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PopTech 2010: Seductive Ideas That Work

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By Chet Gulland Strategy Director

A gathering like PopTech is a marathon of seductive ideas. The optimistic nature of the event promotes a spirit that through technology there is no limit to the problems we can solve, and the number of ideas we can collectively put into action -- often experiments. Thanks to the stellar curation of the event, most ideas you come across are truly inspiring.

So that the theme this year centers around "failure" is especially interesting. And the big question that Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation that acts as a venture fund for social initiatives in the Third World, explored early on was a useful thought for the day. He asked very directly, "How do you know if you've had impact?"

To properly answer the question, it's necessary to address a tension that surfaced in many of the presentations today: while technology has allowed us to solve more problems and create new ideas faster and more effectively, it's also added to the complexity of the systems within which we implement the ideas.

We are surrounded by an abundance of seductive ideas that promise to have impact. How do we know the ideas that will work when we see them? And more importantly, given the new landscape and capabilities, how do we best get to ideas that will work in the first place?

As a strategist, in many ways my role is to answer those exact questions for brands. And as an industry, a better job needs to be done in creating ideas that are both seductive, and utterly effective. So while very rarely were brands or marketing touched upon during the day (maybe telling), it was incredibly useful to see how those in other disciples are approaching the same questions. It was particularly interesting to hear from people like Kevin Starr who are evaluating the quality of ideas where the stakes couldn't be higher: around new solutions in health, development and conversation in the Third World. He preached 4 simple questions to ask yourself in evaluating a new idea or product:

1. Is it needed?
2. Does it work?
3. Will it get to those that need it?
4. Will they use it right?

It's simple. Maybe overly so. But in the face of shiny new ideas involving technology that must have a sustainable impact on the problem, it's surprising how many ideas don't pass the test.

His big warning: "Don't pay attention to awards and media hype, they don't correlate to impact."

Getting to the heart of whether an idea will truly work was also echoed by Ned Breslin of Water for People, who encouraged us to look beyond a snappy sounding idea, and simply ask the question about what happens next once it's implemented:

"You don't change the world by falling for that simple story. Ten years later, is water still running? If you don't know that, you're not a serious organization."

In a world where the sexiness of an idea can sometimes overshadow its effectiveness, it's good to see the theme of "ideas that work" so strongly at PopTech 2010.

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