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November 4, 2009

Every year, the quaint seaside town of Camden, Maine is transformed into a festival of ideas. Just before the local inns and restaurants shutter themselves against the long, cold winter, they host a gathering of leading artists, technologists, musicians, authors, scientists, and social innovators—the hundreds of participants who make up the PopTech community. The centerpiece of PopTech is a three-day symposium conducted in the beautifully restored nineteenth-century Camden Opera House. But conference activities spill out into the streets and neighboring establishments.

This year, the theme of PopTech was America Reimagined, and the imagination ran wild. In one session, John Fetterman offered the fierce tale of urban reinvention that he is leading as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. In the same session, conference participants were transported by the artistry of sculptor Reuben Margolin, whose work attempts to transform properties of the natural world, like waves, into works of art. He unveiled a kinetic sculpture, created especially for PopTech, made up of thousands of gold beads hung from fine wire that was set into motion like a whirling dervish above the crowd. Though these two visions may seem worlds apart—the harsh, mean streets of Braddock and the ethereal waves bathed in warm light—in fact they are related, because Fetterman’s vision for a revitalized Braddock begins with inviting artists and cultural creatives to join him in rebuilding his broken town.
Throughout the conference, there were dozens of similar flashpoints of discovery, where the interdisciplinary connections between art and science, musical improvisation and social innovation, food design and farm production, to name just a few, illuminated a broad canvas of potential for America in the world. Other notable presentations included: Michael Pollan’s powerful indictment of industrial agriculture, as the centerpiece in a system that is unsustainable economically and environmentally; Daniel Goleman’s plea for a more informed and conscientious consumer; and Dean Ornish’s encouraging the audience to lead a more healthy life, not by focusing on what they have to give up but what they had to gain in a better quality of  life. As if to prove his point, Ornish showed a slide of himself and his wife dancing a tango in Buenos Aires.
PopTech is not just a talk-fest, either. In addition to the annual conference, PopTech is an ongoing community in support of social innovation throughout the year. It fosters and nurtures social innovation in a variety of ways. Each year, the organization selects a group of social innovation fellows from around the world. And this year, the group announced the creation of PopTech Labs, a program that will “convene a diverse network of thought leaders to foster open collaboration around specific domains of disruptive change.” The first lab topic: Closing the Material Loop. Convened with support from Nike, the lab will seek breakthroughs in designing a closed loop for the mass production of consumer goods, where used items can be fully recycled and reused in the production of new products.
The critical insight experienced at PopTech is that we can find solutions to our most pressing problems when they are informed by multiple perspectives from several disciplines. And it’s an especially relevant lesson for philanthropy, which is too often focused on work deep within program silos.
Participants at PopTech hailed from around the country and around the world, representing a diverse array of industries, disciplines, and sectors. There were public officials, corporate executives, and media professionals in attendance. But one category that was underrepresented was philanthropy.
It’s a peculiar trait of philanthropy: its practitioners often think of themselves as venture funders for research and development in the social sector. But in reality few in philanthropy venture outside their narrow disciplines to seek innovation as it happens. What we need is more Intrepid Philanthropists, venturing beyond their comfort zones, outside their affinity groups and routine professional conferences. We need more philanthropists at PopTech.
Monday’s post: Get Out and Vote!

Tuesday’s post: No Solicitation, Please.

Vince Stehle