PopTech 2009 Take-Aways: On Amateurs, Mining Cross-Disciplinary Gold, FLAP Bags, Science Fellows, $12 (well, $10) Computers, the Solar Hope, a Few Ideas for Next Year & Some Darn Fine Fiddling…

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poptechblogIt was a wonderful little bubble while it lasted. Getting up before dawn. Dressing in easy-to-peel layers for whatever the day might bring. Walking over to Boynton-McKay, a diner of rare perfection, where the wi-fi was as reliably good as the pancakes (a boon in connectivity-challenged Camden…) Ascending the stairs and more stairs of the town’s famous 19th century Opera House. A few minutes to mingle-navigate among tables of nibble-food before settling down for a morning of things worth thinking about.

But first, a little music. Logan Richardson’s soulful, playful, questioning sax riffs on “America the Beautiful” one day. Zoe Keating’s clear, deeply layered, architecturally precise, transcending cello pieces another. How lovely to start each day by not thinking. Just being. In the moment. Together. Brilliant.

And then it was off and running, from economics to education, urban decay to urban agriculture, environmental catastrophe to conservation hope, design theory to food design, cardboard robots to paper diagnostics, communications to comics, art to dance to music. To, to, to…

But as the last note of the Mark O’Connor-anchored jam session finale faded into festive applause and we trundled off in buses through the rainy dark to a cavernous transportation museum for one last party, the bubble had begun to weaken and thin. Faces, now familiar, circled by against an improbable backdrop of vintage automobiles, sci-fi bicycles and disconcertingly disembodied airplane parts.  A few final conversations and business cards. Some hugs and toasts. Promises to keep in touch, follow up, finish that thought. We stayed up until we couldn’t. By morning, the bubble was lost in the dazzling clarity of a New England fall day. One by one we left the the small town – Maine’s answer to Brigadoon – journeying back to the chaotic urgency of our daily lives. With each mile down the highway to Boston, and each minute in the sky back to Chicago, I could feel experiences recasting into memories, ready for sorting and analysis.


Throughout the conference, Michelle Riggen-Ransom, Rachel Barenblat, and Ethan Zuckerman were absolutely brilliant live-blogging the talks and I recommend reading their posts, along with Kristen Taylor’s, on the PopTech blog to get a more detailed view of goings on.

Among the overarching themes: the serendipity of the amateur and the common sense of a cross-disciplinary approach. In short, the easiest way to see outside the box is to be outside the box.

PlayPower FoundationTake, for example, the tale of the $12 computer (can be haggled down to $10). PopTech 2009 fellow Derek Lomas, who was working in India on”ethnographic design research on uses of mobile phones in urban and rural contexts,” found just such a miracle browsing a crowded electronics marketplace. It’s bare bones – hooks up to a television for a screen and runs on the 8-bit chip that powered 1980s-era Apple II computers and Nintendo game systems. So “vintage” is the tech, patents have run out, making it, for all intents and purpose, open source. Funded by a $180,000 MacArthur grant, Lomas and his collaborators the Playpower Foundation are developing software that combines educational aims with game-playing appeal. “It occurred to me that if this platform had just a few decent games, and one good typing game, it could be economically transformative,” notes Lomas, “because touch-typing can make a difference between earning a dollar a day or a dollar an hour.” Why invent an answer from scratch when you can assemble one cheaper? Innovation through shopping…


Another theme: The most effective way to to trigger change is to provide a better alternative to the status quo.

For preventive medicine pioneer Dean Ornish, the shift from the “fear of dying to the joy of living is the key to the healthier future. For materials scientist Neri Oxman, it is moving from a Miesian reality where each building material has a specific function (steel for support, glass for light) to one inspired by Nature, where a single material yields a range of benefits (e.g., the structure of an egg shell evolved to provide strength as well as gas permeability). For clinical psychologist, Naif  Al-Mutawa, it is tackling Muslim stereotypes through the compelling comic book stories of Muslim superhero kids (“The 99”). Better is better.

flapbagMIT architect Sheila Kennedy, who has helped spearhead PopTech’s portable lighting project, points out the importance of opening up a space to new ways of thinking.  FLAP – Flexible Light & Power – is a Timbuk2 messenger bag outfitted with small solar array, battery and LED. A removable panel lined with reflective material amplifies the light from a tiny bulb cleverly tucked into a strap. AfriGadget’s Erik Hersman recently took some prototypes to Africa for field testing. But no matter whether a bag design turns out to be a viable answer or not, the thinking has shifted: Solar is not just for roofs and calculators any more. Now you can literally wear power on your sleeve.



photo: Growing Power

Which segues into a third theme: Just add sunshine. Three ideas presented at the conference that are either dependent upon or inspired by photosynthesis have the potential to help significantly move the dial on climate change.

  • Will Allen is a teacher and an inspiration for the potential of urban agriculture. His suite of Growing Power farms in Milwaukee and Chicago are designed as a series of nested ecosystems. Vermicomposting – turning garbage into wildly fertile worm castings – is the lynchpin. You start by creating soil so rich, it doesn’t require petro-based chemical additives.  From aquaponics set ups to raise fish by the thousands to a biodigester for converting food waste into energy, everything that can be harvested or recycled is. It is cleaner, healthier, oil-independent food system, with local “farm to fork” distribution networks designed to turn urban “food deserts” green.
  • Willie Smits has plans for a similar polyculture fix, only rainforest-size. Trained in forestry, Smits career took a turn when he came across a sick orangutan in a Borneo market. Saving orangutans meant saving habitat, an increasingly difficult task when easy profits for palm oil led to wholesale conversion of ancient forests into modern superficially-efficient monocultures. Beyond the staggering loss of biodiversity, forest clearing fires, especially in peat-land forests, have led to “CO2 volcanoes,” spewing vast amounts of sequestered greenhouse gases skyward. Smits’ fix centers around the sugar palm, a short tree common in second-growth forest, which thrives only when grown as part of a polyculture and has a talent both for sequestering carbon (deep roots) and gushing a liquid that can be turned into sugar or ethanol. Smits has come up with a way to process the quick-to-ferment “juice” efficiently off-site. With the “juice” as the economic anchor, a suite of other forest products can also be sustainably harvested. Recently Smits set up a company, Tapergy, to implement his ideas. Notably, both Smits and Allen focus on jobs. Commodity monocultures destroy jobs and communities. Urban agriculture and tropical agroforestry create them.


Perhaps the most exciting announcement at the conference was about a new fellows program for scientists, which takes us back to cross-disciplinary common sense. As the speaker list already demonstrates, science is an essential part of creating change for the greater good.

The further promote and support collaborations, some suggestions:

1) Develop a session or a workshop focused on tech transfer, focusing on both the legal and marketing angles.

2) Add data visualizations to the program and on the website showing connections between speakers. With such a multi-disciplinary list, connections transcend program groupings.  For example, Smits could just as logically been grouped with Michael Pollan and Will Allen.

3) Open the PopTech Creative Reuse Workshop at 8 a.m., one hour before the conference. Put out coffee as bait for early risers. I completely missed the workshop. The daily speaker sessions tended to go long, so there wasn’t much time to scoot over afterward. During breaks, the tendency was to mingle, network and nosh on site. Restaurants chosen for lunches were all located in the opposite direction.

4) Develop an online book store search-able by title, author and subject.

Now to wait for the videos to post, just in time for the long winter cozy season…

3 Responses

  1. Amazing post. Thanks so much for being there.

  2. J.A. Great post and thanks for the comment on mine …I responded to your comment here. http://bit.ly/39KZCE

    -Bill Alberti

  3. Great summary, and good suggestions!

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