When world-changers meet in Maine: the Pop!Tech conference

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.

Day one blog; Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine, by Gregory M. Lamb:

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. And yet another repurposes technologies developed for state-of-the art consumer products to cast light for those in remote areas far from conventional power sources.

Those individuals were just three of the opening-day speakers at this year's Oct. 17-20 Pop!Tech conference (www.poptech.org) in Camden, Maine. Each year, hundreds of attendees pay a considerable fee to crowd into the seaside town's 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 now are broadcast over the Internet (www.poptech.org), archived, and -- beginning 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.

Here are a few highlights from Day One of Pop!Tech:

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 (www.kiva.org) 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 and pick out their own partner. They can communicate directly with them by e-mail. The success rate in paying back the loans? More than 99 percent.

Of course, that makes the lender happy, who then usually just loans the money out again 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, http://www.ide-international.org/) 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 of ground.

Dr. Polak tells those wanting to help not to bother unless:

-- They have talked to at least 25 poor people before they start

-- The device they design will pay for itself in the first year

-- The device can be sold to at least 1 million people so that costs can be low

Among the tools that fit those last two criteria are a human-operated $8 treadle pumps for irrigation and $3 drip irrigation systems for gardens that easily pay back their cost quickly. Polak estimates he's helped some 17 million people move out of poverty in the last 25 years. Now past retirement age, he wants to do the same for 150 million more in a few years.

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

Sheila Kennedy founded the Portable Light Project (http://www.portablelight.org/) 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 four-cent switch from a dishwasher, lithium-ion batteries developed for cellphones, and HBLED solid-state lights like those used in pedestrian "Walk" signs, she developed a rugged solar-powered portable light source giving off 80 lumens per watt, enough light for people to read and work at night.

Andrew Zolli, Pop!Tech curator and the conference's host, never lets the mood get too earnest for very long.

Mr. Zolli also introduced toy designer Caleb Chung, who gave an entertaining account of how he developed the Furby toy that became a huge hit with children a decade ago. His latest invention is Pleo, a "life form" dinosaur toy (http://www.robotsrule.com/pleo/blogger.html) that uses robotics and sensors to become a "pet" that reacts to its surroundings.

"Humans need to love something," says Mr. Chung, and sometimes a conventional pet just isn't practical. "I think there is a place for these new life forms in our society."

Chung's company is called Ugobe (http://www.ugobe.com). Expect Pleo to be on store shelves this Christmas. Cost? Think $350 or so.

That's a taste of Pop!Tech 2007. Yesterday was beautiful in Camden and a little hard to go inside, even for such fascinating speakers. But today it's raining and staying inside sounds good. I'll plan to write again for Sunday with more from the conference.

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