Pop!Tech conference attracts corporations, launches Lab initiative

The Pop!Tech conference, held annually in the lovely town of Camden, Maine, is rapidly expanding beyond a “big think” gathering of academics, journalists, scientists, and innovation gurus. It’s becoming a magnet for corporate executives, too, who are trying to answer questions such as those posed by Pop!Tech’s curator, Andrew Zolli, in his opening remarks: “Is reinvention possible? Can technology save us? What is the next social contract?”

Even in the downturn, when corporations are curbing travel budgets to trade shows, employees from such diverse companies as Genentech, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Nike, Microsoft, and AT&T were in attendance. There were more corporate sponsors than ever this year—including Nike and Microsoft, new to sponsorship—according to the conference’s organizers.

Attendees listened to acoustic guitar and soulful songs sung by Malaysian musician Zee Avi, and looked at artist Chris Jordan show disturbing photos of dead baby albatrosses whose corpses revealed stomachs full of plastic bottle caps—intended to motivate people to understand the consequences of pollution and garbage. They also watched Nike’s Lorrie Vogel, general manager of the company’s eco-friendly Considered Design department, bravely discuss the true challenges of environmental responsibility for behemoths like Nike. She talked about how it takes a whopping 700 gallons of water to make one Nike t-shirt; and how even if Nike manufactures fully biodegradable shoes, it will consume enormous amounts of energy to do so.

Nike, interestingly, is sponsoring the inaugural offering of Pop!Tech Labs, a new initiative that will take place in Spring 2010.

Pop!Tech Labs is an invitation-only collaborative group that will bring together corporations, scientists, policymakers, and others who present at or attend the Pop!Tech conference (and beyond) to work toward solutions for some of the world’s most challenging problems. The first Pop!Tech Lab will focus on developing “closed loop” materials—in essence, the challenge that Nike’s Vogel discussed on stage in Camden.

The lab won’t solely benefit Nike, although it is a sponsor. The findings are meant to be shared as research into a specific manufacturing problem that many companies face. Pop!Tech’s staff will choose participants from its network, and there is no fee for them to engage in the project. Pop!Tech Labs is to be considered a year-long “innovation journey,” according to Pop!Tech’s organizers.

It’s fair to expect that the discussions held among Lab participants in the first Pop!Tech Lab project to be made at the Camden Opera House—site of the annual Pop!Tech conference—next year. After all, these conversations essentially began at this year’s event. The Labs initiative seems to be fulfilling Pop!Tech's goal to become more than a conference or even a network, and morph into a change agent.

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