Posts by Beth Cohen
This week, we're highlighting a few people within the PopTech network who are working on the forefront of disruptive energy innovations, utilizing new technologies, models and scientific discoveries.
Dr. Arun Majumdar is a busy and important man. Appointed by President Obama, Majumdar is the very first Director of the country's only agency, ARPA-E, devoted to energy research and development that focuses on high risk, high reward technologies promising genuine transformation in the ways we generate, store and utilize energy.
While he got into the energy field because he grew up during the energy crisis of the 70s (some of you may remember the long lines, the searching for gas stations that still had gas, the system of buying gas on odd or even days depending on the last number on your license plate), Majumdar remains in the energy field because it provides him with a way to "give back". His most deeply held belief about energy? The world is in transition with phenomenal changes in all fields, and US leaders in science and engineering - "the best in the world" - need to innovate in the energy space to enable the rest of the world to turn toward a future that will sustain the world's population growth and enable economic growth. "That's the biggest business opportunity for the United States of the 21st century."
This week, we'll be highlighting a few people within the PopTech network who are working on the forefront of disruptive energy innovations, utilizing new technologies, models and scientific discoveries.
Jay Keasling (PopTech 2007) introduced himself to me at PopTech's Energy Disruptors Salon as a professor at UC Berkeley. Keasling, who is considered one of the foremost authorities in synthetic biology, could just as easily have introduced himself as any of a host of other titles including Director, CEO, Department Head, and Scientist of the Year. I like him immediately. He is quick to laugh and at the ready with short, cogent, passionate answers to everything I ask him.
As a synthetic biologist, Keasling didn’t start out in the energy field. But his Nebraskan farm roots inspired him to apply the research he'd been conducting for years to search for new, clean-burning fuels using plants.
When I asked him what one message he’d like to deliver to the world, he was a little stumped. “Just one?” But in the end, his most important message was that if we give the industry the time it needs, we can completely replace petroleum with biomass that's been converted into fuel.
A month ago we spoke with Dr. Raj Panjabi, Harvard physician, PopTech Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of Tiyatien Health, an innovative organization founded by survivors of Liberia’s civil war to pioneer community-based health care in eastern Liberia’s rain forests. Panjabi has been traveling back and forth to Zwedru, a Liberian town only ten miles from the border of the Ivory Coast, where he and his colleagues have been caring for refugees of the Ivorian civil war. While the violence has decreased throughout large parts of the country, areas remain unsafe, and consequently hundreds of refugees continue to pour over the border into Liberia. We spoke with Panjabi late last week to learn more about what’s going on on the ground.
PopTech: You’ve just returned from Zwedru, Liberia where the refugee crisis continues. What kinds of problems are you seeing among the patients you’ve been caring for?
Raj Panjabi: We’re still seeing both acute problems brought on by violence, and chronic problems that are brought on by poverty. The violence continues to be evidenced in gunshot wounds. It is also causing new cases of malnutrition because as the villages’ populations increase – in some cases five-fold – there’s simply not enough food to go around. There are also mental health needs that are arising as a result of the violence.
This is on top of chronic food shortages, malaria, HIV, TB and the risk of maternal mortality in what has been called by the UN one of the poorest places on the planet. The health care system, which was already weak due to years of conflict in Liberia, is quite strained with an influx of people.
“There’s Don Quixote, there’s Fissure, there’s Spoon, Equis and Abraxis,” Gale McCullough ticks off, turning her head towards the ocean as though she might catch a glimpse of one of the whales she’s been tracking pass by. It’s a brisk day and we’re interviewing her on the deck of the Waterfront Restaurant in Camden, Maine.
“My mind is out there just about half the time and it’s following these individuals, sometimes with great sadness and worry. So my involvement with the ocean is very personal, because it’s with them.” McCullough’s concerns about their welfare range from oil spills to noise to pollution and plastic. “I mean what’s not to worry about. And knowing individual animals makes this all mean a whole lot more.”
McCullough, a former nursery school teacher and old-fashioned naturalist, recently discovered a whale that had journeyed an unprecedented 6,000 miles from Brazil to Madagascar. The technology she used? Flickr. Through the photo sharing website where people post their “I-went-on-a-whale-watch-trip” photos, she found matching photos of the whales.
“I think scientists are going to have to make room for devoted people,” she said regarding the increasingly important role of citizen scientists. “If we can do that, ordinary people will know more about the scientific process and how carefully you have to look, but also there are so many eyes that will be out there that aren’t there now.”
