“There are some problems that we can solve. But we have to be pragmatic about it and figure out what is actually working and what is not.”

Dean Karlan is President of Innovations for Poverty Action, a non-profit organization that creates and evaluates solutions to social and development problems, and works to scale-up successful ideas through implementation and dissemination to policymakers, practitioners, investors and donors. He is a Professor of Economics at Yale University. 

I think we are succumbing to the human habit of breathing our own exhaust. I think we believe our own hype. I think we’re not rigorous enough about what’s really needed. I see a lot of the same problems–that we’re trying to undo–being replicated. We want a new model for how to live and how to be in the world, and yet everybody has to have to their own business, everybody has to have their own brand, everybody has to have their own unique technology, everybody has to have their own platform. And it’s not what’s needed. In a world where we’re trying work together in a different way, we don’t hold that same standard for ourselves.


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). 


You probably haven’t heard of D-Rev, but its products—including a revolutionary new prosthetic knee—are making a huge splash in the rest of the world.

How To Create Products For People Living On Less Than $4 Per Day

2011 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Krista Donaldson runs D-Rev: Design Revolution, bringing state-of-the-art, user-centric products to empower the lives of the four billion people living on less than four dollars a day. D-Rev collaborates with local organizations to design and deliver affordable, world-class products, driving the process from need identification to market studies to delivery and measurable impact.

PopTech Board Chair Cheryl Heller on reinventing how we teach young adults to be leaders

Never before has a generation needed or had access to more tools to take on the real work that needs to be done in our societies. New leaders are emerging who are less willing to define themselves with a job title than their ability to create value wherever they are. In response, hundreds of new higher educational programs have emerged that focus on creativity and preparing students to solve the world’s big problems.

This is because education is shifting from a focus on what works for teachers to a focus on what students need to succeed and thrive. Businesses learned this long ago, with the emergence of the “consumer-driven” paradigm—a self-evident revelation that’s easier to agree with than it is to execute. When education serves students, many of the old beliefs become obsolete; schools that considered themselves competitors become partners by sharing content, faculty and facilities, combining strengths, offering more customized learning, and making life more interesting for all involved.

But in order to truly serve the future leaders of our society, we need to look at the existing failures of contemporary higher education, and the innovations taking place to improve them.

Read more…

Reminder! Today is the final day to nominate someone to this year’s PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program.

Above: PopTech Social Innovation Fellows class of 2011

One more week to get your nominations in for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program

The Social Innovation Fellows Program serves visionary change agents who are incubating high-potential new solutions to pressing national, regional and global challenges. Our program is designed to provide a powerful toolkit for creating real and lasting impact. Fellows also gain increased visibility, access to a year-round community of peers in many sectors and a world-class network of experts and supporters.

Image: Peter Durand

Grow More Food & Fight Climate Change: Black Revolution

Black Revolution is a soilless growth media for plants containing biochar, coconut husk and compost. Biochar is a charcoal soil amendment made from waste that improves nutrient retention, offsets CO2 and has the potential to help feed our growing planet. Black Revolution is the world’s first carbon-negative replacement for soil made entirely from waste. It’s lighter than traditional soil, so it works great in rooftop or urban environments. The potting soil and chemical fertilizer industries are traditionally some of the most environmentally destructive in the world. Chemical fertilizers require massive amounts of fossil fuels and pollute our rivers and streams. Potting soils contain peat moss and vermiculite: non-renewable resources mined from endangered areas around the world.

2009 PopTech Fellow Jason Aramburu launched re:char in 2005 to develop low-cost technologies that fight climate change while improving the quality of degraded soils. re:char’s systems convert agricultural waste into renewable fuel and into biochar, sequestering atmospheric carbon and improving soil quality.

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…

What makes the strongest Social Innovation Fellow nominations?

Nominations for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program opened earlier this month. Whether you’re nominating yourself or someone else, how can you best make the case?

Based on past years’ most compelling nominations, here are some helpful tips:

  • Give specific examples of the nominee’s leadership and collaborative success.
  • Describe clearly the central innovation and how it has begun to prove its impact. Why is this a breakthrough idea? What demonstrates that it really works?
  • Indicate the most promising path and potential timeframe for reaching scale and sustainability. How many people could be reached, how, and when?
  • Include a personal highlight or two to help reveal the nominee’s passion, dedication and other key qualities.

We need your help identifying the strongest candidates for this year’s class of Fellows. Please have a look at the call for nominations and submit your nominations any time between now and April 3, 2012.