Posts Tagged ‘Poptech’

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.

Peter Durand’s illustration of Anil Dash’s talk.

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…

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The FLAP Bag is a project that was initiated at PopTech, together with Portable Light and Timbuk2 (join the discussion on FLAP bags here)  The FLAP is a messenger bag, designed by Timbuk2, which incorporates a removable flexible solar panel made by Portable Light.  The solar panel can be left on the bag and charged on the go (i.e. while you walk around in the sun) or removed and laid out flat to absorb the sun.  Connected to the solar panel is a battery that feeds into a small light, useful for walking/riding a bike at night, and a mobile phone charger. Photo: FLAP bag.

For use at home when there is no power, the light can be hung up or set up to reflect off the silvery back side of the solar panel for increased reach of its brightness.  A day of charging gives 10 hours of light.  Phones can be plugged into the USB port on the battery.  The phone charger (I learned) is direct charge – i.e., it charges through the battery only while in the sun, not from the battery after sundown. Photo:  FLAP bag with reflective side showing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking the FLAP bag to Mozambique to see what people thought of it.

While there I also got a few reactions on video (3 mins long).

Note:  I didn’t embed the video here because you can’t watch it with subtitles if it’s embedded, so you’ll have to check it out via this link.  To turn on the captions/subtitles, click on the lower right hand triangle of the video player.  That will show you a “cc” box. Click on the “cc” box to turn it red, and that will turn on captions/subtitles.  To the left of the “cc” is another little triangle. Hover over it, and you’ll see the language options.  (And for something really cool – then check out how you can translate the captions! but that’s another topic…)


After my month in Mozambique with the bag, and based on some conversations sparked by my last blog post, my thoughts are:

How the FLAP worked for me

I charged the panels up a few times in Mozambique and at first had trouble getting the light to turn on. I emailed Portable Light and they explained that you need to keep the button pressed down for a bit for the light to come on.  Bingo, it worked fine then.  We had a week of steady rain the 3rd week I was in Mozambique and the power was out in my room at the hotel.  I was able to use the light for 4 consecutive evenings for a couple of hours and the battery held the power even though I wasn’t recharging the panel during the day.  For some reason I wasn’t able to get my i-phone to charge, so need to figure out what’s going on there.  I didn’t realize at first that phone charging has to be done via direct sunlight, not stored power, so maybe that is the problem. Will keep trying.


It’s a great idea and meets real needs:  light and mobile phone charging. People love the idea. It turns heads and the bag is very nice.  Everyone wants one, as you could see from the video. I liked the poetic quote that the FLAP gives you power for the fundamentals: “a telephone to communicate and a lamp to illuminate.”

Openness to testing.

I love that the FLAP folks are open to feedback and adjustments to the idea to develop something that’s localized and works for different populations/situations.

USB port.

Most people in the rural communities where I tend to travel don’t own or have access to computers and their phones come with wall plugs, not USB cables. So I think the USB port needs some kind of adaptor.   I tested the few USB cables I was able to find, and they only transferred data, not electricity (they didn’t charge up while connected to either a computer or the FLAP battery).  This includes the fancy Nokia E63 that I use when I travel.  So either I’m missing something (highly possible!), or the bag needs to come with a cheap universal electricity/USB cable, or if the system is built locally, cables for the most popular phone types could be included or manufactured as an accessory.  There are also different ways that people charge locally that could be looked at (though these are probably imported, worth a look?), for example, the universal charger in the photo above, which I’ve also seen in Senegal. You can connect a camera or phone battery directly.  Perhaps an idea to think about.  Another option might be something like this universal charger that was announced in October 2009, though it may not be compatible with existing phones that people already own.

Cost at ‘BoP’.

