Sadna Samaranayake

PopTech: On Failure, Jedi Knights and the Edge of Social Change

PopTech. The name alone implies cutting edge, and innovation. And its annual conventions, including the one taking place this week, leave participants in a stupor, or as one NextBillion contributor put it, “PopTech Paralysis … the shut down of cognitive thought, typically from an imbalance between new ideas and mental processing power.” Read reflections from last year’s conference here. I recently sat down with Executive Director and Curator Andrew Zolli, and PopTech President Leetha Filderman for a candid conversation on a broad spectrum of topics, from impact investing to the importance of failure, to the pace of social innovation and how PopTech sees its role as an accelerant. While best known for its leave-your-head-spinning conferences, it appears that what’s actually popping at PopTech is a lot quieter, slower and more fundamental than may initially meet the eye.

Curated Collaboration, PopTech Style

“At the center of what we do is curated collaboration, looking into new models, new tools and new contexts,” says Zolli. The curation refers to the careful selection of a community of scientists, technologists, engineers, designers, corporate and social sector leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and adds Zolli, “other uncategorized-able weirdoes” working in fields too early to have recognizable identities. The collaboration, the purview of Filderman, is the vital work of securing resources for joint initiatives, project management, recognizing successes and contributions, and above all, the art of diplomacy. “There are places when egos and interests can threaten to derail a collaboration, and it’s our role to quietly monitor that, and course correct, and those are complex demands,” says Filderman.

While PopTech’s scope often blurs conventional lines – for instance one of its current initiatives attempts to understand the intersection of Climate Adaptation and Gender – Zolli clearly defines what PopTech steers clear of, by way of an anecdote. “In the 1990s’ the waiting list for land-line installation in India was 10 years long. As late as 1997, far into the mobile tech revolution, people were (still) trying to figure out how to solve the land-line problem!” Through two Fellowship programs, and a platform for incubating talent and projects, PopTech attempts to catalyze collaboration at the edge of disciplines, and at the front lines of emergent contexts.

Harnessing the Power of Jedi Knights

PopTech’s Social Innovation Fellows (nominations open in February 2013) consist of a handpicked group of 10-15 high-capacity, high-potential, early-stage leaders each year, who are working with disruptive innovation for the social and ecological good. “We are taking people who are Jedi Knights of innovation, working at the forefront of new tools and new approaches to creating scalable, measureable impact in a wide variety of fields that we collectively refer to as the giant hairball of big complex interconnected issues – energy, health care, poverty alleviation, development,” says Zolli. “Some portion of our work is designed to accelerate their work- to give them private, close, critical contact, support, training and mentoring, a network of contacts and peers who can help them.”

The second, Science Fellows program is for working scientists researching critical questions. “You have look at people who are asking the foundational questions, not just working on the applied solutions… We train these working scientists to be better communicators, collaborators and leaders. This helps them raise more money and advance better, and collaborative science. We’re the only organization that, by design, works both sides of the fence to create greater convergences between these programs.”

Quiet collaboration, please

In a space increasingly crowded with Fellowship programs, what sets PopTech’s 16 year-old approach apart? Zolli explains: “The really important distinction is that we curate a community of innovators, not just because they are high capacity innovators… but because they have a very high collaborative quotient.” He adds, “Most of the talent development in our space – in the area of shared concern between PopTech and NextBillion – is about accelerating the individual hero. What we see is the extraordinary power that comes from getting these people to work together quietly on the innovations that exist at the intersections of their fields.”

Who’s got the right stuff?

According to Zolli and Filderman (pictured left during PopTech 2010), driving structural change at the BoP happens when the right product, the right platform and the right behavioral change model are delivered in the context of collaboration. These principles help them induct Fellows that have much to share and learn from each other, and together. Fellows may be innovating very different services and models, but it’s the overlap that matters. Take Rose Goslinga and her initiative, Kilimo Salama, which delivers agricultural micro-insurance to farmers, with instantaneous payout on their mobile devices in the event of both drought or excess rain, with no claims adjustments or farm visits to slow down the process. She is in the same class of Fellows as Paul Needham who runs a for-profit solar energy company called Simpa Networks, which enables mobile pay-as-you go sharing of the capitalization costs of village electrification over time. Also in the class is Sameer Kalwani, of Sarvajal, a clean-water franchise business in India that equips local entrepreneurs to sell clean water with electronic point-of-sale technology, a smart controller on the filtration system and mobile-enabled data collection.

