PopTech Camden 2012: Toward Resilience

[Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, October 24, 2012]

Talking Pop!Tech
To advance the idea-sourcing efforts of the Pioneer and Vulnerable Populations Portfolios, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported PopTech's 2012 Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows programs. Team members from both the Pioneer and Vulnerable Populations portfolios attended this year's PopTech conference, which focused on innovations and policies that will lead to a more resilient future. A range of dynamic speakers and fellows focused on building resilience at the individual, community, and even the national levels. Read below to share in their experiences from the conference.

Entry 1: Getting Ready for PopTech

From: Susan Promislo

To: Kristin Schubert and Brian Quinn

CC: Beth Toner

Date: October 17th, 2012

I rolled in to Camden late yesterday afternoon, with Maine delivering everything it had promised in terms of eye-candy foliage and breathtaking views.  After a quick change of clothes, Beth Toner and I met up with the PopTech 2012 classes of Social Innovation Fellows and Science Fellows for dinner.  One can never get used to being dropped into a room of people who, across the board, are brilliant and determined to change the world, and have the wherewithal to pull it off.  I wasn’t surprised by what an incredible group it was (I expected as much from PopTech), but was still amazed by their visions for fundamentally improving the lives of people in the U.S. and around the globe -- people who are among the most vulnerable, and who face quite daunting barriers to their health and economic stability.

A few things stood out from the conversations I had. First was the opportunity to connect with the Science Fellows.  I knew the Social Innovation Fellows would have much to offer in terms of how their visions intersect with RWJF’s work, but several of the Science Fellows were equally as intriguing. As a communications staff member, I first give hats off to PopTech for investing in the communications skills of these young scientists and researchers in a way that virtually no one does. Their work is so critical to shaping key policy and public debates today, and their voices need to be as compelling and persuasive as their data in pushing for reasoned policy action and broader public support.

I really enjoyed talking with Casey Dunn, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University. He talked about how PopTech’s investments in his skills continued to pay off both in terms of his ability to convey the power of his work, and in the form of unexpected collaborations that push his work in exciting new directions. As PopTech founder Andrew Zolli said, the essence of PopTech lies in unconventional collaborations that cross boundaries and disciplines.

I was lucky to sit between two Social Innovation Fellows at dinner: Aishwarya Lakshmi Ratan and Daniel Zoughbie. Aishwarya is rigorously evaluating the effectiveness of a variety of financial products and services for very poor populations in Africa and elsewhere; she was interested to hear of the work Vulnerable Populations is exploring with Grameen America that looks at microlending and small enterprise creation. I’m fascinated by how the accountability that these women loan recipients feel to the network that they and Grameen weave together might potentially influence their financial security and health.

Daniel, founder of Microclinic International, also is focused on social network effects, particularly as they affect weight loss and improved outcomes with diabetes and cardiovascular health, in locations as diverse as rural Appalachia, Jordan, and Kenya. Tapping the power of social networks to influence health behaviors has been prominent in Pioneer's work to date particularly through the work of grantees Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler.

Apparently I was so wrapped up in the conversations that I was oblivious to the 4.6 magnitude earthquake that rattled Maine during the reception. Or maybe it was the good wine. In any case, I’m really looking forward to today’s afternoon session with the fellows and the amazing conference presentations to kick off tomorrow.

Entry 2: RE: Getting Ready for POPTECH

From: Brian Quinn

To: Susan Promislo, Kristin Schubert and Beth Toner

Date: October 17th, 2012

Glad to hear that dinner with the fellows went well, Susan. I don’t arrive at PopTech until midday tomorrow. The long trek up to Camden will be made easier by the fact that I’m stopping for an early lunch at an old favorite, Red’s Eats, in Wiscasset. Red’s crams an entire lobster (minus the shell) into a hotdog bun. It’s as good as it sounds and worth checking out on your drive back to Portland.

As you know, I’m arriving at PopTech late because I spent the past couple of days at the WIRED Health Conference in New York. The conference explored how better data can lead us to better health. Thomas Goetz and colleagues assembled a terrific group of speakers and audience members who are developing new ways to collect, share, and analyze data to increase their understanding and decision-making about their health. I left exhausted, but exhilarated about the new connections I made and the ideas that stimulated my thinking. (By the way, video from the conference is online now.)

Anyway, as I’ve told Beth, what intrigues me most about PopTech are not just the great ideas that innovators bring with them to the meeting, but also the new ideas that will result from people coming together in Camden, which I know is a goal of the organizers like Andrew. I’m particularly curious to see whether there are any synergies between the Social Innovation Fellows and the Science Fellows — including new innovations and projects that we might be able to support.    

I look forward to connecting in Camden once I arrive. I’ll be the guy with drawn butter running down his chin.     

Entry 3: RE: Getting Ready for POPTECH

From: Kristin Schubert

To: Brian Quinn, Susan Promislo and Beth Toner

Date: October 17th, 2012

Nice! I arrived in Maine today and all I could think about was pulling over for some fabulous lobster! Now I know where to go on the way back. Thanks for the tip, Brian. It will be a great capstone to what I am sure will be a mind-changing few days.