The cost is currently too high for people at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP).  It probably needs to come down to $5-$10 for the solar panel/battery/light. Research on income, similar products (if available), current phone charging costs/costs for candles/other light sources, and perceived value would help to find realistic price point.  People don’t normally carry bags where I was, except for backpacks for school, made out of very inexpensive plastic/vinyl. Some ideas that people had on where to put a solar panel included: on school backpacks, curtains, cloths, parasols, clothing, foldable panels that can be taken out and set up at the market or while doing outside work during the day, or something to set in a back window or on top of a car. Photo: Common style of school backpacks in Mozambique.

‘Cost per beneficiary’/ROI at NGOs.

One person at a large global NGO read my recent blog post and got very excited about the possibility of children having light to study by at night.  When I revealed the cost, however, even at $50, the ‘cost per beneficiary’ that many NGOs adhere to due to internal rules or donor expectations was too high.  It would be interesting for FLAP to find/do/publish some research on the benefits of light in education, learning, future income, etc., or cost saving in other areas by having solar light. This could be combined with research on economic benefits of mobile phones and the costs for charging locally (eg., in Mozambique this is about 10 MTs/day or USD $0.40) to make the case for FLAP. (Maybe this is already being done).   I’m not sure if most NGOs currently include environmental benefits as a main factor when measuring ROI, but these kinds of numbers would be helpful to inform decisions.

‘MoP’ Uses.

The bag in its current form at a mid-range price (e.g. $30-45?) could be widely used at the “Middle of the Pyramid.”  NGOs already spend on camera batteries, bags, etc. for staff as part of normal operations, and if they were manufactured locally they could generate local business.  In the case of Plan (where I work), for example, staff take lots of photos for sponsorship and program operations.  Using rechargeable digital camera batteries and FLAP, savings over time could potentially offset the costs, and could be one concrete way to start reducing negative environmental impact.  So a good entry point for FLAP could be NGO workers, university students, government workers who spend time in communities and need to keep their phones or digital cameras charged up for mobile data gathering or collecting data, surveys, etc. in ‘the field.’  Another possible link would be with the Peace Corps or other large organizations that equip their volunteers or staff with essential gear before sending them to live/work in rural communities.

Note on who I was talking with:

In order to qualify things, I did a little unscientific research.  While everyone at our workshop was together in the same room, I read 6 statements, and asked them to raise their hands if the statement was true.  We had around 45 kids in the room, roughly 75% male/25% female, between the ages of 12 and 20, attending secondary school and living in communities within a 1 hour radius (by public transportation) from the school.  The school is located along a main road, put in 3 years ago, and the communities/commerce along the road are growing.  Also in the room were 10 adult teachers/local NGO partners/folks from national radio stations living in the district.  I suppose you would consider the students “poor” by typical global standards, however the fact that they are attending secondary school means that they are not the poorest of the poor. Teacher salaries are around 3,000 MTs/month or about $100.  Photo:  The phones that were at the workshop.

The results:

· 34% had their own mobile phones (more than half of this % were adults)

· 100% of their families had mobile phones

· 25% of personal or family’s phones had a USB cable

· 25% of the phones can connect to internet

· 24% had used the internet at least once before the workshop

· 43% have electricity at home

I asked everyone in the room to put their phones on the table (photo above).  You can see that the most popular types of phones are the Nokia 1100 or 1200 (which do not come with a USB cable, though I believe they do have a 5-prong USB jack).


Related Posts on Wait… What?

Pop!Tech:  Oh!

It’s a Light, It’s a Bag, It’s a Charger…. It’s FLAP!

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When I was at PopTech in October, I saw the solar FLAP (Flexible Light and Power) bag, a joint project of Portable Light, Timbuk2, and PopTech.  It seemed like something that could help make mobiles in program work more feasible for staff, community volunteers, or community health workers. One of the main challenges we find in our work is lack of electricity, to charge phones among other uses. Photo: FLAP bag looks nice next to a pink tablecloth. 🙂

I already had a trip to Mozambique planned in November to facilitate a workshop with teachers, partners and youth as part of our youth empowerment through arts and social media (YETAM) project in Cumbana, a community about 30 minutes outside of Maxixe, and some 450 km north of Maputo, the capital.  So I decided to get a FLAP bag and take it for a spin to see what people thought about it. Electricity to charge phones is of course not only an issue in Mozambique.  Last year some of the kids we worked with in Senegal made a video specifically about the chore of charging their phones.

