Nov 04, 2011

Lobster Rolls and Inspiration: Our Time at PopTech

Sarah Brooks's picture
Sarah Brooks
Director, Social Innovation

Several of my Hot Studio colleagues and I recently spent four lobster roll-fueled days in Camden, Maine, home of the annual PopTech conference.

It was an exciting trip for our six-person group. For the past four months, we had been working on an iPad data visualization app featuring PopTech and some of its data partners: The New York Times R&D Lab, the United Nations’ Global Pulse Project, and PwC. The project had really stretched our minds and given us a chance to work with some remarkable organizations and now, after a whole lot of hard work, the app was going to be introduced to the world live, on stage, by PopTech’s Curator and Executive Director, Andrew Zolli.

Of course, we were excited for the conference itself, too. Founded in 1996 by a group of Camden residents and technologists including Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet technology, and John Sculley, former CEO of Apple, PopTech now consists of about 600 scientific, social, and design innovators who are dedicated to “changing the world.” As PopTech newbies, we couldn’t wait to see what the conference had in store.

Andrew Zolli kicked off the conference by introducing this year’s theme, “World Rebalancing.” He wryly noted that the first decade of the 21st century, if not the worst decade ever, was certainly a contender for the title. “Really what we are in is an in-between time, a transition from one phase to another,” he said. Andrew played emcee over the next three days, introducing nearly 80 speakers and their presentations covering science, business, art and governance. With consistent charm and unpretentious brilliance, Andrew bridged these disparate themes with a narrative arc that explored how to navigate this turbulent time.

The conference proved to be a paradise for lateral thinkers, do-ers and makers. Andrew and his team of curators scoured the world to find and bring together a diverse group of individuals who can explore the “genius in the white spaces” between and within disciplines, breaking down “silos of excellence.”

Presentations ranged from how to build your own toaster to understanding what’s killing the honey bees to how exploration of Mars helps kids with Multiple Sclerosis. President of Iceland, Olafur Grimmson, explained how Iceland rebuilt itself after an economic crash and volcanic explosion. There was a wildly funny satire by two Iranian ex-pats, and an explanation of why the U.S. government should switch from a policy of “containment” to “sustainment.” At the week’s end, Reggie Watts made us laugh until we cried.

One hallmark of each presentation was the personal approach taken by the speakers. Each provided insight into personal motivations for their work, which leant an informal and approachable counterbalance to their weighty endeavors. The importance of community and collaboration was another constant among presenters, especially as they discussed moving their work forward. 

Camden being a rather small place, it was possible to meet and chat not only with people in the Opera House, which was the conference’s primary setting, but around the village itself. People mingled unpretentiously throughout the day, during coffee breaks and meal times. In fact, meal tickets were distributed for a variety of restaurants in town, thereby shuffling the social deck (and the menu) on a daily basis, much to everyone’s delight. Great things have come of this mingling: we learned of several examples of people collaborating after PopTech, working together to explore new areas of cooperation, and reflecting what Ezio Manzini refers to as “small, open, local, connected.”

Maria Giudice, Eric Grant, and Alison Rand of Hot Studio

For your own quadruple espresso shot of inspiration, you might just want to head for Camden, Maine next fall, or visit Nairobi, Kenya for the February 2012 PopTech project called the Climate Resilience Lab. A less arduous option for hope and inspiration is PopTech via video. Try it! You’ll love it!

Want more? There's more! For your reading pleasure...

"PopTech Partners with Hot for its First iPad Experience"
"Finding Stories in Data: Hot’s Work with PopTech"