Ellen Freeman Roth                      

November 12, 2007

Inviting everyone to the party to change the world

He identified himself as "troublemaker" on the list of Pop!Tech 2007 convention participants. In that case, we all should look for trouble. Paul Polak, a psychiatrist and the founder of International Development Enterprises, has helped 17 million people escape poverty over the last quarter century by developing affordable technologies to improve their small farms' productivity.

"Ninety percent of people who design things work on solving problems of the richest 10 percent of the world's customers," said Polak "I want to reverse the ratio."

Polak was one of the presenters at Pop!Tech's annual three-day forum last month to fuel positive social change through innovation and technology. At the heady retreat in Camden, Maine, participants heard perspectives from more than 40 innovators, scientists, artists, technologists and futurists, several of them MacArthur Foundation genius fellows.

Victoria Hale described how she created this country's first not-for-profit pharmaceutical company, OneWorld Health, whose drug to treat the parasitic disease Leishmaniasis could save thousands of lives annually. Marine ecologist Enric Sala discussed the devastating human impact on the oceans and the potential to reverse the damage. (Consumers can start by limiting fish purchases to those certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.)

In this conference about harnessing technology to forge social and environmental improvement, several speakers offered the counterpoint that rather than evolve, we could devolve. Carl Honore, author of "In Praise of Slowness," said we're so connected electronically that we're disconnected emotionally from each other. "We need to create new cultural norms around technology," he said, touting the spiritual and creative benefits of slowing down. "I, for one, have rediscovered my inner tortoise."

Nina Jablonski, evolutionary biologist and head of anthropology at Penn State University, said that U.S. culture is touch-averse, in part because of fears about litigation. Touch, though, is important in human economy. Jablonski pointed out that we even pay for the kind of grooming our primate ancestors did - we just call it a massage or facial. "Don't forfeit primate-ness," Jablonski warned. "Even with the most sophisticated technology, we need to reassure one another. That is truly what it means to be human."

Being human means using the whole brain, noted Daniel Pink, author of "A Whole New Mind." The future belongs not to left-brain users skilled in logic, linear thinking and analysis - increasingly the domain of computers and outsourcing - but to those who can toggle between those skills and the right-brain qualities of inventiveness, empathy and synthesis. Pink says we're moving from the Knowledge Age to the Conceptual Age, where labor markets will especially value design sensibility, the ability to understand the subtleties of human interaction, and the skill of combining seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.

I left Pop!Tech exhilarated but wondering how to integrate what I'd heard into my mid-life. What could I do when several wunderkinds were already moving mountains? Twenty-nine year old R & B artist John Legend, who performed at the forum, has won five Grammy Awards and initiated his "Show Me" campaign to fight poverty in Africa. Jessica Flannery, also 29, co-founded Kiva.org, the world's first peer-to-peer micro-loan Web site, which is enabling people to start businesses and lift themselves from poverty. I'm 49 and still trying to train my teenagers to take shorter showers and switch off lights.

I won the family's consensus about the showers and lights, at least in theory. Then, using a program developed by Pop!Tech and eBay (eBay.com/poptech), we learned that we're producing an alarming 70 tons of carbon emissions, mostly from air travel particular to our circumstances this year. We offset our emissions by investing in environmental projects in Nicaragua, Brazil and South Africa through the Web site. We moved on to Kiva.org in order to make micro-loans. Then we unplugged and enjoyed our breakfast, a nod to the Slow Food Movement.

To accelerate the impact of its ideas, Pop!Tech made free live podcasts of the sessions available online, and the most popular content is being released with subtitles in eight languages (on poptech.org). That means that all of us can learn how to get involved with the work of troublemakers like Polak, with no trouble at all.