Innovation & Design

Pop!Tech Launches Digital Hub


The annual media and technology conference in Maine starts an online social network for attendees and others to collaborate year-round

The annual Pop!Tech conference kicked off Oct. 22 in Camden, Me., promising three and a half days of stimulating ideas about this year's theme: Scarcity & Abundance. A few things are the same as always, including the eclectic collection of leading scientists, thinkers, and artists. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell previewed his upcoming book with a talk on human capital; MacArthur "genius grant" winner Saul Griffith unveiled WattzOn—a personal energy consumption measurement tool; and Matt Mason, author of The Pirate's Dilemma, explained what companies can learn from software pirates. As usual, this year's Pop!Tech attendees also experienced the intimate atmosphere of the 19th century Camden Opera House that houses the event, and, of course, the fall foliage.

But 2008 marks a significant evolution for the 12-year-old conference, which on Oct. 24 unveiled the Pop!Tech Digital Hub, a Web-based community where conference attendees and like-minded people around the world can meet and collaborate. The Hub, along with this year's inaugural Social Innovation Fellowship and boot camp—an effort to identify promising social innovators and give them the skills they need to succeed—reflect the latest steps in the organization's transformation from an annual conference to a year-round nonprofit focused on cutting-edge ideas and positive social change.

Collaborative Online Community

It's a shift the organization first discussed publicly last year with the announcement of the Pop!Tech Accelerator (BusinessWeek.com, 10/24/07). Inspired by the collaborative projects that had grown organically out of the connections made in Camden, the Accelerator aimed to identify and nurture potentially world-changing projects in the areas of economic development, health care, education, energy, and technology, offering them the resources of the Pop!Tech network.

When the Pop!Tech team announced the initiative at last year's conference, they also unveiled their first beneficiary: Project Masiluleke, an effort to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in South Africa. That project has made great strides toward its goal, but it also taught Pop!Tech a lesson: If the organization wanted to make a big impact in social innovation, it had to do more than facilitate individual efforts. It had to figure out a way to scale. In the past year, the organization has rethought the Accelerator as an umbrella initiative encompassing three activities: direct involvement in projects like Project M; a Social Innovation Fellowship designed to identify and train promising entrepreneurs; and the Digital Hub—an open community that can support hundreds of collaborative projects and grow organically without the direct involvement of the Pop!Tech organizers.

Developed with funding from the New York-based philanthropic organization Surdna Foundation, and Cognizant (CTSH), the global IT company, the Hub is a hybrid social networking/project management platform without any direct competitors. Currently, sophisticated tools for collaborative technology include Basecamp, which is priced for and tailored to corporate teams, so it's less appropriate for social entrepreneurs on a budget—or for teams of people collaborating across companies. Social networks such as Facebook, where a Pop!Tech group with more than 500 members already exists, are also limited.

Incubator for Social Change

Facebook, for instance, is built to facilitate social interaction, not project management. And, Facebook owns all of the content input by its members—meaning if your conversation turns into a collaboration that leads to a more formal organization that needs its own Web site, you wouldn't be able to export any of the content you'd built up along the way. Which isn't to say that Pop!Tech wants to squash its Facebook group; on the contrary, it sees other social networks as a way to fuel participation and share participants.

For Pop!Tech, the Hub is the place where the next Project M might be incubated. "A group might connect on the Hub, and start working on a project that we ultimately decide we want to get more involved in," says Pop!Tech curator Andrew Zolli. But if the Hub is successful, the greatest beneficiaries of the community will be its members—from regular conference attendees to those who've never made it to Camden. Pop!Tech has always been as much about the audience as it has been about the speakers. Like the TED conference, it is an idea incubator: Bring 600 smart, interesting people to a small Maine town for three days off-season and see what happens. The Hub gives people the tools to stay connected and work together year-round.

"As an organization, our greatest asset is the ability to connect doers and thinkers in the quest to make this a better world," says Leetha Filderman, director of the Pop!Tech Accelerator. The Hub is where and how Pop!Tech hopes that will happen.

Jessie Scanlon is the senior writer for Innovation Design on BusinessWeek.com.

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