The Report

Q&A: Andrew Zolli, curator and executive director, PopTech

Q&A: Andrew Zolli, curator and executive director, PopTech

Posting in Design

Andrew Zolli, who leads the innovation network PopTech and the author of a book on resilience, discusses how people can bounce back from large-scale setbacks via the cross-pollination of ideas.

It’s been a busy year for PopTech, the organization headquartered in Brooklyn, NY that is best known for its annual conference in Camden, Maine. The PopTech gathering, which takes place this year from October 17-20, brings together leading minds in a variety of fields from hard science to high art. But PopTech has been evolving far beyond an event and into an extremely ambitious network, one that is actively involved in a variety of international initiatives that marry humanitarian goals with technological and scientific advances.

These projects include sponsoring two sets of fellowships, one for social innovation and one for science, as well as partnerships with companies and other organizations to develop text-messaging services to educate people in resource-constrained areas on how to prevent violence or how to get tested and get treated for HIV-AIDS, among other programs.

PopTech has also been focusing on the theme of resilience this year, as the world figures out how to cope with widespread economic challenges as well as other large-scale problems such as climate change, health crises, and devastating natural disasters. The organization held a conference this summer in Reykjavik, Iceland, as that nation was the site of a recent massive political and economic collapse. The event was meant to draw attention to how Iceland is rebuilding itself—a living example of a nation testing its resilience.

Resilience also happens to be the central focus of a book published this past summer authored by PopTech's curator and executive director, Andrew Zolli, in collaboration with Ann Marie Healy, titled Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. I spoke with Zolli as he was preparing to host the PopTech conference; he shared a preview of the popular event in the context of the resilience theme, as well as an overview of PopTech’s goals, both short term and long term.

Here’s our slightly edited and condensed conversation.

SmartPlanet: What's the philosophy behind PopTech's--and your own--focus on resilience?

Andrew Zolli: A few years ago, in 2005-2006, before the global financial calamity in 2008, I started to see that a widespread, massive shift was starting to take place, away from sustainability as it has been classically understood and toward a focus of risk mitigation, risk adaptation.

For 40 years, one of the central themes of world's toughest problems was sustainability. The premise was always to find a perfect equilibrium. It’s important. Who could argue with it? But real, living systems don’t work that way. Life is a constant cyclical process. It consists of growth, collapse, and decay. About 6-7 years ago, I noticed more people working with a sense of an adaptive cycle, or a sense of resilience. Scientists, foundations, and others were working on processes to learn about new and changing circumstances. They were seeing that if we don't accept occasional failures, we will have nothing to learn from.

SP: Looking at the program for PopTech this year, it seems as if many speakers deal with resilience on both micro and macro levels. What's so powerful about this mix?

AZ: There is a lot of value at the intersection of ideas. We're hosting a spectrum of people. On one end, there are people who are working on systems of resilience. This ranges from ecosystems of all types. Economies, big social systems, too. On the other end, there are speakers who are working on the resilience of people. What makes certain communities or individuals more resilient that others? The social context is always very important, too.

Harvard Business School's Amy Cuddy, for instance, is an expert on body language and how it can be used to gain personal confidence. And then on the macro level, Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, will talk about a positive approach to tackling environmental challenges, in the context of building resiliency. Our goal in Camden this month--and throughout the year--is to bring together people who are thinking about resilience on both scales together, offer a full spectrum look at how resilience works, and most of all, figure out how to engage these people with each other and the bigger ideas.

That said, resilience is a major focal point; it's a profoundly important theme, but not the only theme of this conference and for PopTech.

SP: Looking at the list of PopTech's Social Innovation Fellows, it's clear that many of them have created mobile-phone programs. Was it a deliberate choice to support these types of programs? And what's the connection between mobile platforms and resilience?

AZ: It was halfway between coincidental and intentional. It was, I'll say, co-intentional! Yes, there are a number of Fellows working with mobile platforms. Jamila Abass and her organization, MFarm, give Kenyan farmers real-time market information using mobile phones, and Eric Woods and his company, Switchboard, has created networks of health workers in developing nations, again using mobile phones, for instance. Mobile tech is so powerful for resilience because it enables local self-reliance. If your success is tightly coupled to actions of distant people, it is hard to build resilience on the community level. When you look at tackling problems at a local level, you can empower many people directly and immediately, and in doing so, bolster a whole system by bolstering from "the bottom up." Mobile-phones can be a central tool for reaching and enabling local communities to be resilient.

So I'll add that I'm very excited by the fact that we're running both of our PopTech Fellows programs concurrently for the first time this year. Our Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows will meet each other and we will see an interesting set of deep interactions between them, in the areas of climate resilience, public health, and basic scientific research. How will the Social Innovation Fellows cross-reference ideas with, say, Sriram Kosuri, who's looking at more efficient and affordable ways of synthesizing DNA, or Thaddeus Pace, who has explored how compassion meditation has helped people recover from trauma? Adaptation is really about design for resilience; it is a design agenda. It will be fascinating to see what they--and others in the PopTech network--will create, or design, together.

SP: So is designing, or building, an organization devoted to resilience the goal of all PopTech efforts going forward?

AZ: The beauty of resilience is that it can adjust with each new challenge. We’re doing so ourselves; we're still figuring out how all of our programs and goals fit together. We're a resilient, as well as a resilience, organization.

Image: PopTech

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure