Social enterprises like these tend to form in response to system failures—the malfunction of government to successfully render social services or the failure of the market to efficiently allocate goods and services. Yet most of the time social ‘innovation’ is palliative, tinkering within the parameters of a system to mitigate harm or make it partially more responsive to the needs of those marginalized or underserved by it. But big impact usually happens when we address the fundamental causes of a system’s failure, not just its effects.

Citizen science, social impact data, human rights, agriculture saving & planning, and more - check out the inspiring work the newly announced 2013 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows are up to. 

The new science of impact: How to ask the right questions

Who is the target population for a microcredit intervention? Your answer will depend largely on where you sit: Academics and microfinance institutions will be interested in different groups of people.

Always be willing to look back and ask hard questions about what you have done. In the end, you are intervening in people’s lives, and that carries enormous responsibility.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the development community’s biggest successes — eradication initiatives like polio and smallpox — are precisely the ones that made monitoring central to their work. 

Read: Ned Breslin's (PopTech 2010) piece on Measuring impact over time from our most recent Edition - Made to Measure: The new science of impact.

Each PopTech Edition explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In this Edition, we examine evolving techniques to accurately gauge the real impact of initiatives and programs designed to do social good.

The New Science of Measuring Impact

A dirty little secret of the NGO world is that funders and grant recipients sometimes silently conspire to agree on statistics that show a program “works,” without rigorous measurement, since both the funders and the recipients want to show results.

Organizations everywhere dedicated to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges have launched a variety of new efforts to meticulously measure the intended impact of their work. This is nothing less than a revolution in social innovation that is bringing new, scientific rigor to gauging results. These organizations are now eschewing the top-down problem solving that has been the standard in their relative fields for decades.

Consider the clinical trial. Most people probably associate so-called randomized controlled trials with the testing of new drugs. One group of people take a new pill while another group gets a placebo. The participants are monitored to see who is better off.

But in recent years the use of randomized controlled trials has migrated from measuring the effectiveness of drugs to rigorously evaluating policies and programs designed to do social good. Rather than just assuming that a bright idea is changing the world because something is happening, scientists compare how much desired outcomes are evident among people exposed to a program as opposed to people who were not. The results can be remarkably instructive.

Cooking stoves are a good example. At a September 2010 meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unveiled a public-private partnership led by the United Nations Foundation to put new, efficient, clean, cheap cooking stoves in 100 million homes by 2020. “We can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient and affordable stoves and fuels all over the world,” she said.

As mundane as they may seem, cooking stoves are a very big deal. By the State Department’s count, 3 billion people around the world cook their food above open fires or on old, inefficient stoves in poorly ventilated homes. The smoke and toxins cause pneumonia and respiratory disease in women and their families, and the inefficient stoves contribute to climate change.

But simply handing out new cooking stoves, it turns out, doesn’t work as intended.

Read more…

Image: Member of Sewa cook food on tradional cookstove (R) as well as on clean cookstove (L) at the SEWA Centre in Ganeshpura Village in district Mehsena of Indian State of Gujarat. (via Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)

Clear the rest of your afternoon, because we’ve launched our third Edition!

Each PopTech Edition explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In this Edition, we examine evolving techniques to accurately gauge the real impact of initiatives and programs designed to do social good.

Features in Edition III include:

  • Ned Breslin weighs in on why it is sometimes necessary to monitor work for very long periods of time.
  • In an interview, Dean Karlan discusses the importance of conducting field trials to evaluate efforts — and describes when it is not a good idea.
  • Jenny Stefanotti explains to readers how to ask the appropriate questions when trying to measure results.
  • In his piece, Jaspal S. Sandhu writes about building feedback into the design process to maximize the chance of success.
  • Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan shares how to properly design a clinical trial to evaluate outcomes.
  • PopTech’s own Andrew Zolli explores some common mistakes to look out for when trying to gauge impact. 

Missed PopTech Editions I or II? Check them out: Person to person or Small is beautiful


hey that’s nothing to slanty face about… whats wrong with another group getting more important ideas shared publicly?  I’m aware that it’s similar to TED’s conferences, hence the comparison, but I think its a good thing that there’s more organizations bringing people together to collaborate on how to make our world a better place.  I find it sad that they’re doing similar things but TED’s getting mad views and PopTech’s gettin’ shit so I just mentioned it hoping to get a few people cruising through their videos. It’s awesome that there’s another group like TED, TED’s great, and so they can get the eloquent speakers with brilliant concepts that TED doesn’t have time to get. ya feel me?

Thanks for the support! This seems like as good a time as any to clarify what we do, in case some of you followers aren’t really sure who we are (*wave* we’re glad you found us!). 

Hi! We’re PopTech. We are a community of innovators dedicated to accelerating people, projects and ideas at the edge of change.

Wait, what? Basically we bring together innovative people from all over the world and from many different backgrounds to share their knowledge and work together to create lasting change.