“The point is that each one of these innovations represents creating a service model through very small transactions, and they all have similar problems,” says Zolli. “Product design, roll out, marketing, trust and reliability, organizational design, brand building, impact, that’s the kind of stuff we are working on… How do you get people to do uptake of a novel service? How do you build trust with customers? …We very carefully choose communities so that when we help one get over a hurdle, others can benefit.”

Filderman cites the example of Project Masiluleke (Project M)a successful and replicated model piloted in South Africa that leverages the ubiquity of mobile devices and SMS messaging to combat misinformation surrounding the HIV/AIDS and TB epidemics. Beyond simply providing information, the premise is that the right collaboration of content, technology, local insight and user interface design could effect behavior change among infected populations. Utilizing technology from the Praekelt Foundation, message content from iTeach, and design insights from frog design, SMS messages connect mobile users to existing HIV and TB call centers. Trained operators provide callers with accurate healthcare information, counseling and referrals to local testing clinics. As a result of Project M initiatives, call volumes at local call centers increased by 300 percent in S. Africa. “Project M represents one of the largest uses of mobile technology for public health mass awareness ever undertaken and has high potential to replicate. It is a sustainable project under the auspices of Prakaelt and iTeach.” Filderman adds: “We usually have something in our incubator for 3-4 years. Ideally, it should then be able to move off, by us enabling our partners to raise money to take it over.”

Cash is not the problem

While program-related funding and capacity building funding is more readily available for social change initiatives, Zolli underscores that risk capital along the lines required to incent real innovation in the social change sector is sorely lacking, despite the buzz around impact investing. “We want to extend financial services to the unbanked? We ARE the unbanked!” Zolli exclaims. To get messy innovation across the valley from its birthplace of chaos and creativity, to a place where initiatives are organized, tested, and fundable, the lack of money isn’t so much the issue, according to Zolli. “The real issue is that to get to a place where funding is possible, you need to be able to collaborate with very different kinds of people. So we are curating these people, facilitating their collaboration with each other and with those across the gap, bringing those models to fruition and then handing them off and saying: ‘Hey, these have been de-risked. We know they work, and here’s the data to support that they work.’”

Collaboration: It’s not a Kumbaya moment

Is it really as simple as getting smart people on the edge of their fields to work well together? Filderman concedes that the term “collaboration” gets thrown around “a little too loosely” and that designing collaborations for intrinsically different motivations among collaborators is not as easy as it sounds. “People seem to think collaboration is a kumbaya moment. It’s not…You have to design collaborations for emergent multiple intentions and acknowledge them as healthy” says Zolli. “Secondly, you need a platform for acknowledging and rewarding collaborators, and perhaps most importantly, collaborations work when there is an independent person at the core of the collaboration who has no reward other than the benefit of the collaboration itself. They are not getting anything out of it… This is one of the most important things that Leetha and PopTech do, is play the role of the independent person, so that you don’t get one person’s needs, or egos taking over the process.”

Necessary failures, and the death of ego

“Some things need to die so the right things can live, and it’s as much ego as the model. We have to let go of what we think we know,” says Zolli, when I asked him to comment on the subject of failures in the social sector. Zolli began to speak of the necessary failure from which Project M emerged. “When we started working on Project M, our first hypothesis was, what if we could replicate the value of a health care worker? So we actually looked at an advanced HIV expert system – a computer kiosk that would replicate the experience you would have with a clinic worker. We went as far as to license an all-Africa open source license to one of the very best platforms developed, and it was not the right solution.” Far into the process of collaboration, PopTech and its collaborators realized that given the limited use of ATMs or kiosk technologies in the areas they wanted to reach, and no systems of maintenance, the solution they had invested in was culturally wrong.

“The point is that we sustained these collaborations through failures and through learnings, and you have to bounce off failure like a trampoline to get to the right place,” says Zolli. “There needs to be a long lead time for projects, usually through a couple of iterations of failure. These initiatives take several years.”

Amidst the razzle dazzle, keep calm, carry on

“There is a world of difference between celebrating ideas and actually implementing ideas,” says Zolli. This week, PopTech is convening a network of researchers, practitioners, and thought leaders for its 2012 Conference in Iceland to explore resilience in its many forms. It promises to be an amazing gathering. Behind the razzle dazzle of celebrating social change through Fellowships and conferences, some comfortingly fundamental principles seem to be at the core of PopTech’s approach to implementing social change: Work hard. Play well with others. Make new friends. Don’t be afraid to fail or fall. This stuff takes time. Carry on.

Education, Impact Assessment
failure, incubators