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As hundreds of social innovators from science, business, art and design descended upon the quiet seaside town of Camden, Maine last week, they came together to reach across sectors and disciplines to reimagine the impact of world-changing people, projects and ideas.
This year’s PopTech: America Reimagined seemed to evoke some early curiosity from participants, “why Reimagine America?” when we find ourselves living in such a globally focused world? I have a hunch that’s exactly the response that Conference Curator, Andrew Zolli, had hoped for. While the challenges we face are global in nature there is a cadre of leading social innovators here at home, who are leading the charge to address many of these global issues. Through their presentations, one thing was clear – we’re living in a moment, we just all have our own idea of what exactly that moment means. As Zolli said in his opening remarks:
Is this a moment of new engagement and activism and an era of populist movements … or are we living in a kleptocracy, a moment where our systems are so perverted that they are fundamentally incapable of reform? Is it really possible for us as a country, economically and technologically, politically and culturally, to reinvent ourselves?
For the next three days we would explore just that. As blogger Nathaniel Whittemore put it, “the list [of speakers and performers] reads like a who’s who of people you didn’t know you needed to know about, but you do.” And while I was moved by many of the presentations and will likely blog about some of the people and ideas in the near future – it was the interspersed presentations from the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows that truly inspired and provided participants with action forcing opportunities to get involved.
The PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program is designed to equip the next generation of world-changing innovators with the tools, insights, visibility and social network that can help them scale their impacts to new heights. The ideas are bold, their visions are inspiring. Take for example Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic, who is enabling community health workers to use mobile phones to coordinate patient care from electronic medical records to inexpensive mobile diagnostics and mapping of health services. Or, Eban Bayer of Ecovative Design who is producing packaging that replaces Styrofoam or “toxic white stuff” as he calls it – that is literally grown from cotton seed hulls or buck wheat hulls, instead of manufactured.
Each year, PopTech selects 10-20 high potential change agents like Eban and Josh from around the world who are working on highly disruptive innovations in healthcare, energy, development, climate, education, and civic engagement, to name a few. Fellows work in both the for- and not-for-profit worlds, have a minimum of 3-5 years experience, and are working in organizations that are well positioned for sustainable growth.
You can read all about this year’s fellows and be inspired by their presentations here. What’s more, PopTech unveiled a new Science and Public Leadership program last week. The rationale behind this initiative is to help scientists overcome personal and institutional challenges they face in sharing their breakthroughs with the world. Like the existing Social Innovation Fellows program, the new program will give access to professional training to improve the impact of their work. But, rather than improving the work that scientists do in the lab, this program will help scientists already doing great work learn how to be more effective public communicators and advocates.
At a time when economic, environmental and global health problems seem more trying than perhaps they ever have, the PopTech! community is evolving and growing beyond an annual convening and providing new opportunities for beyond-conference engagement. Through the innovation and big ideas shared last week, perhaps it gives us hope that the world is better positioned to collectively solve some of these challenges now than ever before.