Thursday, October 25, 2007

Pop!Tech 2007 - A Blog's eye view: A Conference Retrospective


So, you just got back from an exciting week at Pop!Tech 2007, tell me a bit about your expectations going in?

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to think going in. I heard that Camden was pretty and that everyone was working on really interesting “over the horizon ideas.” I also heard in the words of the Bostonian, this group was “wicked smaht”. No question, Pop!Tech is an incredible scene.


For most of us that can’t attend Pop!Tech, what’s the feel? The environment? The buzz like at Pop!Tech?

The Pop!Tech environment is built on lots of people who are (and fashion themselves) pretty deep thinkers. There’s a really wide range of attendees, from academics and artists, to inventors, NGO leaders and technology practitioners. The environment is over-flowing, in a good way, with people who really do big ideas for a living.

I also found Pop!Tech to be a place where people think of problems in unusual and unconventional ways. For example, I talked about Chris Jordan in my first blog. The guy is an incredible photographer who uses his compositions to capture the enormous quantities of waste that we produce here in the United States. He displays these photographs as a way of showing scale -like the millions of reams of paper we use every 5 seconds. These really mind boggling images stick in your mind.

Tell us about your Blogging approach at Pop!Tech

First of all, I took a slightly different approach to blogging at Pop!Tech than some of the other bloggers, in part because other top-notch posters like Rob Katz, from NextBillion.net and Ethan Zuckerman were doing such a great – and quick – job of chronicling events. My goal was to step back, looking for patterns and opportunities suggested by the different presentations. We called the blog series “Northwoods Alchemy”, and the idea was to take the presentations and mix them in a proverbial test-tube, to see what came out. I was pretty pleased with some of the pieces.

I also tried very hard to use the metaphors that were implied during the presentations. For example, looking at the speed of change (speed kills, speed saves), perspectives on Africa (looking up, looking down), and the need for a plan to address climate change (saving the bees). It seemed appropriate. There’s a kind of poetry at a place like Pop!Tech.

Was there one thing that really impressed you? An idea or individual? Something that you heard? Chatter in the halls?

There were many things that impressed. As we work a lot in and with technology, I was very interested in a couple of new technologies demonstrated at Pop!Tech that seemed to generate a buzz.

I was fortunate to have a chance to speak with Sheila Kennedy, who leads the Portable Light Project. Sheila and her team have developed cool, flexible solar panels which she is using with communities in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. Really an interesting new technology with so many uses, and if we can help her knock the price point down a bit, I think an incredible economic opportunity.

I also spoke with John Shearer, who presented his company’s radio-wave electricity technology ideas. The basic idea of John’s approach is to use RFID-like signals to send electricity without using wires. Imagine the thought of having a cellphone that was really, truly wireless – one where you also didn’t need to connect to the wall using a charger. My cell is always running out of juice, and I think that would be amazing.

One thing that made headlines was the introduction of the new “Pop!Tech Accelerator” What did you think?

Well, as Andrew Z. said, the Accelerator is still very much a program in development. The idea is to create a kind of project incubator that would help take good Pop!Techie ideas to scale, and of course I think that’s great. Generally speaking, my sense is that the big question on the minds of attendees was, “Is this cutting new ground?” To some extent it’s not – other groups (Ashoka comes to mind) are doing similar types of things. Still, the Pop!Tech community is uniquely high-powered, and in the end I expect work with the Accelerator could be slicker, smarter and better financed than other, more NGO-oriented efforts in the past. Not sure what will happen because one of the big questions about any incubator is how many eggs get hatched and how long does it take to hatch them?

Often people discredit or discount what’s good in Africa. It’s all about corruption, all about oil greed, and conflict and Nigeria is often cited as an example of these problems. Yet, you seemed really impressed with Robert Boroffice. What makes you so sure that Africa can really “look to the sky” and that Nigeria can be “mission control?”

Well, first of all, I would be foolish if I thought that this was going to be a straight line. Nothing happens in a straight line and especially in places and parts of the world that have characteristics like Nigeria. Resource rich countries like the Gulf States, Venezuela, and Bolivia they all seem to have challenges. That said, Nigeria has a lot going for it.

First of all it’s a huge country – last I heard it was over 140 million people – meaning there is a lot of opportunity for business in
Nigeria for both Nigerians and others interested to invest. Also, Nigerians that I meet – whether in the north or south, or abroad – seem to have a very entrepreneurial mind-set. And its not just the well trained people you meet at conferences. I’ve met Nigerian taxi-drivers in Lagos and DC that have 2 or 3 businesses on the side and big dreams. You don’t see this in all emerging markets. The big question for Nigeria is whether people will work together…

As far as space agency, I was struck by how Boroffice nonchalantly responded to my first question about demand. People around world and the continent are using this technology, and Africa is adopting the new tech at such a fast pace. He basically said “this isn’t just about our future – we’re using this stuff now”. Moreover, Nigeria is the leader in Africa in this “space." The way I see it, countries that want to accomplish big things need to be looking over the horizon even while they’re focused on the issues of today.

Finally, I wanted to ask about one of your blogs, where you coined the idea of the “Slow Warrior.” Tell us a bit more about what that means.

The idea of a “Slow Warrior” came out of the presentation I saw which looked at our psychological responses to global warming as a looming crisis. Our typical response is to ignore slow moving issues – even if they’re urgent, as in the case of global warming. Then we sound the alarm. Still, after sounding the alarm we need to have a plan. Even Al Gore will tell you – the alarm is not the destination. If a problem is slow in coming and will take time to solve, and just ringing alarm bells may be counterproductive.

If our approach to global warming is just to sound the alarm, then donate a lot of money and hold a lot of conferences, my fear is that we will miss an opportunity to build the kind of long-term alliances – which would include you and me as consumers – that will be necessary to really change things. I remember last year’s focus on bird flu. Billions were spent and the issue dominated the airwaves. Now we hear nothing. Was it crying wolf? Is it still a crisis? Who knows?

A slow warrior, slow activism approach could actually provide greater chances for success long term. It might also help us create a more satisfying and more sustainable activist experience, one defined by long-term engagement (vs. panic), and fitting with the sense of appreciation that characterizes other “slow movements” like those proposing “slow food” and “slow exercise”.

Right now we’re stressed out, rushing to solve the various crises around the world, and not doing a very good job of it. Perhaps adding “slow activism” to our vocabularies would help.

For information about Pop!Tech and see photos from the event visit: http://poptech.com/conferences

1 comment:

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