table — people are paying more than they need to for their loans,” he said. “If you can help consumers access this money, you, in turn, can get a slice of that money.”

Some presenters have already created products to serve under-banked Americans or leverage technology to lubricate global transactions for individuals or businesses of any size. Francisco Cervera, CEO and co-founder of eMoneyPool, a private microfinance company, is in the business of establishing virtual “money pools” — savings clubs where ad-hoc groups of individuals take turns borrowing from a common fund. And Chris Larson, CEO and co-founder of OpenCoin, discussed Ripple, a lightning fast way to trade value anywhere in the world across currencies.

The discussion will continue. Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth at American Express, said some of the best minds had come together at the salon for an exploration that had to start with some provocative questions. “How can you create change and a difference on a scale that is not millions but is tens of millions or perhaps hundreds of millions?” he asked. “How do you drive that kind of difference in the world?”