Grant Tudor

The ‘Unconventional Collaborations’ PopTech Approach: How to turn ‘silos of excellence’ into a network

In 2010, at its annual conference in Camden, Maine, PopTech announced a first-of-its kind collaboration called PeaceTXT: an unconventional gathering of minds to explore how mobile technology might foster peace. In 2012, again in Camden, PopTech displayed the initial fruits of the collaboration to the public (watch the video here).

The idea driving PeaceTXT is compelling (see my recent post on the initiative here). But perhaps even more novel is the approach. PeaceTXT is putting on display broader insights into collaborative innovation. Below is an interview with Leetha Filderman, President of PopTech, on PopTech’s unique approach to addressing today’s most urgent and exciting challenges.

Grant Tudor: The PeaceTXT site calls out its ‘unconventional collaborations’ approach. What thinking drove PopTech to bring such varied partners into the same fold?

Leetha Filderman: Most of the work of solving today’s most pressing challenges is carried out by specialists in specific domains, something we refer to as “silos of excellence”. In many cases experts in specific fields talk with their colleagues in the same field, but are infrequently exposed to solution development toward the same challenge in another area of expertise. This approach slows the spread of innovation from field to field, limits our awareness of what tools are even available, and throttles the pace of change.

PopTech takes a different approach. We bring innovators together from many different fields—science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities, among others—in a network that complements the silos.

We convene this community in intimate, peer-level gatherings where participants can share their most provocative questions and their most promising new ideas, and begin to work together on new approaches to some of the world’s toughest challenges. In so doing, we constantly seek out the ‘genius in the white spaces,’—insights that can only be discovered when people from very diverse disciplines come together, and concepts from one field are ‘mashed up’ with those from another. This eclectic approach forms the core of our mission and guides all of our work.

GT: What was the impetus for the initiative? What sparked it?

LF: PeaceTXT begin as an exploration of how mobile technology and mapping tools could be used to help expand the reach and replication potential of CureViolence, formally known as CeaseFire. Like many PopTech projects, the initial impetus came from a 2008 PopTech presentation by Gary Slutkin, founder and executive director of CureViolence. We were intrigued by CureViolence’s success in the precincts where they were working but were fully aware of the challenges the organization faced in scaling and replicating their model. Over the course of the next year PopTech and CureViolence met on a number of occasions to understand the challenges and benefits of expanding the model. A primary question was whether or not technology tools could play a role in expanding the model.

In 2010 we convened a PopTech Lab in Chicago that brought together about 50 individuals from fields as far ranging as crisis mapping, mobile technology, public health, criminal justice, data visualization and community activism and posed that question. Through a mix of presentations, working groups and hallway conversations PeaceTXT was born. With the exception of Sisi ni Amani, the core collaborators that now form the nucleus of the initiative were all identified through the Lab process.

GT: What’s the vision for PeaceTXT? What does the output of this type of collaboration look like?

LF: PeaceTXT has the potential to become a powerful tool for violence prevention and interruption, conflict resolution and peacemaking. Our goal is to create an integrated approach and methodology that combines the well-documented success of CureViolence’s face-to-face analogue approach to violence interruption with the emerging fields of crisis mapping and mobile messaging that are showing tremendous potential around the world.

Our early work is aimed at creating an open-source technology platform that can be deployed anywhere in the world, in a variety of crisis situations, along with a methodology that provides a framework or decision-making matrix that suggests the most impactful approaches to a given situation. Our early pilots are aimed at creating and testing the impact of different types of SMS messaging, developing behavior chains that help field teams anticipate the best response to a potential or actual crisis or violence situation, and most importantly, measuring the impact of these interventions so we know what works and what does not. Our big aspiration – leverage the power of mobile messaging to catalyze behavior change at the community level around peace and conflict issues. We truly believe in this project’s potential to save lives and promote peace.