PopTech: Day 1 – Reimagining and Beyond Imagining

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Blame it on the birds. And the elephants, lions, biochar, Indonesian agroforestry, dirt batteries, mechanical caterpillar waves, global maps, messenger bag-cum-lighting systems, a cyber-dance experience and one very lovely essay about migration. But not too far into the first day of PopTech, the conference’s “Reimagining America” theme disappeared. Which was fine. It seemed too limited for a confab about Big Thoughts, even here in a small, charming  American town (that could use a little reimagining itself – connectivity way, way too spotty). In any case, you can’t really reimagine, or even imagine, America without including the rest the world in the equation.

And nobody brought that point home with more heart-wrenching eloquence than Chris Jordan with his slide show of photographs of dead albatross on Midway Island, killed by a diet of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photograph after photographs of birds, heads twisted by pain, guts split by a bounty of all too familiar bottle caps – perky shades of reds and blues favored by marketers – had the audience in shock and *this* audience in tears. This wasn’t an isolated occasional bird tragedy, but the picture of a extinction-in-progress. And because it took so darn long for anyone to discover the Garbage Patch, a ghostly-insidious man-made chemically-enhanced primordial soup the size of at least a couple of Texas’s (Texi?), it is far too late to do much about it – at least for the albatross (“Midway Journey” project blog – notes & videos).

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Save the microbes! Save the plankton! Save the food chain!  Who knows? We might just save ourselves, too.

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The day was filled with jolts of Overwhelming Problems paired with Glimmers of Hope.

John Fetterman, the myth-come-to-life mayor of Braddock, PA, a bankrupt rust-belt town that had been all but written off. A strikingly tall bald figure, with dates tattooed on his massive arms to remember the victims of violent crimes (thankfully, no new tattoos in over a year), Fetterman’s unvarnished recitation of all that had gone wrong coupled with some very basic ideas of what can be done had the crowd on a can-do upswing. Renovate those $5,000 homes (average price – since the recession, they’ve lost value). Add artists. LOTS of artists. Plant urban gardens. Hold lots of family-friendly it-takes-a-village-to-make-a-village. Clear debris and make a park. Then came news of a major hospital closing, which will not only take jobs from the area, but leave the population – mostly poor and minority – in a health-care desert. It is hard to make money taking care of poor people. So much for the greater public good or, for that matter, public health.

I began to wonder whether some of the health solutions being tested in the developing world –  many driven by cell phone tech – wouldn’t be appropriate here, too? (e.g., PopTech Fellow Josh Nesbit’s FrontlineSMS: Medic & Hope Phones).

Indeed, one of the conference’s most intriguing themes to emerge so far is this concept of two-way innovation: developed to developing world and vice-versa. (Note to makers of One Laptop Per Child: I really really REALLY want one of those computer screens designed for use in full sun…)

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On the Glimmers of Hope front, the PopTech Fellows were batting it out of the park. From Jason Aramburu‘s efforts to commercialize biochar, a carbon negative solution that also improves soil fertility, to Eben Bayer’s nifty mushroom-mediated compostable alternative to landfill-choaking styrofoam, Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo van Vurveen’s “dirt batteries” and Emily Pilloton’s no-nonsense determination to enlist an army of young designers to come up with Better Answers, there was a sense that it’s still not too late. We can, just maybe, turn this thing around and not go down the climate change tubes.

FLAP – Flexible Light and Power – a prototype of a portable lighting system stitched into a Timbuktu messenger bag – also caught the crowd’s imagination. Designed by MIT’s Sheila Kennedy, it’s a simple idea that could radically change the way we think about solar deployment, opening up the space to all kinds of new ideas. No longer would solar be consigned to rooftop panels or a strip on a pocket calculator. It can almost literally be woven into the fabric of our lives, turning us into portable “plants,” photosynthesizing as we go about our daily business. (More from Erik Hersman on field-testing the design in Africa.)

Indonesia-based Willie Smits also has big plans for photosynthesis, with a scheme that would not only reforest the world’s rain forests, but generate jobs and an array of crops, supply power to poor villages, restore biodiversity and wildlife habitat and dramatically reduce demand for foreign oil. Smits “Tapergy” plans is an integrated system that works with Nature to increase the productivity of land while capping CO2 “volcanos” that result when millions of acres of land, particularly peat-lands, are cleared from monoculture oil palm plantations. (read more about Smits work in “Trees for Trees” post – page down to section on “You Had Me at Organgutan” – includes videos)

There was much more to Day 1. But Day 2 is about to begin. So, connectivity willing, follow on twitter: #poptech / @trackernews.

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