Trying it Out.

I brought the bag to the YETAM workshop one morning last week, removed the flap with the solar panels and laid it in the sun to charge. Jeremias, one of our project partners from Radio Mozambique in Maxixe, saw me setting it out in the sunniest spot and asked what it was.  I gave the 30 second explanation:  that it was a bag with solar panels, and it charges up a small light to use at night, and has a battery to charge phones. He quickly said – Oh! I can charge with my USB cable here, and showed me his phone. Then I had to rush inside to start the training.

At break time, I discovered a little crowd gathered around the flap.  Jeremias was crouched down, explaining to Badru (a journalist from Radio Progresso) and Joao (a journalist from Maxixe) how it functions.  Photo: Jeremias explaining how the Flap bag works to Badru.

So Jeremias and I did a short video interview of Badru, to see what he thought of the bag, how he would improve it, and if he thought it was something that could be sold locally (and for how much).  “This is really a good idea. It would facilitate the lives of people in the communities.  It has a light and a phone charger, that’s pretty essential,” he said.  I asked what he thought people would be willing to pay for it.  He stalled a bit, because he wanted to know first how much it cost to make and what the value in the US was.  I said I didn’t really remember (true). He finally said for the bag alone, about $5.  For the bag with the solar components, about $15.

Joao stepped in and said that this kind of thing would necessarily be expensive because the technology is not available in Mozambique, where most technology like this is imported.   In any case, I asked, how much would it be worth to someone to be able to have light in the evening and to charge a phone? How much do people spend normally to charge a phone?  “Well,” Badru explained, “you have to send your phone somewhere to get it charged, or you have to go pay 10 metacais a day (around $0.30), and then sit around and wait for it to charge up.”  So you end up spending about 300 metacais a month to keep a phone charged here.

Badru thought the idea of making the bag locally and incorporating imported solar panels would be a possibility, and that a bag like the Flap bag would be helpful for university students, government staff or NGO workers who spend time out in communities and need to charge their phones up.

Today Luisa, from the Casa de Cultura (Cultural Organization), Delcia and Eucidio (teachers at Cumbana school) asked about the bag, so I showed them the light and where the phone plugs in.  I asked them what value a bag like this would have, and what they thought people would pay for it if it was available in the local market.  Their first answer was that it would depend on how good the salesperson was, and that they would need to know what other similar products cost so they could barter.  “This is something we haven’t seen before, so we have no idea what it would cost,” Eucidio explained.  “But,” he encouraged Luisa and Delcia “look, it has light, it charges your phone, it’s a bag….”  “Ooooouu, then it must be really expensive!” they concluded. Photo:  Luisa, Delcia and Eucidio discussing the suggested price for a flexible solar panel.

Delcia doesn’t have electricity at her house and said a bag would be great because she would have everything at the home, and wouldn’t need to spend on candles or charge her phone outside of the house.

I mentioned that I haven’t seen anyone here carrying a bag.  People seem to use flimsy little plastic bags from the market or local store, or burlap sacks to carry vegetables, coconuts, etc., or they carry things on their heads.  So where would it be best to actually put a solar panel? They thought a little, and suggested incorporating solar panels on backpacks for school kids, or on a hat, a shirt, back of a skirt, on a parasol, or as something that could be set on top of or in the back window of a car.  Photo: Luisa showing us where she could carry her solar panels: na bunda!

Now as I’m sitting here in my little hotel room in Maxixe at the end of the day, across from the noisy gas station, slapping mosquitoes as I write this post up, I’m wondering if maybe the FLAP folks could add some kind of solar insect repellent to the bag….  That would be perfect.

