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Jeffrey Hollender Headshot

PopTech 2011: Food for the Mind and the Spirit

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PopTech is often called the "other TED."

This is meant as a compliment, but it's actually a disservice to the gathering in Camden, ME, that celebrates social innovation. PopTech is so much more.

A smaller, more intimate gathering, (650 as opposed to more than 1,500 people); a more affordable price ($2,500 vs. $15,000); and a gathering that hosts presenters, who hang out to talk with an audience eager to pursue what doesn't get covered within the short, 20-minute presentations (PopTech calls it "the genius in the whitespaces").

Sitting in the Camden Opera House, one can't help but reflect on how little we know, and how many more problems the world faces beyond those about which we worry.

One also cannot help but be inspired by those seeking to make positive change:

A thirteen-year-old shares his innovation for improving the effectiveness of solar installations by mirroring the placement of leaves on a tree.

A blind man has developed the capacity of his visual cortex by sensitizing it to the sound waves that bounce off objects well enough to ride a dirt bike through the woods.

A French-Tunisian graffiti artist contributes to the Arab Spring with striking visual images without leaving his name behind.

The President of Iceland shares how his country has returned from the brink of total collapse without laying the burden of financial malfeasance on the backs of his citizens.

Two high-ranking military officials describe a new national plan for security and prosperity that mitigates threats through a better-educated citizenry and a public that demands purposeful participation in our democracy.

Though I enjoyed by many of the presenters, I was particularly inspired by the science and social innovation "fellows." Each year, PopTech selects a small number of high-potential, early- and mid-career fellows working in areas of critical importance to the nation and the planet. They are selected from across the globe for their early stage, vitally important, and often cutting edge work. They receive only 5 minutes each, but they were the best 5 minutes of the day.

One of those fellows is Rose Goslinga, who leads the Syngenta Foundation's Kilimo Salama (which means "safe farming" in Kiswahili). It's the first micro-insurance product available to smallholder Kenyan farmers to insure against extreme weather.

Leveraging mobile technology, it cost-effectively and sustainably administers insurance and collects and distributes crop production advice. Currently, more than 21,000 farmers have experienced the benefits that come with insurance, resulting in positive steps toward increased investment, productivity and food security. (More on this innovative tool in this New York Times write-up).

Michael Murphy, another fellow, leverages architectural design for social change. Through MASS Design Group, which he co-founded in 2007, his team provides design services for underserved populations in Rwanda, Liberia, Burundi and Haiti. Combining low-cost, locally-available construction materials with innovative and appropriate design, Murphy's team has reduced the in-hospital transmission of air-borne diseases, and improved learning opportunities for construction trades.

Regardless of background or focus, the connecting thread that ran through each conversation was the need for resilience, to reframe our challenges, rebalance our lives and priorities, to restore our sense of hope, recreate possibility and rethink what really matters.

The strands of the new system that must emerge to ensure the survival of humanity as we know it are present in their wonderful simplicity and complexity. The challenge of weaving together hundreds of new possibilities is addresses by new approaches to food, energy and money that enable abundance in a resource-constrained world.

I was heartened and inspired by the conversations -- and action -- taking place within PopTech's network of change makers.