PopTech Blog

Posts by Michelle Riggen-Ransom

Social Innovation Fellow spotlight: Jake Porway

Jake Porway

What if, instead of using data to figure out what movie to see, we used data to figure out what kind of world we wanted to see?

-- Social Innovation Fellow Jake Porway of Data Without Borders, which matches changemakers with numbers nerds to do good with data.

Image: Kris Krug

Reuben Margolin & Gideon Obarzanek are Connected

Collaborators Reuben Margolin, a kinetic sculptor and Gideon Obarzanek, a choreographer, met at the 2009 PopTech conference. The two felt an instant kinship in what they were trying to achieve through their work.

Watch the making of their show "Connected"; the beautiful result when a sculpture is asked to dance.

Shorts: Dava Newman's streamlined flight suit

MIT aeronautics professor and engineer Dava Newman had a dream: that of a slimmed down astronaut. See the streamlined, mobility-enhancing "Bio-Suit" she created for protecting astronauts from atmospheres and healthcare workers from germs. Safer, sleeker and so fashionable it could make even Tim Gunn say "Bio-Suit, schmio suit -- I want it in tweed!"

Interview: Shima'a Helmy and the future of revolution

Shima'a Hilmay

If the iconic image of protest in the 60's is a hippie slipping a flower into a gun barrel, the image for this generation's protest may be a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab and holding up a cell phone.

Shima'a Helmy is one of the young Egyptians who led that country's uprising in January of 2011. Using social media, street canvassing and her own steely determination to change her country for the better, 21-year old Helmy forewent her studies to help galvanize a revolution. The rest is quite literally history. 

Now a full-time human rights activist, Helmy joined filmmakers and friends Micah Garen and Marie-Helene Carleton onstage at PopTech to talk about their collaboration on an upcoming documentary film If. The film will explore what it's like being a young revolutionary through the eyes of four different Egyptian women (including Helmy), although as Garen states, their story is far from over. 

Helmy joined us for a talk in which she proves herself to be every bit as passionate as a clip from the upcoming film shows. 

PopTech: Can you speak to the dichotomy between being a devout Muslim and being an agent for change? How do these things influence each other, guide each other?
Shima'a Helmy: I think if you look deep inside the real essence of Islam, you'll see that it revolves around the fact that the Muslim is supposed to be a positive person in his or her society. They should help others, they should be cooperative, and they should try to be as positive as they can.

The situation in Egypt was against the real essence of Islam. You had corruption, you had social injustice, you had torture, you had everything against what a Muslim is supposed to be like and what the ideal of Islam is supposed to be. When I was growing up, I was trying to be a good Muslim at the same time as being a good citizen. You could say that being an active person is an essential part of being a Muslim. It’s the combination, and that following the guidelines of Islamic teachings is at the core of what people in the modern world are trying to do. All these concepts of democracy and human rights are actually found in Islam. It’s just that people don’t know. 

What did it feel like, that moment of decision for you, when you decided that you were going to get involved in the uprising?
I didn’t imagine something like this happening in Egypt. I didn’t believe in my country. I felt like I was just here for a particular period of time and then I was leaving forever. I was focusing on my studies, trying to study something very complex like biotechnology, only to distract myself from how terrible the situation in Egypt was. And then, when this whole thing started, I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate. But I went with my sister, and then when we saw people around, and we saw it’s not really that hard, as soon as you cross the line of fear it just happens.


Bryan Doerries conducts the Theater of War

Bryan Doerries conducts the theater of war

Put war veterans, civilians, actors and a 2,000+ year-old play together in the same room and some powerful things happen. Bryan Doerries' Theater of War project does just that.

For an hour or so yesterday, PopTech attendees were transported to ancient Greece, where a wounded solidier is almost, but not quite, mortally injured in a cave where he has languished alone for nine years. For those unfamiliar with Sophocles' play Philoctetes -- the character of Philoctetes has been abandoned by his commander and fellow soldiers and left on the island to die. An unfortunate snake bite has him screaming in pain, fetid, rotting. His wound makes him difficult to be around and his leader sees him as a burden. In this shortened adaptation of the story, years later the commander orders a young soldier to return to the island and trick Philoctetes into relinquishing a bow that has been bestowed with special powers. Meeting Philoctetes, who is so grateful to see him after so much time alone and in pain, the young soldier is torn between his sense of duty and the bond he is forming with his new, albeit injured friend.   

a vet watches from the crowdThe play, written so long ago by Sophocles (who was himself a general) still resonates deeply today. After the performance, two young war veterans joined a VA psychologist on a panel to discuss their interpretation of the play and draw parallels to their own lives and work. The audience, which included invited local veterans and their family members, joined the conversation and collectively we explored the play's themes of isolation, pain and dignity.   

In the original version of the play, Philoctetes' primal screams go on for a full and uninterrupted twenty minutes. Our audience experienced a much shortener version of that re-enacted agony, but it still made a powerful point. In the same way the post-performance talk got us thinking, it was that scream that got us feeling.

From the play:

Poor man. I pity him:
 isolated and alone,
no one to nurse him,
he talks to himself,
sharing his body
with a brutal disease.
How does he do it?
The gods work well
when men suffer
endlessly and die.

Sophocles' Philoctetes
Translated by Bryan Doerries

Doerries refers to the isolation that many returning vets feel as "the wound that never heals". Both of the vets and the pyschologist on the panel spoke about dealing with this particular type of anguish. Only by feeling a connection with others does this pain begin to recede.

Doerries closed the session by reminding us that none of us are alone. We were brought together during the session through our shared conversation, and brought together across time through the immortal words of a soldier who has long since left the Earth.     

