Pop! Till You Drop

For a decade, Pop!Tech has brought together luminaries, wizards, writers, entrepreneurs, and other brainiacs to try to outhink the world’s problems. This year’s no different.


The village of Ipuli is located on a high plateau in the region of Singida in central Tanzania. It has rich red earth, a scattering of mango trees, an inadequate schoolhouse, and no doctor. Tanzania has only one physician for every 20,511 people, a ratio typical of sub-Saharan Africa. Ipuli’s women in labor have been trundled 37 miles by wheelbarrow to reach the nearest clinic.


But as soon as early next year, Ipuli will have its own clinic. The Mother-Child Medical Center & Ipuli Medical Training Center is an unusual development project, an international collaboration among several small, independent for-profit and nonprofit entities: local artisans and workers, a regional African NGO, an environmental-engineering firm from Boston, a Paris design firm, and a California-based nonprofit. And all these people got together because of an annual conference called Pop!Tech.

As this magazine hits newsstands in October, Pop!Tech will be assembling some 500 CEOs, artists, authors, and activists for the 10th time, in a restored 19th-century opera house in Camden, Maine. With a mission to “encourage people to take action to change the world by fostering visionary conversations about science, technology, and new ideas,” the conference has cemented its reputation as a unique, renewable source of multidisciplinary innovation. From Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink to outer-space robots, India’s Barefoot College to the first bionic man, Pop!Tech attendees heard or saw it first. The list of attending and sponsoring companies is 100% blue chip: eBay, GE, Google, Lexus, PepsiCo, Sun Microsystems, Target, Yahoo. No one gets a speaker’s fee, not even Thomas Friedman.

Pop!Tech’s ringmaster, Andrew Zolli, works pro bono too. A futurist whose clients include several of the companies above, he came to Pop!Tech four years ago as a speaker and never left. “This was so unlike anything I’d been involved with,” he says. “It’s so unlike a conference–it’s an event. You see the list of companies attending, yet there’s no business being discussed. People come together to get inspired, provoked, put in a place where they’re more in touch with their holistic humanity. Increasingly, to find innovation, companies and leaders need to bring their whole persons. Pop!Tech cracks open their heads and hearts and puts them in a different place.” Participants make the weekend sound like a fantasy bull session at the most prestigious college in the world, where everyone in your dorm is an artist/athlete/community-service star–with perfect SAT scores. (Fast Company recently signed on to Pop!Tech as a media sponsor.)

One of Zolli’s big goals is to extend Pop!Tech’s effects around the world and across the calendar. Last year, that meant a one-hour PBS special. This year, it means a live free Webcast of the proceedings and associated free curricula for classrooms. Pop!Tech ’06 will also have a net “carbon positive” footprint: Robert Freling, of the Solar Electric Light Fund, says Pop!Tech will invest enough in SELF’s rural solar-electrification projects to offset twice the roughly 1,000 tons of carbon it will use.

But what really jazzes Zolli is collaboration. He uses it in his own work, when he assembles teams of experts to help companies create 25-year scenarios. Similarly, he wants Pop!Tech to act as a hub for partnerships that further what is narrowly known as “corporate social responsibility” but might simply be called “humanity.” The story of Ipuli is a perfect example, a random confluence of people and organizations from three continents that ends up making the world a little better.

It happened like this: Last year, social entrepreneur Cameron Sinclair spoke at Pop!Tech about Architecture for Humanity, his renowned nonprofit that matches architecture firms with humanitarian projects (over the past year alone, it has designed, implemented, or built 95 buildings in places like the post-Katrina Gulf Coast and South Asia). “It kind of rejiggers your brain,” Sinclair says of the conference. “It’s a really fun and interesting diverse crowd set in a very intimate environment.”


After his presentation, Sinclair met Neema Mgana. Mgana had been one of 10 African social entrepreneurs chosen to attend Pop!Tech as fellows–with the help of Harvard, the UN, and Sun Microsystems. She had founded the African Regional Youth Initiative, a coalition of more than 200 community-based development organizations, and was, at 29, the youngest of 1,000 social entrepreneurial women worldwide nominated collectively for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Mgana was also feeling impressed with Pop!Tech. “Whether it was a project or product used on land, sea, or air (or outer space for that matter, with the X Prize), each represented the ability of one or a collection of brains to develop an idea that perhaps had not been thought about before,” she writes in an email. “There was an open forum for discussion in front of everyone, no matter how controversial that discussion. Those elements of Pop!Tech make it unique to other conferences I have attended in America and Europe.”

