The streets of Camden often host visitors from around the world. What distinguishes those who arrive on the third week of October, each year, is their interest in bringing projects, ideas and events from their lives and work together at the annual Pop Tech conference.

Speaking in her office on Elm Street, Pop Tech President Leetha Filderman said Oct. 3 that what has changed since Pop Tech began its thought leadership conference 16 years ago is the movement, away from a single event that takes place once a year, toward a focus on global innovation.

“The world’s gotten smaller,” said Filderman. She said the organization is working to address challenges that surface all over the globe and have impacts everywhere.

One way Pop Tech has changed to meet this mission is by forming what Filderman called incubators for social and scientific innovators who are at the forefront of creating systems and mechanism that address issues of vital concern. This has been done through the creation of social innovation and science and public leadership fellowships that, according to Filderman, “support some of the world’s most promising innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists by providing training, mentoring and a vibrant peer group of like-minded individuals.”

These people are often relatively unknown outside of their disciplines or geographic regions. The connections they make through Pop Tech can serve to spark important growth in their creative processes and connect them to others who share their interests. Those connections often provide a catalyst for significant growth in the development of solutions to issues that are common throughout the globe.

“What we’re looking for in fellows is work that has a potential to replicate,” said Filderman. “Solutions should be able to address more than one challenge and should be able to replicate geographically.”

Pop Tech’s local impact, by the numbers

Pop Tech is based in Camden and has offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. Leadership is shared by President Leetha Filderman and Curator Andrew Zolli

The organization has a total of 20 year-round employees, split evenly between the two offices. Between August and the end of October, 10 to 15 more people are added to the staff, to facilitate the annual conference that, according to Filderman, brings millions of dollars into the Midcoast economy.

“It’s very clear that Pop Tech brings a lot of money into the immediate local economy,” she said. That impact has grown since the implementation of the fellows programs that begins a week before the conference.

Once attendees begin arriving for the main event, “I don’t think you can find a hotel room from Belfast past Rockland,” said Filderman.

In addition, Pop Tech contracts with Camden restaurants to serve lunch for the event’s 600 to 700 participants, 50 speakers, 14 Social Innovation Fellows and 10 Science Fellows, who buy their own dinners locally, as well.

“Lots of things go into producing the conference,” she said. “With a few exceptions, all the things we need are produced here in Maine.” Filderman said that included catering, production elements, signage and the close to 100-page program that is given to all who attend.

From the perspective of non-monetary impacts, Filderman said the people who participate in Pop Tech come from all over the world.

In 2011, there were 320 nominations from 58 countries for 14 fellowships that train, mentor, and connect social and scientific innovators with one another and with support designed to help grow their ideas and inventions.

“Ninety-five percent [of past fellows] have gone on to create huge impacts,” she said. This includes a number of MacArthur fellows and recipients of other major grants.

“For the first 10 years we existed to bring together these diverse speakers to instigate thinkers and to inspire people to pay attention or to take action on the big emerging challenges of the day,” Filderman said.

In response to a growing interest within the growing network of conference alumni, the organization founded the Pop Tech Accelerator. Filderman said the focus of this new effort was “for us to do more than inspire,” she said.

“The request was specific,” said Filderman. She said Pop Tech conferees wanted a way to take the information they gained at the conference and do more with it. She said the incubator provides a formal platform for taking those next steps, a task she said she was hired, five years ago, to accomplish.

She said the incubators allow Pop Tech to foster long-term collaborative projects.

One such project is called Project Masiluleke, and uses the power of mobile technology to improve awareness and access to treatment for HIV and AIDS in South Africa. Filderman said it was one of the largest uses of cell phones to raise mass awareness of a public health issue.

“It has a real potential for what are called reverse innovations — what we call the boomerang effect,” she said. Historically, most innovations and inventions come from industrialized nations and are then exported into what is called the developing world, she said.

“What you see with this project, and more and more in the world, is solutions being developed and proven in the developing world that have the potential to be used in the U.S. and other large economies,” Filderman said.

Another such bottom-up innovation was PeaceTXT, which looks at using text messaging and other types of mobile technology to interrupt violence and assist in crisis intervention.

That collaboration of Pop Tech, Ushahidi, Medic Mobile and Chicago-based CeaseFire is highlighted in the film “The Interrupters,” shown Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 4 and 5, at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.

CeaseFire is based on the idea that violence acts as a contagion, and that techniques used in epidemiology can act to halt its spread. Filderman said Pop Tech hopes to develop CeaseFire’s methods so that they can be deployed globally for any type of conflict situation.

The accelerators, a two-year-old system of two- to four-day laboratory-style events that bring together 30 or 40 individuals, some of whom represent large institutions, with a specific focus, are the fastest growing part of the Pop Tech effort.

One such lab is looking at eco-materials — completely recyclable products that can be used throughout an owner’s lifetime.

When they meet, participants work to articulate the challenge, look at its positive and negative aspects, discover anticipated hurdles and understand the resources needed to make an impact. The results are reported and the collaborations that start in the accelerator contribute to the participants’ ongoing work.

While there are a number of conferences that look at how technology and innovation are changing the world, Filderman said Pop Tech is different because the Camden-based organization is committed to moving beyond talk and into action.

“We’re moved and inspired by what we hear from the people we invite to speak, and we’re building an infrastructure to take that mutual inspiration a lot further,” she said.

One way that Pop Tech reaches beyond the walls of the Camden Opera House, where most of the four-day event takes place, is by bringing its fellows to the 826-seat Strom Auditorium on the Wednesday before the conference begins.

“It’s a way to give kids a look at the greater world and what was possible,” said Filderman.

Camden Hills Regional High School Administrative Assistant Jane Self said the school sent invitations to three area high schools, and planned to make the event an all-school assembly.

Medomak Valley High School Assistant Principal Andrew Cavanaugh said a number of MVHS students went to the program last year. He said one challenge was the limit of 10 to 15 students, set by Camden Hills, to be sent by MVHS. Cavanaugh said it was difficult to tell some students in a class that they could not join their classmates in attending the presentation.

Oceanside High School in Rockland will send between 10 and 15 students to the presentation at the Strom Auditorium on Oct. 19. Principal Tom Forti said he was grateful for the invitation.

“It’s amazing stuff from young, creative minds,” said Forti. “It’s not to be missed.”

Belfast Area High School Principal Stephen Fitzpatrick said the invitation was forwarded to the school’s civil rights team and student senate, which were still considering it.

Filderman said that since the high school connection began in 2009, she has been repeatedly stopped on the street by students who tell her the assembly changed their lives.

In addition, Filderman has begun a relationship with the University of Maine at Orono to create a better understanding of the value of collaboration.

Those who wish to learn more about Pop Tech can find the organization’s website at poptech.org. The conference is available to Camden residents, live on cable Channel 22, and is streamed on the Internet at poptech.org. The 2010 conference was watched by more than 85,000 viewers worldwide. In 2011, the livestream broadcast is expected to reach more than 100,000 viewers, said Filderman.

“Why does what we talk about on the Pop Tech stage matter locally?” she asked rhetorically. “We’re not any longer just part of a local community. We’re part of a global community.” She said events in one place often impact people around the world.

“The more we can create solutions together, the better off we’ll be, as members of the global community.”

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by email at sauciello@villagesoup.com.

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