I was able to join Susan and Beth to meet with the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows at an old inn in town—the perfect beginning to several days of networking with an energized, diverse group of innovators. It’s invigorating to talk with folks who are thinking about health from new angles and from global perspectives. Take Eric Woods, who’s trying to solve the problem of connecting rural health workers in African countries to nurses and doctors in metro centers, using mHealth approaches. His experience and mental map struck lots of chords for me, and I noticed a number of parallels with similar issues we face here, domestically. Or take Brian Doerries, who’s using theater and classic literature to transform the dialogue around war and imprisonment and the associated traumas that result. Brian’s work really reminded me of our thinking on the Vulnerable Populations team about community-based approaches to changing what people experience early in their lives, and how they deal with those issues later on. If these two conversations on my first night in town are any indication, this is going to be a very energizing event!

I left dinner to find my hotel and get settled but couldn’t resist finding the water and taking in the beauty of the surroundings. As one of the Fellows observed to me, our surroundings have so much of an impact on how we experience the world and expand our thinking. Aha, PopTech! Now I understand trekking up to Camden. It’s a perfect location for all of us to suspend our day-to-day routines and open our minds to incredible ideas. Excited for tomorrow!

Entry 4: RE: Getting Ready for PopTech

From: Beth Toner

To: Brian Quinn, Susan Promislo and Kristin Schubert

Date: October 18th, 2012

I feel pressured, now, to comment on the lobster. In between PopTech events Tuesday and today, I dragged Susan along in search of the perfect lobster roll, which, thanks to the wonders of iPhone apps, we found in downtown Camden, at Mariner’s Restaurant. Warm toasty roll, huge chunks of lobster, and just the right amount of mayonnaise—mmm. It capped off our quick hike up Mount Battie—which, the PopTech website told us accurately, offered unparalleled views of this area.

While the exercise and the food fed my body, our interactions with the PopTech fellows fed my brain. I actually had more time to chat with the Science fellows on Tuesday night, and a bit more time to interact with the Social Innovation fellows today. One of my most fascinating conversations was with David Rand, who studies the intersection of psychology, economics and cooperation—in other words, how do we get people to act for the greater good? Imagine the problems we can solve in this world when he finds the answer to this question—and trust me, he will! Cooperation on a macro level could lead to less polarization in the political arena. Dave and I talked about the fact that his work could be applied on a more micro level to the health care delivery system, where the culture, despite having improved over time, still suffers from a surprising lack of coordination, cooperation, and communication.

That’s just one example — but I think it encapsulates what I find so exciting about the Fellows program and PopTech overall: There is just such a sense of the possible here. And, being here represents what I love most about my job: working and interacting with so many people who care very deeply about the issues we’re addressing, and have a “git ‘r’ done” attitude toward it!

Entry 5: At PopTech

From: Brian Quinn

To: Beth Toner, Susan Promislo and Kristin Schubert

Date: October 19th, 2012

Beth, sorry I didn’t get the chance to join you and Susan on that hike yesterday, but I still had a great first day at PopTech. I was en route this morning and missed the early sessions, but I’m sure you’ll agree the sessions this afternoon were filled with great insights about how people and systems can bounce back from disruption.

I was particularly intrigued by Andrew Zolli’s observation that resilience in organizations is often due to strong leadership from the middle of an organization—not the top or the bottom. The video he played that chronicled the story of how middle managers from Hancock Bank helped the bank—and their community—persevere after Hurricane Katrina was amazing. I haven’t been able to find it online, but I would love to be able to share it with colleagues back at the Foundation.

Onstage, Daniel Zoughbie—one of the Social Innovation Fellows—was great. (I think you sat next to him the other night, Susan.) His Microclinic International program is built on the idea that good health behaviors are contagious. They engage community members to work through their social networks to combat diabetes and HIV/AIDS. The program started internationally and has proven successful in the U.S., too. Discovering this sort of innovative thinking is just what I was hoping to get out of PopTech.  

I know you are all heading out early today, but I would be interested to hear what got you thinking before you got on the road to home.

Entry 6: RE: At PopTech

From: Kristin Schubert

To: Susan Promislo, Brian Quinn and Beth Toner

Date: October 19th, 2012

You know what got me? Claressa Shields: 17-years-old and a gold medalist boxer from a tough Flint, Michigan neighborhood: tears and all. Talk about resilience and turning adversity into gold—literally.

I was also really excited to hear Sandro Galeo talking about individual and community resiliency and what we now know about how environmental factors—like stress—can make an imprint on our genes and then be passed from one generation to the next (i.e., epigenetics). As someone who got my start in molecular biology, it was gratifying to hear how far the field has come. Sandro set the tone by sharing data that shows that 90% of people will have at least one traumatic event in their lives and I love his notion of “adhocracy”—the opposite of bureaucracy. Essentially, Galeo thinks we need to foster complex, emergent processes that include all people, which I think we’re trying to do with some of our work on the Vulnerable Populations team.