Related posts:
FLAP power for the basics: illumination and communication
Pop! Tech:  Oh!

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I’m on the train to NYC on the first leg of my journey to Mozambique, toting my new solar FLAP bag and a suitcase full of gadgets. I seem to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the rain’s pouring down outside and I’m surrounded by red and gold leaves.  The best thing about my insane day so far is that the orange juice I spilled on my keyboard this morning seems not to have done much damage….  But now I have a few hours to stop and reabsorb PopTech.

What an experience, really. You’re in a room of brilliant people in an environment that promotes sharing of ideas across domains.  Not only are the people on stage presenting a cross-section of the most brilliant ideas on the face of the planet, but every person sitting around you is brilliant as well.

Some major “Oh!” moments for me were related to design and innovation (surprise):

Design. I realized I’ve been totally unaware of “Design” (or is it “design” with a small ‘d’?).  I’d understood design to be about fine art or architecture, or coming up with products to sell.  I’d never thought about the relationship between design and the participatory community planning process that we (Plan) support and facilitate in hundreds of communities around the world in which communities design their own programs.  I want to learn more about the intersection here.  What can the non-profit sector learn about participatory design processes that are born in other sectors? We seem to wrestle with some of the same issues:  Do you focus on quality or quantity?  Eg., do you design something humble, elegant, good quality for a niche need, or do you go for broad, widespread, shallow, without so much meaning?  Seems to be the question of scale and how we measure impact.

I’ve been recommended to read Liz Sanders, Participatory Design Methods, check out the Design Research Conference at IIT, and read Interactions magazine for some insight – thx Jon Kolko (@jkolko) from Frog Design.  Also, check out Jon’s book Thoughts on Interaction Design.

Innovation. It’s hard to attend Pop!Tech and not feel humbled by the brilliance around you.  As Erica Williams tweeted while Neri Oxman was presenting “Did you ever think you were kinda smart and then realize that you’re not?”  I’m known for being innovative in my own circles, as someone who’s ahead of the curve.  But that idea gets shaken up when I’m in a roomful of people with the same reputation, who are really hard core innovative, or who are innovating in areas that I know nothing about.  The take-away for me here is the importance of constantly being exposed to new areas and people you wouldn’t normally be around so that you can be stimulated in your own innovation and motivated to keep moving.  In the Pop!Tech environment, it was easy to see how things all fit together, how innovators at different levels can work together, or can work with non-innovators to improve existing things, and the sum is greater than the parts.  This cross-pollination of people, fields, domains, ideas, ages, and sectors is exactly what makes the experience so useful.

Now comes the urge for action and the desire to see the connections we traced out in our minds while listening to someone speak or on paper during dinner become a reality.  For me, that means being a bridge between the different programs that Plan supports on the ground and the people involved in them, and the new ideas I’m carrying with me from Pop!Tech.

A small step will be taking a solar Flap bag to Mozambique next week.  We heard 2 weeks ago from staff in Mozambique that power is one of the main challenges at the community level.  However, who knows if a solar bag is the right solution. (As I heard Emily Pilloton from Project H Design say – “we’re not designing a bridge, we’re designing a way to get across the water”) Will people like it?  Will it fit their needs?  Will it power what they want it to?  What improvements to it would they make?  Are they even interested in it at all? Is it yet another cool thing someone brings from the outside, or would they see it as something they could take, use, and own?  Do they see it as a part of their daily life?  I will ask them.  And while I’m at it, what do they think about paper diagnostics being available to them?  What about using SMS to improve their healthcare?  Or a virtual SIM so that they can have their own identity on a shared mobile phone?  Maybe I can hook them up! 🙂

Related posts:
It’s a light, it’s a bag, it’s a charger…. it’s FLAP!
FLAP power for the basics: illumination and communication

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