Last week, PopTech convened a PopTech Lab at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center in the New Research Building of Harvard Medical School in Boston. The three day PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab kicked off our long-term commitment to fostering breakthroughs in next-generation, ‘ultra-green’ ecological materials and industrial processes, and discerning new pathways to accelerating their widespread adoption.
PopTech Concierge Keryn Gottshalk greets Lab participant Anil Netravali, Professor of Fiber Science, Cornell College of Human Ecology. Photography by John Santerre.
PopTech Labs are a yearlong, open, collaborative investigation of a critical area of disruptive innovation in a domain of vital importance to business, society and the planet, such as water, energy, materials and health. Each PopTech Lab harnesses our ability to bring together a network of innovators and decision-makers, brilliant and unconventional, to explore new ideas and identify areas for collaboration in a crucial field and to find new ways to accelerate change. We rigorously map the issues, challenges and opportunities around a specific area of future change, and identify new incentives to unlock further innovation. The resulting recommendations are used to guide further development and are shared with the larger PopTech community and the world at the following year’s conference.
Lab participants going through an introductory exercise led by creative guru Peter Durand. Photography by John Santerre.
The Ecomaterials Innovation Lab brought together a network of eminent and emerging leaders in material science, sustainability, corporate leadership, design, academia, and policy circles. We began the program focused on getting to know one another and exploring the current landscape, system conditions and impediments surrounding the adoption of ecological materials.
Editor’s note: Today we are releasing Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman’s 2009 PopTech talk. Braddock has lost ninety percent of its buildings, yet John is fighting for the town’s future. His ambitious plans include repurposing abandoned lots and fostering numerous arts and community initiatives.
Image courtesy of shooting brooklyn
Just days before speaking at PopTech, John was shocked to learn that he was on the cover of The Atlantic; that same week he learned that the hospital, Braddock’s biggest employer, was shutting down, which was devastating news to both him and the community.
Yesterday, we caught up with John and asked him about the latest news from Braddock. Here’s an edited version of what he told us:
When we were at PopTech last fall, we were staring down the barrel of a gun. But over the last year, two great things have happened.
First, while we’re about to lose our hospital, in its place we’ll be getting a brand new mixed use facility. It’s a 29 million dollar development that will include a new health clinic and a county-wide culinary training program where the Community College of Allegheny County will house its training program for all of Allegheny county. The facility will provide housing for the college, and the culinary program will support a new restaurant. The culinary arts training program will have a profound impact on the community on a cultural and an economic level. Now when a 19-year old comes to me looking for a job, I have a place to send him.
Additionally, we’ve received a grant from Department of Labor for a jobs training program where locals can learn the trade of deep salvage. (This includes weatherization, environmentally sound land reuse and storm water management and demolishing buildings so that the materials can be reused.) When we lost the hospital, I’d say it was like we went minus 100; this new facility is like adding back 85. Given where we were, this is a home run. Clearly there are still huge challenges, but things are definitely heading in the right direction.
The second important thing that has happened is our partnership with Levis. This two-year partnership will help us fix up the Braddock Community Center. The recent Levis ad campaign features all local people as models with 100% of the benefit coming back to the community. How many other communities have their residents featured by an iconic brand like Levis?
Oh, and there’s a third big thing that happened since PopTech. My son’s walking around like a champion.
Watch John speak at PopTech 2009 on reviving Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Today PopTech is releasing talks from our Living Systems Salon held in Washington, DC last week. Speakers include geneticist Beth Shapiro, biochemist Justin Gallivan, neuroscientist H. Sebastian Seung and citizen scientist evangelist Yasser Ansari, and violist Christen Lien, our special musical performer, delighted the audience.
Sit back, relax, and immerse yourself in science, living systems and the edge of change. And don’t forget to take Christen Lien’s music with you today.
To read more about the Salon, please visit Eco IQ’s, Violas, Mammoths, and Genes that “Seek and Destroy”: A PopTech Salon .
Last night at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, PopTech brought together four speakers, a performer, and a lively and engaged audience for a PopTech Salon on Science, Living Systems, and the Edge of Change.
Right now our nation and our planet face unprecedented challenges, and the sciences have a more important role to play in society than ever before. As a result PopTech has made a commitment to the sciences through a variety of new programs, including last night’s science salon.
Each of the speakers in attendance is involved in work that has profound implications for positive social change in areas ranging from conservation to medicine; social networking to environmental cleanup, and each had big, actionable ideas to present.
Beth Shapiro is a geneticist who is shedding new light on how species respond to environmental change. She suggested that climate change is key to understanding species extinction, but also concluded that humans themselves share responsibility for much of the most recent extinctions. Beth gathers DNA from mammoth bones to do her research
Justin Gallivan is a biochemist who “reprograms” genes to “seek and destroy” toxic herbicides. Justin’s work has huge implications for controlling gene expression.
