I first attended PopTech in 2009, and I had very little idea of what I was getting into. I had never heard of “design thinking” and though I had been working with technology and social change, I was new to the wider field of “innovation.” So PopTech was pretty mind-blowing for me. I remember meeting a couple of guys from Frog Design early on, and I ended up kind of tagging along to what they were doing a lot of the time (they were very cool about it). It now cracks me up that back then I had never heard of Frog.
Though terms like “interaction design” and “user interface” and “human centered design” were brand new to me in 2009, I do remember being surprised that the idea of working to design things together with users was seen as innovative. Design thinking can be magical, but in many ways it looks a lot like participatory development. There were very few international NGOs attending PopTech in 2009, but clearly it was a space where NGOs could learn a LOT and where grassroots and community centered organizations could share their knowledge and experience with community engagement and participation. (I’m glad to see that “hybrid” is the topic for 2015, and I hope that more of that kind of hybridization happens!)
I’m pretty sure I’ve come a long way since 2009. I’m no longer very impressed by product inventions – I’m more excited when someone is able to innovate through a whole cycle, rather than just invent a product. And that process requires a lot of thought to things like logistics and ecosystems.
Wikipedia says it well:
Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.
But that’s another blog post….
So, what did I learn at PopTech 2014*?
I like humility. The stage is a hard thing to manage for some people (including myself). I noticed this time around at PopTech that I didn’t pay as much attention to the super polished speakers and the ones with lots of inspirational quotes. The theme was “rebellion” and I liked the people who didn’t necessarily think of themselves as rebels, but who were just doing their thing. I liked hearing the stories from those who seemed less accustomed to the stage, who didn’t have a Ted-Style hero story, and who seemed a bit uncomfortable in the limelight. When it comes to social change, I believe that humility is a key ingredient. Being true to a mission through and through is critical whether you are working in a non-profit or as a social entrepreneur. It was great to see folks on stage who are living their ethics through their work.
I like ethics. Speaking of ethics, I also liked the talks that emphasized the hard questions around leadership, reflection, agency and privilege. A big shout out to Anil Dash, Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin for that. Their time on stage emphasized the importance of the values behind what we do, the problem with egos (both in Silicon Valley and in social impact work) and the way egos get in the way of social impact and progress. Palmer also talked about contemplation, and that it’s not necessary to do meditation to be contemplative. (This is great news for me as I have a hard time with yoga and sitting still in general, and things like capoeira and running work better for me to clear my mind.)
Good facilitation is like good user interface design. I ran into Matt, one of the ‘design’ folks I met at PopTech 2009. I loved how he explained working on a user interface for Xbox: “You have to anticipate the users’ needs and be there for them when they need help, and then get out of the way as soon as possible.” It sounds a lot like good facilitation – whether of a workshop, a community development process, or learning – and maybe even a little like good parenting of teenagers.
It’s OK to take time out for yourself at a conference. At my first PopTech, since I felt out of my element, I felt awkward when there were times I was standing alone with no one to talk to. Perhaps thanks to all the books and articles on introverts and extroverts over the past few years, this time around I realized it was ok to sit out sometimes (I’m a bit of an introvert). So at this PopTech, I purposely found time to sit by myself for a few minutes to think, or to go for a walk or a hike and to just be on my own or be a bit quiet for a while to regenerate. It made the socializing more enjoyable and helped me to keep my mental and social balance.
It’s OK to not ask people what they do. One of my favorite conversations at PopTech was on the way home from the closing event, on the bus. I was out of energy and tired of hearing my own voice, so I just asked the person next to me to please not ask me what I did or where I was from, and could we just have a normal conversation? Luckily I was sitting next to Peter Durand, (master illustrator) and we had an amazing chat about all sorts of things, including what we both did, but in a much more roundabout way.
It’s OK to chuck the elevator speech. In addition to getting tired of hearing my own voice, one of the reasons I dread the “what do you do” question is that I don’t exactly know how to explain what I do. I tend to change my explanation according to whom I’m talking with. Not to mention, I do a ton of things, and they are hard to explain, so I am always looking for an entry point that might resonate with the person rather than a one liner. It was great to hear Courtney Martin talk about the idea of a “portfolio career” as something her mother had and something that she has as well. A portfolio career is when what you do doesn’t fit on a business card because you do so many different things, or because there is not really one description that fits all the things you work on. I love this – as it felt like permission to never try to come up with an elevator speech again.
It’s OK to have a vocation rather than a job. Another point that resonated with me was the point about having a vocation over having a job. There has been plenty of debate in the development community about this, and I always land on the side of development work and community organizing being a vocation, not just a job. Some say that development work should be seen as a profession, and it doesn’t matter how development workers live outside of the job, but I’ve never been comfortable with that idea. I believe that values, ethics, and ego need to be in check and well-aligned if a person wants to get involved in socially oriented work. Vocation goes further than a job, and it’s a combination of the set of values and beliefs you bring to your life’s work. It’s what you do because you just can’t not do it, as Palmer noted.
It’s OK to go to a conference just to learn and connect (but it has to be the right conference). Attending something like PopTech is luxury – I’m well aware. If you are trying to convince someone to pay for a conference, normally you have to justify it with some goals or “return on investment.” But when I go to conferences with specific goals in mind, or when I’m told to go anywhere with an “ask,” I tend to leave empty handed after some awkward interactions. When every conversation is seen as a way to “get something” I tend to be stressed, and every interaction feels engineered rather than natural. I end up with much better results when I go without an agenda and when new ideas form together with someone else based on an authentic conversation or experience. Because PopTech is the “right” kind of conference for learning, and it’s set up to help people make real and in depth connections, it’s fine to go without any agenda other than learning, sharing ideas, and meeting people.
So once again, tons of learning at PopTech and above all, great people and connections. I hope I can make it back sooner than in another 5 years!
*and this will all probably sound incredibly naive when I read it in 2019…