Images: Thatcher Cook for PopTech

Desney Tan & Scott Saponas: Your body is a wonder, man

Scott Saponas demos SkinputScott Saponas dazzled the crowd yesterday by playing Tetris with his arm. Correction: not with his arm, on his arm. "If you can play Tetris," joked Sapanas as he maneuvered the falling blocks simply by touching various parts of his arm, "You can pretty much do anything."

Saponas and his colleague Desney Tan both work at Microsoft Research. Their latest project, called Skinput, focuses on allowing richer, more natural ways of interacting with our ubiquitous technology devices. They envision a day when you can change your music, learn a language, even answer email using bioacoustics on the touch-sensitive surfaces of our bodies.

"The human body is an amazing playground of technology interface," says Tan. By interacting with computers in a more natural way, "you become the controller."

Bhagwan Chowdhry's FAB idea: Give babies $100

Bhagwan Chowdhry

UCLA Anderson Finance professor Bhagwan Chowdhry has a big idea: give all babies $100 at birth, which they could claim when they turned 16 years old. This concept, called Financial Access at Birth (FAB), has two projected outcomes. First, it would give all people, regardless of where they're born, the chance to become "financial citizens". Second, it would allow for the assignment of a global identification number, giving voice and potentially providing social services and other assistance to some of the world's poorest people, who often slip through the cracks.  

PopTech had a chance to sit down with Chowdhry just after he presented at PopTech to find out a little more about the FAB project. 

PopTech: How would your project reach folks who are not literate, are not connected to the world in the ways that we’re used to getting our information?
Bhagwan Chowdhry: We think incentives work. I think the word will get around when people hear that every child will get a hundred dollar deposit. That’s a lot of money in some parts of the world. The fear that some people have of not wanting to connect is overcome by this incentive. That’s what we are hoping will happen.

Do you have a location in mind already for where the pilot will take place?
We do have a location but we haven’t made the announcement yet so I am not at liberty to say.

We have a lot of distrust around banking institutions in general right now, and promoting them as a way to solve for some of these issues seems to conflict with what we are hearing about banks.
I don’t think it is really an issue of who is going to serve it. There are other financial intermediaries who could step in. Some other socially-conscious banks might step in. We haven’t made a decision about who is going to do it. There has to be cooperation with other agencies such as government. For example, these deposits have to be safe. You cannot have fly-by-night banks. These intermediaries have to be called to invent some sort of regulatory agencies like the government and they will have to be part of the solution.


Social Innovation Fellow spotlight: Amy Sun

Fab Lab in action

Social Innovation Fellow Amy Sun's presentation as captured by Alphachimp illustrator Perrin Ireland. Read more about Sun's Fab Folk project here.

Social Innovation Fellow spotlight: Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy

Social Innovation Fellow Michael Murphy is looking at ways design can help address social issues. His company MASS Design takes a holistic approach to building environments that are innovative, involve local investments and are well-designed. 

Illustration of good building airflowAs an example, Murphy discussed a recent hospital project in northern Rwanda. Knowing that many hospitals unwittingly spread infection to the very patients they're trying to heal, the team wondered how they could design a space that would help reduce rather than increase infection rates. One solution was to design the hospital with no hallways, where people (and germs) tend to congregate. They also took advantage of Rwanda's great airflow to create a design using natural ventilation. 

The team took on another challenge: how to isolate and highlight the beauty of the local stone used to build the hospital as a way to showcase the resources of the community? They envisioned no visible mortar or cement, just the stone. By the time the local craftsman had built the wall, they had created a beautiful structure of which they were extremely proud. This told the team that they can affect the community in many significant ways.

Murphy asked the crowd: What happens if we don't think about issues of safety and design? "It's not the earthquake that killed people in Haiti," he cautioned,"it's the buildings that fell on people." What if we gave jobs to only the community around us? What economies could we create? Buildings that are currently making us sicker could actually make us better. Of his company's work, Murphy said, "These are the kinds of building that can make us heal."

Image: Kris Krug (photo) and Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio (illustration)

Thursday round-up: Highlights, snapshots & quotable moments

Ólafur R. Grímsson, Rajendra Pachauri and Baghwan Chowdry (l-r)

Today's presenters examined the themes of rebalancing, reframing, restoring and researching. We heard from a family historian, a Nobel Prize winner, a space suit developer and a President. A PopTech iPad app launched, a funky band played, we met a slew of impressive young scientists and innovators, and we announced that we're planning a trip to Iceland!

It's hard to pick favorite moments from all this great content, but here is some of the stuff that lit up Twitter, caused heads to nod in agreement in the Opera House and had us tearing up or cheering backstage. Is your favorite moment missing? Add it to the mix!

Bhagwan Chowdry: With three billion people living in poverty, can financial citizenship begin at birth with a $100 savings deposit and a unique universal ID? With the ability to easily access this deposit through mobile branchless banking, the poor can begin to save. Through his organization, Financial Assistance at Birth (FAB), Chowdry makes the case for providing aid to registered children, as well as the incentive for banks to host these deposits. His organization is enlisting the support of international media and everyday people to make this dramatic vision into a reality.

I chose the democratic will of the people over the force of the market.
--Ólafur R. Grímsson, the first head of state to present at PopTech and the first standing ovation of the day!

Rajendra Pachauri: With greenhouse gas emissions increasing and endangering human health and the future of the planet, there is only a short window of opportunity in which to bring about rapid change. The enormous challenge that climate change represents requires an integrated risk management approach that takes into account the scientific information we have today. Innovative thinking and working together can help us face down this challenge.

Pictures have power. When you show a picture, it is believed.
-- Shahidul Alam on why he became a photojournalist.