H. Sebastian Seung is a neuroscientist who is helping computers see the connections between the brain’s neurons. Sebastian introduced the concept of connectomes— the mapping of all neurons in the human brain— as the core to understanding what it means to be human. As he put it, there are millions of miles of wires inside your brain— “plenty of opportunity for mistakes.”
Yasser Ansari uses mobile technology for wildlife exploration, and is bringing citizen science to the masses through Project Noah. Project Noah is designed to “boost our ecoIQs” and our knowledge of the wildlife that surrounds us.
Christen Lien, is a “viola artist” whose music has been described as "ethereal and otherworldly; a bridge to the divine. “It’s not a violin; it’s a viola!” Christen opened and closed the PopTech Salon with two beautiful dreamlike pieces. Sublime.
Both audience and speakers alike enjoyed conversing and relaxing together.
During the day, PopTech videotaped several speakers and participants. (Huge thanks for NSF for providing us with our amazing crew, Cliff Braverman and Steve McNally)
Look for more about last night’s salon over the upcoming days. Thanks to to the speakers and participants who participated in this extraordinary night! Special thanks to Intel and the NSF for their sponsorship of this event.
I heard an episode of The Writers Almanac a few months ago that got me thinking about serendipity. I learned that lots of wonderful things have come about when researchers were looking for something else, including Silly Putty, penicillin, the principles of X-rays and chocolate chip cookies. Viagra was developed to treat hypertension and certain kinds of chest pain; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, but researchers found during the phase of clinical trials that it was good for something else.
“Accidental sagacity” was how serendipity was first described, when Horace Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford, in case you didn’t know) coined the term after reading a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Persian for Sri Lanka) about three royal boys who were always making accidental discoveries of things they weren’t looking for.
Between now and PopTech 2010 we’ll be exploring the theme of Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs and we want your help. Have you come across any great quotes or examples of the role accidents, failures and serendipity play in success?
Send us what you find (firstname.lastname@example.org), and we’ll post some of them!
Several weeks ago, PopTech held a brainstorming session in Chicago to investigate how social mapping tools can be used to create positive social change. As a test case, we talked with CeaseFire Chicago.
To learn more about CeaseFire’s work to prevent gun violence, PopTech caught up with several members of their team who attended the brainstorming session. What follows comes from several conversations that I’ve had with Dr. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of CeaseFire, and CeaseFire Interrupters Timothy White and Eddie Bocanegra.
Gun violence in Chicago. It happens over money or a girlfriend or a neighborhood block. It happens over the smallest and most common of things. Someone steps on someone else’s shoes. Someone looks at someone the wrong way. And once it happens, retaliation is likely.
“They’re angry. And they have a reason to be angry,” Eddie Bocanegra, told me recently. “You know, maybe their closest friend just got shot. Or maybe the individual himself just got shot and he’s sitting in the hospital with a gunshot in his leg, and the only thing in his head is I’m going to go back as soon as I’m able to walk.
“Think about it. For the past two or three years, who knows, probably even longer than that, he’s seen his friends getting shot, and it becomes normal… In his mind it’s like Ok, this is how we live."
And that was exactly what went through Eddie’s mind when his close friend got shot and wound up paralyzed from the waist down. He was angry and ready to act on what he’d learned from the streets. “My intention was to go back and shoot somebody and inflict the same kind of pain that my friend was going through,” he told me.
Eddie Bocanegra describes the past that inspired him to support young men who turn to violence as a coping mechanism for anger. Video shot by our friend, Daniel Stephens.
Like Eddie, Dr. Gary Slutkin grew up in Chicago. But while Eddie spent fourteen years and three months in prison, Gary spent a large part of his career in Africa, working on some of the developing world’s biggest health issues – AIDS, TB, and cholera. When he returned home to Chicago in 1995 Gary focused his attention on an epidemic much closer to home.
“People told me about children shooting other children with guns, and I saw the magnitude of the problem,” he told me last year. “I asked people what they were doing to try to address it, and the things that were being expressed to me didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what we would do, but I knew that what was out there had no chance.”
Gary established a violence prevention approach called CeaseFire. Over time, he says the violence plaguing his hometown began exhibiting to him all the signs of an infectious disease. His work evolved in recognition of this, and today, based on behavior change and health/epidemic control methods, CeaseFire is reducing shootings and violent crime in the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods where it is employed, by an average of 45%.
