FEATURE-September 2009
By Daphne Howland
Illustrations by Eric Hou

Maine’s most audacious, incredible, superheroic, global town meeting

Pop!Tech is a conference, a global nonprofit organism, an idea magnet, a hyperkinetic network of Web 2.0 brainstorming. Each October, academics, techies, digerati, and ordinary people who believe that technology-infused interdisciplinary thinking can transform almost anything come to tony Camden for New England’s brainiest, most plugged-in town meeting.


For four days they are tasked with the seemingly impossible—reinventing newspapers, bringing hypoxic dead zones back to life, developing home HIV-testing kits, and growing food in fertile urban skyscrapers. “What we do is bring together a network of leaders in science, technology, media, arts, culture, business, government, and design,” says Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech’s executive director and curator, who works in the organization’s Brooklyn, New York, office. “We bring together people working on the very forefront of those explorations with the people interested in applying them, to solve some of the world’s most difficult challenges.”

When Zolli says “the world’s most difficult challenges,” he leaves nothing out: HIV/AIDS in Africa, water scarcity and quality, healthcare, abject poverty, access to education, global warming, devastation of the rain forest, affordable housing, transportation, the global economic crisis… If there is something that every staff member, fellow, and guest speaker of Pop!Tech has in common, it is a solid, if pragmatic, optimism that technology plus vision—and human effort—can solve any seemingly intractable problem, however widespread. Imagination is key, and “America Reimagined” is the characteristically bold theme for next month’s 13th conference.

Malcolm Gladwell (left)
Pop psychologist, New Yorker contributor, and author of The Outliers, has spoken at Pop!Tech conferences about both the human potential and the taste of Coca-Cola.

The conference was conceived by three part-time residents of Camden and Lincolnville in the early 1990s. Former Apple Computer president John Sculley, IT systems guru Tom DeMarco, and Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalf opened their Rolodexes to create a summit on technology known as the Camden Conference, which later spawned Pop!Tech.
Although the organization is busy year-round, when people think of Pop!Tech they usually think of the events at the Camden Opera House during the peak of foliage season. Here, accomplished visionaries from every walk of life present ideas, network, and debate. Many ideas seem utopian; many inventions are marvels. Like:

How biomimicry can solve human challenges
(Janine Benyus, 2004)

Whether we can believe in the results of soft drink taste tests
(Malcolm Gladwell, 2004)

Making robotic body parts for amputees
(Dr. Kuiken and Jesse Sullivan, 2005)

Creating peer-to-peer lending for developing countries
(Kiva’s Jessica Flannery, 2007)

Where to buy carbon offsets online (2007)

How violence can be documented with cell phones and mapping technology
(Erik Hersman, 2008)

The emotional relationships we have with machines
(MIT’s Kelly Dobson, 2008)

But it’s not all high-tech. In 2007, when Maine lobsterman, researcher, and MacArthur fellow Ted Ames advocated reverting to twentieth-century fishing methods to save ecosystems and restore fishermen’s way of life, the Pop!Tech audience cheered.

In an effort to harness the energy unleashed by the three-day event, Pop!Tech developed two formal ways of supporting projects. The Fellows Program, now in its second year, brings ten to twenty social entrepreneurs with promising startups to a nearby business park in Northport for a pre-conference boot camp in networking, fundraising, branding, media relations, and other practical matters. The other supporting project, the Pop!Tech Accelerator, has basic but ambitious parameters: any undertaking must help at least one million people, be replicable in other areas with similar needs, and eventually become financially self-sustaining. It recently seeded and developed Project Masiluleke, a cell phone service alerting South Africans about HIV/AIDS, which first came to the organizations attention via Zinhle “Zinny” Thabethe, who came to the 2006 conference as a choral singer. During the frenzied conference days, “Pop!Casts” of favorite speeches and performances (archived on the website) go viral on the blogosphere. Beyond that, participants, who tend to be creative and driven, hatch collaborations.

Pop!Tech has offices in Camden and New York, each with small staffs. Its global ambitions have eclipsed its annual gathering. Unlike California’s 25-year-old TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, Pop!Tech organizers widen participation through live feeds of panels and speeches rather than by moving to larger convention space.

And instead of employing exhibit-style food vendors, they provide redeemable tokens at local eateries. Participants fan out to assigned places at Bayview Lobster, Boynton-McKay Food Co., the Camden Deli, Cappy’s, Ephemere, Mikado, Natalie’s, Paolina’s Way, Thai Kitchen, or The Waterfront for intimate, homegrown meals. Occasionally, they’ll have a special night out at Primo in Rockland.

“I’m a great believer that physical space affects outcomes,” says former governor Angus King, who attended every Pop!Tech while in office. “The Camden Opera House just feels good to be in. It only holds 500 people. It’s beautiful. It’s the kind of classic space that rarely exists anymore in this country.

The conference will likely stay in Maine, where for those three days, laid-back, fleece-wearing Mainers are outnumbered by intense, black-clothed Pop!Techies from all over the world, in designer eyeglasses, bent over their smartphones, whisked around town in a fleet of black hybrid Lexus SUVs. “It’s almost like being a city coffeehouse for a while,” says Sondra Hamilton, owner of Zoot Coffee. “The techies really like their coffee and are grateful for good coffee. And I remember their preferences even from last year.”

A perk, you might say, of nestling this world-saving, big-brain fest in a rockbound seaside village in Maine.
21 Elm St. | Camden | poptech.org

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