The presentations by the Fellows were really inspiring to me—not just because of the ideas themselves (which were amazing), but for the way they asked new questions about old problems. If you missed any of them, check out Andreas RatpoulosMatternet, a solution to the problem of transportation in developing countries and the barriers to receiving life-altering (and lifesaving) goods like food and drugs. Or Lukas Biewald’s Crowdflower, which solves the problem of aggregating human resources quickly to work on a job or solve a problem. Or the oceanographer Kelly Benoit-Bird, who is coming to understand that it may not be the number of resources that is critical so much as the aggregation of those resources. Or the climatologist Benjamin Zaitchik, who asserts that water re-distribution in the Nile basin, can lift all boats and lead to peacemaking. (Pun intended.)

And there was no possible better end to the day for me then to be inspired by Asenath Andrews and Margrét Pála talking about their work to turn the education system upside down for vulnerable teen moms (Asenath) and at the other end of the spectrum, young children (Margaret). Both women had an unflappable resolve that all people need to be nurtured, provided with safe and secure environments to explore their world, and given the expectation that they learn how to truly think, ask questions, and take responsibility for their lives.

All in a day.

Entry 6: RE: At PopTech

From: Beth Toner

To: Brian Quinn, Susan Promislo and Kristin Schubert

Date: October 19th, 2012

Well, I’m on the Portland to Philadelphia flight—headed home after four great days at PopTech. I’m bummed to be missing the last day of the festivities, but still feel confident that I packed a lot into my time in Camden.

The many perspectives on “resilience” I heard have me thinking about how we all can apply this to the work we do. Resilience—both on a micro and macro level—clearly plays an integral role in our overall well-being. If we can improve resilience, certainly, we can improve health and quality of life. There’s more to learn, but it struck me—as we’ve learned is this case with most truly innovative ideas—that the solutions might ultimately be rather simple.

I am also thinking about how a number of the speakers we heard talked about the need for compassion at all levels—personal, community, corporate, societal. Brian, the Hancock Bank video you mentioned made me cry. Didn’t those in-the-moments acts of kindness contribute to Gulfport’s resilience? A big question I am left with is, “How do we find and harness the science that helps us figure out how to encourage compassion?” Susan and Kristin, from what I understand, that’s something that the Vulnerable Populations team is thinking about right now.

What struck me, too, is that so often, innovation comes from individuals or small groups of people truly seeing their fellow human beings and their needs—and then finding a way to help them. As Amy Cuddy made so clear when she talked about her “YouTube haters,” we often hide behind the anonymity of electronic media. Yet, we really need to get out on the proverbial front lines and see the need.

My gut is that Asenath Andrews does that every day, providing not just a place for pregnant and parenting teens in Detroit, but motivation to study, go to college, stretch themselves, and find a life for them and their children. I keep thinking about Asenath’s students—wouldn’t they be a great source of innovative ideas? Many of them have surely experienced firsthand the problems with our health care delivery system. Why not ask them what their ideas are?

Well, that’s a lot to think about. I hope that folks who attended PopTech will reach out to us and share their thoughts.

By the way, Brian, thanks for the recommendation on Red’s. Susan and I found it on our way back to Portland, and it delivered all you promised: a perfect end to a perfect week.

Entry 6: RE: At PopTech

From: Susan Promislo

To: Brian Quinn, Kristin Schubert and Beth Toner

Date: October 19th, 2012

Yeah, Brian, good call on Red’s. I’m pretty sure we’re leaving Maine having scored the best lobster roll the state has to offer.

Anyway, with all the anticipation, PopTech wrapped up for me as quickly as it began and I’m left wanting tons more, primarily of the Fellows’ work—more so than the bigger-name speakers who got more stage time. I know we’ve all said it before, but the Fellows are chasing down amazing visions and some of them are discovering things that could have big implications for the work of Vulnerable Populations.

I keep thinking about Tad Pace of Emory University. If you missed his talk, he’s studying the effects of severe stress and adverse experiences early in life on the endocrine and immune systems of people later in life. Basically, stress affects us all negatively but especially stimulates a hyper-inflammatory response in people who already face health challenges, whether it’s depression, diabetes or cardiovascular disease —right up the alley of our work on trauma and ACEs.  And he then touched on how his team at Emory is using cognitively based compassion training in group foster homes to see to what degree the kids improve health and functioning, and whether it makes a difference in group functioning in that setting. And then he thanked the crowd and exited stage left. Arghh. I had so many questions! What does compassion training look like? How do the kids respond? How does it change their behaviors and how they cope with stress? What happens after they leave the group setting?

And then there’s David Rand. (Did you catch his talk?) David is looking at the intersection of psychology and economics and whether we’re predisposed innately to be cooperative or selfish. Basically, if you elicit people’s knee-jerk responses, we’re wired to be cooperative and promote the common good. But if you give us more time to reflect, we’re apt to rationalize more self-serving decisions. So, how might this play in to activating empathy and giving kids the tools to build healthy relationships? Might it help prevent bullying? Does this look any different in communities grappling with extreme poverty or lack of resources?

Fortunately, we’ll get the chance to follow up with the PopTech team and dig deeper around our areas of curiosity after the conference. I’m looking forward to it.

Travel safely, everyone, and I’ll see you back at the Foundation.