World-changers meet in Maine

Each year, Pop!Tech brings dozens of world-class thinkers and doers, along with hundreds of listeners, to a three-day retreat in rural Maine. Their goal: Save the world.

One of them has created an innovative way to let individuals make tiny personal loans over the Internet to impoverished but motivated entrepreneurs anywhere in the world. Another one designs simple, inexpensive products that let millions of people who earn less than $1 a day ratchet up their standard of living. A third repurposes technologies developed for state-of-the-art consumer products to cast light for people living in remote areas far from conventional power sources.

Those were just some of the people who addressed several hundred movers and shakers from corporations, think tanks, and universities at the 11th annual Pop!Tech conference in this picturesque seacoast town.

Each year, hundreds of attendees pay a considerable fee to crowd into Camden's quaint Opera House to hear from a score or more of innovative thinkers and doers representing the latest and best thinking in their fields. The talks are all available online and – starting this year – translated into eight languages.

Past speakers have ranged from geostrategist author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman; to Carolyn Porco, the head of NASA's Cassini spaceprobe mission to Saturn; to Bunker Roy, the Indian social activist.

Jessica Flannery calls herself just an ordinary middle-class girl from Pittsburgh who wanted somehow to help those in need in developing countries. Together with her husband, who supplied some of the Web know-how, they founded Kiva about 18 months ago.

Kiva allows individuals to loan as little as $25 to people over the Internet to help them start businesses, from peddling popcorn or running a fruit stand to starting a taxi service. Lenders can sort through loan requests online, choose their own partner, and e-mail them directly. The repayment rate? More than 99 percent.

That makes the lender happy, who then usually just reloans the money to someone else. But something else happens, too. The borrowers learn that someone else in the world cares about them. "We can change the way that borrowers think about the rest of the world," says Ms. Flannery.

Paul Polak has founded IDE (Inter­na­tional Development Enterprises,) and D-Rev, organizations aimed at helping the poorest of the poor become self-sufficient. He urges architect and product designers to "design for the other 90 percent" of the world, including the 1.2 billion who live on less than $1 a day. Many are farmers trying to survive on less than five acres.

But Dr. Polak tells those wanting to help not to bother unless: (1) They have talked to at least 25 poor people before they start; (2) The device they design will pay for itself within the first year; and (3) The device can be sold to at least 1 million people (to keep costs low).

Among the tools that fit the last two criteria are a human-operated $8 treadle pump for irrigation and a $3 drip-­irrigation system for gardens. Polak estimates he's helped some 17 million people move out of poverty in the past 25 years. Now beyond retirement age, he aims to help 150 million more.

"All it takes is one person with a dream," Polak says.

Sheila Kennedy founded the Portable Light Project to bring the advantages of portable light to the developing world, where some 2 billion people don't have access to electric lights or power. In these primitive conditions, light sources need to be simple, reliable, rugged, durable, lightweight, adaptable, mobile, self-sufficient, self-contained – and, of course, inexpensive. Using existing technologies such as a 4-cent switch from a dishwasher, lithium-ion batteries developed for cellphones, and HBLED lights like those used in pedestrian "walk" signals, she developed a rugged solar-powered portable light source that gives off 80 lumens per watt, enough for people to read and work by at night.

Pop!Tech has long talked the talk about environmental issues, and in recent years it's begun to walk the walk, too. To compensate for the carbon emissions created by this year's conference (including energy needs on site and for participants' travel), Pop!Tech bought carbon-offset credits equal to twice the carbon the meeting created.

"We vetted very, very carefully" in choosing the projects, Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech curator and the conference's host, told the gathering. "All of the [carbon] credits are legitimate." In fact, a leader from each project addressed the audience. The projects included solar-powered irrigation in Benin, West Africa; a wildlife corridor and reforestation in Nicaragua; and making energy from biomass in Brazil. (Everyone was invited to participate. It offers a quick and simple "carbon footprint" calculator to help individuals determine the amount of carbon emissions they are producing. Then they can volunteer to financially support one of the carbon-offsetting projects.)

In another "walking the walk" initiative, the "Pop!Tech Accelerator," announced this weekend, aims to bring together innovators attending the conference to take on big challenges. Its first effort, Project Masiluleke (it means "to reach out" or "rejuvenate oneself" in Zulu) combines the work of ­iTEACH, a program in South Africa that aims to educate poor people about HIV/AIDS and help them find medical treatment, and researchers at the University of Connecticut who have developed an interactive computer program that helps patients understand and manage their own medical treatment.

But Mr. Zolli never let the mood get too earnest for very long. He also introduced toy designer Caleb Chung, who gave an entertaining account of how he developed the Furby toy that became a huge hit a decade ago. His latest invention is Pleo, a "life form" dinosaur toy, that uses robotics and sensors to become a "pet" that reacts to its surroundings.

Expect Pleo to be on store shelves this Christmas. Cost? Figure on $350 or so.

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