Over lunch, Mgana and Sinclair discussed the clinic project in Ipuli, where her parents grew up. Before long, the idea had become a commitment. They enlisted American architect Nicholas Gilliland and French engineer Gaston Tolila, who were finalists in a previous Architecture for Humanity competition and subsequently formed their own atelier. The partners designed an airy group of buildings around a courtyard, to be built with local concrete, local labor, and doors and shutters produced in local government-supported workshops. When Gilliland and Tolila visited Ipuli in May, eager residents had already dug the foundation.

The relatively fast, red-tape-free coalescence of this project, the local participation, and the attention to design are hardly business as usual in the development and relief world. As Sinclair points out, “Usually the building … is the last thing that’s really thought about in a program. You might have a health-care program that costs half a million over five years, but the clinic is only $50,000 of that, and so the attitude becomes, ‘Just build the damn building.'” On the other hand, without the support of large organizations or the government, the question of funding, equipping, and sustaining the damn building becomes pressing.

Enter some unlikely heroes: Zolli met Bruce Beverly and Larry Smith, the CEO and COO, respectively, of Haley & Aldrich, an environmental engineering firm in Boston, just this year. “I immediately saw that they were part of the tribe,” he says. “Here is this privately held $80 million real-estate reclamation and environmental consulting firm that nobody’s ever heard of. They are the most pocket-protector, mid-’60s MIT types you could possibly imagine–like your dad suddenly got completely obsessed with world-changing sustainability and social development. But their unabashed goal is to become the company that the world comes to, to solve all the world’s problems.”

H&A has been in the environmental business for the past 36 years, working to rehabilitate brownfield sites, sequester groundwater contaminants, and occasionally serve as intermediaries between their clients and pissed-off communities. In 2002, however, H&A expanded its vision and set out to help each of its employees align his own work with a passion for improving the world. Since then, H&A has put 52 of its 480 employees through an intensive 18-month leadership-development course. It has become the smallest corporate sponsor of CARE and appointed new board members from disciplines outside engineering–one of whom made the introduction to Zolli. Smith and Beverly promptly came aboard, pledging $10,000 to fund the Ipuli clinic (and signing on as a corporate sponsor of Pop!Tech). Ellen Cutting, an administrative assistant in H&A’s Portland, Maine, office, raised another $17,000 from employees, matched by the company.

If his firm hadn’t been privately held, says Beverly, all of this would have been impossible. Retooling H&A’s mission meant two and a half years of reduced performance, with revenues flat and profits off, he says, by a third to a half. “It hasn’t been easy to be in my shoes. But as CEO, my primary responsibility is stewardship. I’m not here to grow it up to be sold off.” Over the past year, virtue has finally become more than its own reward. Revenue growth hit 16% to 18% this year, comparing favorably with most of the industry. And people are much more eager to work at H&A. “We used to get 25% of the people we made offers to,” says Smith. “Now we get 80%.”


All that big-picture thinking has even taken them into a whole new business. In his leadership-training sessions, Smith saw the larger forces coming into play outside H&A’s narrow focus on pollution cleanup. So a year and a half ago, the company bet a substantial proportion of its equity–by far the biggest capital investment it had ever made–on Tamarack Energy, a renewable-energy firm. Tamarack will be providing the Ipuli clinic with renewable energy for no charge, a considerable boon in a country where the power in the national capital was recently rationed. They are currently doing feasibility studies on whether to use solar panels, wind, or a combination of the two.

This year at Pop!Tech, Mgana will outline the clinic project. She also recently received funding to develop a new foundation, the Africa Community Foundation, to broker projects between poor African communities and donors and developers. “The Ipuli project has shown that the [local] community is an important partner in development,” she writes, “yet they are not fully recognized as such, especially when it comes to who controls the dollar.” In the same spirit of partnership and collaboration, Smith is bringing five H&A colleagues to Pop!Tech as well. “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure how it’s going to work out,” says Beverly. “This is our first time trying this sort of thing.”

Anya Kamenetz is a Fast Company contributing writer and the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006).

About the author

Anya Kamenetz is the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her 2011 ebook The Edupunks’ Guide was funded by the Gates Foundation