PopTech 2012

Every year, the Pop Tech conference in Camden, Maine brings together an eclectic collection of innovators and thinkers from diverse backgrounds, including science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities, among others. It’s safe to say that this cross-section of thinkers was well represented at the 2012 conference.

The thought- provoking theme this year revolved around the big idea of “Resiliency”. Over the three days, this central theme was discussed and debated through diverse lenses; resilience to environmental disaster, resilient communities, resilient genetics, resilient economies, resilient climates, resilient cultures and resilient individuals.

Each story presented an inspiring and thoughtful perspective around what enables cultures, individuals and organizations to absorb and adapt to disruptive change through the creation of resilient systems. The idea that resilient innovation is about shifting the discussion from designing systems for risk mitigation to risk adaptation.

Some of the highlights included:

Natural disasters created a relevant backdrop to several presentations. The most meaningful was C.J. Huff's account of resilience and human kindness following the tornados that ravaged Joplin, Missouri. He made the important connection that resilience in this situation is about focusing on the obvious: getting your hands dirty. It’s not just about a monetary donation. Community is the anecdote to disaster and resilience is the requirement that brings it about.

Two interesting tales of personal resilience were brought up. The first was the story of seventeen-year-old, female boxer Claressa Shields, from Flint, Michigan. Through incredible persistence, Shields won the first ever Olympic gold medal for women’s middleweight boxing. The second was the story of Amy Purdy, who lost both of her legs at a very young age following complications from bacterial meningitis. She is now a world-class adaptive snowboarder and has won three back-to-back Paralympic World Cup gold medals. Purdy has since started working for Freedom Innovations, a prosthetic feet manufacturer, as Amputee Advocate. She has gone on to co-found her own non-profit organization, Adaptive Action Sports, for individuals with physical disabilities who want to get involved in action sports.

Social and community innovation was a strong thread throughout the event. Speakers discussed a variety of strategies to enable sustainable economic models in underserved and developing economies, where simple adaptation of technologies such as basic SMS-delivered information about markets, commodities, places to buy and sell and as communication tools to promote community peace as described by Rachel Brown, Founder & CEO, founded Sisi Ni Amani [We are Peace].

From a community innovation perspective, topics ranged from local to country-wide initiatives. For example, Asenath Andrews is reinventing a model for high school in Detroit for teen mothers, providing early education services for the children of those high school moms. Another great example of community innovation is the new community driven constitution in Iceland that rose out of the ashes of economic collapse and is contributing to the country’s recent success. 

Of course, no conversation today could be without a perspective on Big Data. Pop Tech was no exception and for me, this was best exemplified by Jer Thorpe’s incredible visualizations and his expression of the potential meaningful application of data as the tool to shape the way we think about our health, our communities and our economy. As Jer Thorpe stated, “data is the new oil”.

Finally, the conference wrapped with a way to bring together the Pop Tech community.  Pilobolus, a modern performance company enlisted attendees and people form the local community to participate in a large-scale, live performance using umbrellas fabricated with multi-colored LED lights created by the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory. It was great way to finish off three days of conversation and inspiration.