Part of what makes CeaseFire unique and successful is its use of Violence Interrupters, men and women who have or build a rapport with gang leaders and other at-risk youth, and who intervene in potentially violent situations before anyone pulls a trigger. The Interrupters typically have a background on the streets and have spent time in prison. Ex-offenders usually have an extremely challenging time getting a job after they’re released from prison, yet when Eddie applied to work as Interrupter his background was an asset. Like the other Interrupters, Eddie can read the streets fast, and knows what will or will not work in any given situation.
“Most of the time it’s that anger and the ego…and the friends on the sideline cheering them on telling them ‘go do this, go do that’," he told me. “I might get another Interrupter to calm the cheerleaders down… Then I’m able to pull him aside and have that personal communication with him, and I can feel my way around him. It’s like doing a psychological analysis to decide what approach I’m going to take with him. Every situation is different.”
“A lot of times I’ll share my experience… ‘Hey, everything you’re going through, I’ve been through before. But the difference is that just like you, I didn’t know how to control this anger. I didn’t know how to vent. I didn’t know exactly what avenues I actually had. So I’m here to help you with that. Vent. Talk to me. How can I help you?’”
He talks more quietly, trying to control his emotions, “I didn’t have anybody back then to kind of process this stuff”, he told me, “With CeaseFire, I’m given that opportunity to actually make a difference, to maybe reach out to individuals such as myself… well, just to reach out to individuals…who are living the way I was living at one time.”
I am reminded of talking to another Interrupter, James Highsmith last year. He said, “I helped create this beast, so I feel like I have no other choice but to do something… This is what you’re supposed to do. I be thinking What can I do, what can I do more, what magic thing can I do to make this stop….? This is what I think about every day. What the hell can I do to make everybody stop killing each other?”
Driving his beat in West Chicago, Minister Timothy White waves to people who frequently call out to him. His charisma is palpable. “This is the area I grew up in,” he tells me. “This is also the area that I ran the streets in, so I’m familiar with this area, and a lot of people are familiar with me.” This is the hallmark of the CeaseFire Interrupter. He tells me that fathers, unwilling to call the police on their own sons, and equally unwilling to have their sons kill someone, have called him in desperation. “My son’s in the basement loading up. Can you talk to him?” And later, both father and son have thanked him.
He tells me that if he himself can’t stop a potential act of retribution, he’ll know someone who can. “I’ll threaten to call his uncle…And he’ll be like, ‘WHAT?! You’re going to call my uncle?’ ‘He the only one you listen to. So I’m going to see what he says about you going out and killing everyone today.’"
Tim has a social fluidity that’s quite unusual. He understands how to do the violence mediation in an effective way because he has real social credibility with people active in the streets. At the same time, he walks into the PopTech brainstorming session with complete ease.
He explains to the group that currently the Interrupters’ use of technology is fairly basic, simple text messages back and forth between Interrupter and the streets that deliver information about the location of a situation that’s unfolding. Most of the real communication happens in person. Like Eddie, he points out that each situation is different, and his work depends heavily on human experience. “It’s almost as if it’s intuition. When you’re out there, there’s no one particular method. You just have to read the situation.“
Driving around, one of the few places at which we slowed down is Tim’s father’s church: “My father is the pastor… My father was a real busy man ministering to other people. Sometimes he didn’t even see what I was doing… until it was too late.” Tim puts his own kids in basketball and football, and tells them who he was and the mistakes he made. And his children have kept out of trouble. He tells me, “God covered them… I slipped through the cracks …Sometimes one or two will slide through the cracks; here and there you get a bad apple. But that wasn’t bad because what the devil meant for evil, God has turned around and worked it for good, so my background became my resume."
With his troubled background as his resume, Minister Tim White now works with Ceasefire to intervene in troubled situations before conflict turns to violence.
Dr. Slutkin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he feels about saving lives, he told me last year. “I keep my mind on the idea of the program. I am interacting with these Interrupters and the outreach workers, and I think I spend more time thinking about them and who they are, and in a way, kind of how much I love them really. I’m really inspired by them and what they’re doing and how much they’re putting into it. So my mind is on how exciting and cool and challenging and brilliant and committed they are…And how much we’ve got to get help to get it to another level…My mind is so much more on the unfinished business.”
I asked him why he does this work. At first he reacted as though the question simply didn’t make sense. Why does anyone do what they do? “At one level, I think you don’t even know.” He hesitated and sighed, “I mean I’ve been working on the largest issues I could find time after time because what else should you do with your time?
“I feel that as a result of the interaction of all of the experiences that I’ve had – you know I’ve really trained under some amazing people, you know, people who lead the smallpox campaign, who lead the AIDS campaign for the world… And now I’m learning from all these guys on the street and… we’ve GOT to do it. It’s an absolute obligation to take this as far as we can take it.”