Here’s how we do this:

  • Our Labs bring together curated and diverse experts to work together on areas of critical significance. Peep the Climate Resilience Lab where we explored innovation at the intersection of community resilience, climate change, and the empowerment of girls and women. 
  • Our Initiatives incubate high-impact, collaborative and new approaches to some of the world’s toughest problems. Check out PeaceTXT where we’re using mobile technology to end violence.
  • Our annual conferences and events are among the highest rated in the United States. You can watch talks from these events on our website, on Vimeo and on YouTube. Here’s what Bunker Roy has to say about our conferences: 

”Over the last 30 years I have participated in many conferences but never one quite so unique as PopTech. It was enormously stimulating. I cannot recall having spent such a fascinating time with such extraordinary people who gave me the feeling the impossible was possible in our lifetime.” 

If you’ve got 20 minutes, here’s a selection of brief videos that offer some insight into what makes PopTech special (hint - we hold our annual conference in Maine). 

Bottoms Up. The way to design for social impact.

By PopTech Board Chair and Fellows Faculty Cheryl Heller

When Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry was published in 1977 it was an awakening. Like Rachel Carson and Silent Spring over a decade earlier, one slim book changed the way we thought – in Janine’s case about design – and stunned us by uncovering what had been in plain sight all along – standards for manufacturing that made even our most refined efforts amateurish in comparison; elegant, beautiful, effective, and restorative.

We are creatures of making and acquiring; most of the lessons that have stuck from Biomimicry pertain to the manufacture of physical things. We remember the conch shell, made as strong as ceramic without heating the ocean. Spider silk tougher than nylon filament made without waste or petrochemicals. Or my favorite, the prairie, an emergent, diverse mix of plant species that are vulnerable alone but impervious to drought or disease when together. These examples and others have inspired designers and manufacturers to think differently.

As some of us cogitate about the challenge of creating more equitable life on earth, our focus is shifting; from artifacts to systems, from transactions to relationships, from design as craft to design as thinking, from habits of destruction to an awareness of the need for resilience.

As individuals, we devote abundant resources to changing ourselves, but are lost when faced with the challenge of instigating a shift in our collective behavior. Most of us can’t even move our own families to change their entrenched opinions let alone our cities, countries or the population at large. But here too, biomimicry has important wisdom to impart. Just like the conch shell and spider web, the social lessons of biomimicry have been hiding in plain sight all along.

Another Look at “Carbon for Water” in Western Kenya

By Kevin Starr (PopTech 2010)

Vestergaard-Frandsen (VF), a manufacturer based in Switzerland, recently distributed about 900,000 of its LifeStraw Family water filters gratis to households in Kenya’s Western Province. Since I’d been a vocal critic of the project in concept, I thought I ought to have a look at how it’s working out on the ground.

And so a couple weeks ago, I flew from Nairobi to Kisumu with Ned Breslin of Water for People. We hired a car and traveled to the epicenter of the filter distribution, splitting up to visit as many households as we possibly could. Driving down forking dirt roads, we got out of the car periodically and walked to random houses. What with explaining what we were up to and the inevitable tea and biscuits, we got to only 20 houses, but every single one had gotten a LifeStraw filter. This was a remarkably effective distribution effort. 

What happened to the filters after distribution was less impressive: 10 months after distribution, only three of the 20 were currently in use. One guy showed me his still in the bag—he said he couldn’t figure out how to use it. Another said his kids had burned it up. Yet another told us rats had eaten part of it, and he couldn’t get a replacement. One woman said she only used the filter when her husband made her do so.

Now an informal series of conversations hardly qualifies as science, and some of the houses we visited were in an area where VF rolled out their program on top of another organization’s existing work, and that may have affected use patterns. Still, it was pretty obvious why filters went unused: The LifeStraw is poorly designed. A universal complaint—mostly from women—was that it is too slow and too much work. It takes about half an hour to filter the two liters in the reservoir at the top and it requires continual refilling to satisfy a family’s daily needs. The women in the houses we met simply decided it was too much hassle.

And this is the biggest problem of giveaways: You can give people whatever you want, as long as you can get someone to pay for it. The LifeStraw filter costs $30 at the factory; given what’s been learned from other water efforts in Western Kenya, I’d be surprised if you could get local people to pay $3 for it. If it had to pass muster with real customers—i.e., its intended users—it would be in real trouble. My hunch is that it would simply die a quiet death in a corporate conference room somewhere.

But it stays alive because the real customers are not poor people, but in this case, the buyers of carbon credits. With the approval of the Gold Standard Foundation (one of the two major accrediting bodies), VF concocted a deal—“Carbon for Water”—to finance this giveaway with carbon credits. The crux of the deal, worth about $30 million, is that the filters will replace the wood-fired boiling of water, hence preventing carbon emissions. 

Read more…