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November 5, 2009

The fever for social innovation is sweeping the nation faster than the spread of swine flu. It seems that just about every company has an innovation lab, and the nonprofit sector is not far behind. Even the White House has established an Office of Social Innovation, which hopes to identify the most promising nonprofits to support.
The search for the fountain of youth in social innovation circles is a system that will identify the most promising innovators at a relatively early stage of their development, in an attempt to accelerate their progress to help them achieve their potential as quickly and as fully as possible. Among incubators of social innovation, Ashoka and Echoing Green stand out as the long-standing leaders. But a new rising star in the field is PopTech, known best for its annual conference bringing together leading artists, scientists, authors, and others for a lively festival of ideas.
In recent years, PopTech has decided to harness the naturally occurring creative energy generated by assembling hundreds of brilliant and passionate people. In addition to the serendipitous connections taking place among PopTech speakers and participants, festival organizers decided a few years back to establish a Fellows program that would identify a dozen or more PopTech Fellows and invite them “to help accelerate the positive impact of world-changing people, projects and ideas.”
Each year, the Fellows arrive a week before the conference, to participate in an intensive training program where they learn about branding, marketing, design, organizational development, funding and finance, presentation skills, and media training. Then, each of them is invited to present his or her project on the same stage as the world-class authors, artists, and inventors who present at the Camden Opera House during the PopTech conference.
This year, PopTech recruited an inspiring class of Fellows, representing talent from the United States, England, Africa, and Saudi Arabia, who individually and collectively presented an impressive array of audacious projects that truly have the potential of changing the world. The projects offered solutions to problems as diverse as the rapid spread of sexually transmitted disease among American teens to the extinction of the mighty lions of Kenya; from the possibility of harvesting electrical energy from soil in the developing world to grassroots efforts to organize this nation’s first Green Enterprise Zone, in rural southwest Ohio.
Several of the projects are focused on using new technology to provide medical treatment and other critical services to the world’s poorest populations. FrontlineSMS:Medic uses mobile phones to quickly deliver healthcare information to healthcare workers in remote villages, first in Africa and ultimately around the world. Movirtu is a UK-based telecommunications enterprise that has the humble goal of delivering “mobile for the next billion.” Movirtu is a software innovation that will enable the world’s poorest populations to participate in basic communications at an affordable rate, allowing them to lead more productive lives and generating economic growth through greater productivity.
One of the most moving presentations was by Hayat Sindi, the Saudi-born, Cambridge-educated cofounder of Diagnostics for All, an innovative nonprofit medical organization that seeks to employ nanotechnology to deliver diagnostic tools into the field in remote and impoverished regions of the developing world. Her remarks from the stage were a clarion call for social change among her peers: “I tell Arab women that they should have confidence in themselves, and that their capability, experience, intelligence, energy, and imagination are not worth less than those of other women in the world. But they need to have faith in themselves, and to give themselves a chance.”

Monday’s post: Get Out and Vote!

Tuesday’s post: No Solicitation, Please.
Wednesday’s post: America Reimagined.

Vince Stehle