News from the Field

We laughed, we cried: Insights from a PopTech first-timer

Have you ever felt both emotionally drained and intellectually invigorated at the same time? That’s the best way I can describe my first experience at last week’s PopTech conference, the annual showcase of visionary people, projects and ideas that convenes every fall in Camden, Maine.

For three days, attendees gather at the Camden Opera House for some of the most imaginative, joyful, heartbreaking and inspiring presentations any of us has ever seen. No doubt, funders of all disciplines would benefit from being in such a space for three days, disconnected from the world (and this year, the election) to focus on what really matters: Positive, meaningful social change.

As we were walking out of the Opera House at the close of the conference, now in its 20th year, I turned to Jessica Clark, our director of strategy and research, and said, “Wow. That was…”

“Incredible?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Yeah, I know.”

At the time, that was all either of us could say about it. But now that we’ve had a few days to reflect on what we saw, heard and felt, I want to share with you some of what we learned:

1. Today’s problems are not easily solved. But we need to approach them with optimism.

If you spend a lot of time on social media for your job (like me), it’s so easy to get sucked into the downward spiral of hate, divisiveness and scary #repealthe19th hashtags. Twitter and Facebook are not positive, forward-thinking platforms. Frankly, neither is a lot of our media coverage. But we are not doomed, and we need to stop talking as though we can’t face these problems head-on.

That was the crux of Robb Capps‘ argument on the morning of the first day. The editorial director of Wired magazine shared his insights on solving today’s problems with optimism and the confidence to embrace new ideas, even if they are at first unpopular. “You can’t predict the future without optimism,” he said. “Nobody builds a future they don’t believe in.”

One of those friends is President Obama, guest editor of the most recent issue of Wired. “We are far better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before,” Obama wrote in the latest issue. We need to take a page from Obama and Wired. Solutions are what matter.

Creative solutions are what drove Emily Pilloton to the poorest county in North Carolina. The design activist wanted to help students bring creative design and new opportunities to their community, so she started a “shop class with purpose.” Pilloton’s work is so dynamic, a couple filmmakers—Christine O’Malley (Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.) and Neal Baer (ER; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)—decided they’d make a documentary about her mission to build better communities. We had the pleasure of screening the film, If You Build It, back in March as part of the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities conference.

Another presenter interested in rising above the cynics and fearmongers is Rachel Brown, whose book Defusing Hate: A Strategic Communication Guide for Counteracting Dangerous Speech serves as a practitioner’s guide for organizations seeking communication-based interventions to prevent group-targeted harm.

Both Pilloton and Brown came up from the PopTech Fellows program, which, since 2008, has trained and mentored 155 innovators, scientists, researchers and more. And the work presented by the fellows this year is a clear indication that this program is an effective tool for making progress on solving the world’s most pressing challenges.

2. We need to embrace science and technology now—because look at how cool they are!

Wonder is sometimes said to be a child’s emotion, one that we grow out of as we become adults. Yeah, tell that to:

Adam Steltznerhe led the team that landed a rover on Mars. Oh, and also discovered that life on Mars may have been a possibility at one time. No biggie.

David FerruciHe built IBM Watson, the AI machine that *almost* beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy! 

Lining Yaowith the help of 3D printing and a lab at MIT, the PhD candidate created a completely new kind of flat-packed pasta that takes up a lot less space when shipping it around the world. Great taste, less filling?

3. Speaking of science: We won’t be able to change hearts and minds if we can’t properly communicate these complex topics to the public, the media, and our politicians.

For whatever reason (our increasingly polluted discourse, the politicization of subjects that should not be politicized, to name a few), people in the U.S. generally don’t like science. Scientist Tim Jorgenson agrees: “There’s a general anti-intellectual climate that’s on the rise in the U.S.” And he puts some of the blame on the scientists themselves:

Science communications is also of particular interest to Lovely Umayam, whose creative work on WMD nonproliferation led her to question why images like the mushroom cloud continue to dominate our view of nuclear disasters.

What does M*A*S*H actor Alan Alda have to do with any of this? Everything! After interviewing hundreds of scientists, the lifelong science lover was convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, and many need help in telling them. Alda went on to help create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, and his PopTech presentation was loved by all.

So what can we do about it? Take an improv class, Alda says.

4. We need to express how we feel and what we mean, openly and honestly.

PopTech is as much about ideas as it is about feelings. And that’s the whole reason you’re reading this first-person account of my experiences. I tapped into mine because Francesca Gino told me to. Well, sort of. The behavioral scientist did tell us that conformity can be costly to ourselves and to our networks. The lesson? We need to be authentic in everything we do, personally and professionally.

When it comes to social change, storytelling is still king (and queen). Here are just a few of the incredible storytellers who took to the PopTech stage.

Rahzel—former Roots member and Grammy-winning beatboxer and rapper:

Antigone in Ferguson—With the goal of bridging the divide between law enforcement and local communities, this project presents dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Antigone—an ancient Greek tragedy about what happens when personal conviction and state law clash, and violence ensues. Its goal was to draw parallels between the Greek tragedy and the death of Michael Brown and the community that mourned him afterward.

PlatonThe British photographer had us in rapt attention as he was describing the circumstances under which he photographed the likes of Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Edward Snowden and others. When photographing Putin (at gunpoint), Platon said, “I’m an Englishman who loves the Beatles, do you?” And Putin replied: “I like the Beatles.” When Platon asked who his favorite Beatle was, Putin said, “Paul.” The exchange created just enough of a connection between Platon and his subject to allow the photographer to take such a revealing photograph. How else would he have been able to get within two inches of the man’s face? Amazing.

So much more was said, but we couldn’t possibly fit it all here. Click here to see the full list of speakers and their bios, and stay tuned for videos of each presentation. They are so worth watching. And if you’ve made it this far into this piece and STILL want to know more, here’s what happened at PopTech in 180 seconds.

For the last three years, Media Impact Funders has been working with PopTech to provide discounted admission for funders. Now through the end of the month, take advantage of the early registration rate of $1,600 for next year’s conference, happening Oct. 19-21. Click here for more details, and let us know if you are interested in participating next year.

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