Peter Durand

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows: Common Challenges

In Journal, Pop!Tech, Social Innovation Fellows on October 16, 2010 at 9:49 am

Once safely in the Maine woods, I hit my cabin door at 3:30am after navigating the DC and NYC airport lounges and commuter jets, followed by the two hour drive from Portland up to Pointe Lookout, north of Camden.

Shared the last legs of the journey with Samasource founder Leila Janah, both delayed by the massive green monster of a Nor’easter storm slamming into Maine. The beast is still raining down and I can’t imagine living a life at sea in weather like this.

So honored to be back at the SI Fellows program. It is humbling to work with this group of talented engineers, scientists, physicians, designers and community organizers tugging diligently at their corner of social change.

In a octagonal room with windows looking down on the Atlantic, we kicked off the gathering of the 2010 Class, keeping an eye on the whiteout and horizontal rain pelting the glass, overhead lights flickering. 

Senior Fellow and founder of Frontline SMS Ken Banks apologized as I was introducing myself: “The small waterfall down the side of the building is a bit distracting.”

Fortunately, the other members of this little tribe are warm and energetic. We got started after lunch, getting to know each other’s work, what got them into this wacky game of changing the world, and what are the big hairy, scary challenges that keep them up at night.

Big Questions

To a person, the questions are pretty much the same:

How do I keep this thing going? Can I clone myself? Where is the money going to come from? How are we going to grow this thing? While I meet and network and tell my story, what connections are really important? Am I staying true to my original intentions? Are we operating ethically? How do I balance this crazy enterprise with having a life?

Although we tried to make the introductions informal, most of us flip into pitch mode or wonk mode or geek mode or business mode. That or flounder as we try to express all the complexities of the Big Issues that duke it out like over-sized monsters in a Hollywood CGI cityscape: technology, violence, poverty, infrastructure, politics, economics, health, education.

After each Fellow downloads their Who/What/Why/How briefing, they are delivered a single pointed question: “So, what is the main thing you want out of this experience?”

Invariably, this causes each talented SI Fellow to sigh in exasperation: “I have to choose just one?”

Science of the Impossible

To outsiders and conventional thinkers, they are trying the impossible, the business equivalent to lifting the Titanic whole from 20 leagues beneath the sea without breaking any of the barnacled dinner plates. Social Innovators want to stuff all the plagues of life on this planet back into Pandora’s Box. (Or at least put the bugs to work generating energy or sequestering carbon.)

Not to mention that the Fellows are eager to figure out how to do it all, like, yesterday.

Over the next few days, we’ll be examining the various tools to help:  systems thinking, user-centered design, financial structures, business operations, and (perhaps most important) the art and technology of telling stories well.

Tuning Into the Frequency of Change

I am honored to be “on faculty” with familiar friends Kevin Starr, Robert Fabricant, Cheryl Heller, Lisa Witter, Jim Koch and the Duarte Group. Looking forward  to meeting the new crop of talented advisors, Joy Anderson of Criterion Ventures, Milenko Matanovic of the Pomegranate Group.

Probably the most valuable players are the two Senior Fellows, Erik Hersman of Ushahidi and Ken Banks of Frontline SMS. Veterans of the PopTech stage and SI Fellows programs, they are also out in the world building  kick-ass solutions to hardcore issues of health and crisis response enabled by telecom devices, mapping technology, mobile health workers and citizen reporting.

They are living through their “next iteration” of taking a cool idea based on doing good in the world, and pushing through the nettles and barbed wire of making it work in a messy world with upredictable outcomes.

The Big Switch

This event comes after a year of massive technical expansion of digital platforms, namely the PC tablet technology and increased capability of cloud computing with smart, handheld devices.

With refined yet distributed human capabilities to outsource and crowdsource solutions, plus the software capacity to rapidly visualize data and networks, a combined disruptive, broiling sea change of tech trends are collectively removing the need for clunky desktops and keyboard-tethered laptops altogether.

Each SI Fellow, whether working on gay rights, healing community violence or converting poop to plastics, is trying hard to get their heads around how to build critical mass (whether money, members or models of production) and to calculate the mass–energy equivalence potential of their own operation.

Basically, how big do we need to get? How fast can we move to other geographies or applications? How can we get’er done?!

  1. Thanks for such a great peek into the program, Peter. Can’t wait to catch up with you post-Fellows.

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