Aptly described by our head of research as “the Coachella of conferences,” PopTech is far from your traditional talking head fest. The immersive and enriching experience is filled with cutting edge presentations, interactive sessions, shared meals, fireside chats (in front of real fireplaces!), late-night debates, movie screenings, and music-making. The goal is to explore, inspire, instigate, and discover a shared potential that extends well beyond the reach of individual aspiration.

This year, several of our practitioners traveled to Point Lookout, Maine for the three-day meeting. Here they share their favorite talks along with key takeaways.


Data for good 

Jake Porway, founder & CEO of DataKind, discussed AI and dispelled some of the current myths surrounding what AI is and the potential it could have. He dubbed AI as “computers we’re not yet comfortable with.” AI has enormous potential to not only advance data science capabilities but more so drive social change and do good for humanity on a large scale. However, people are wary of AI and big data because the current narrative surrounding AI is exceptionally negative, e.g., privacy concerns, exploitation for profit, etc. DataKind combats the perception by convening a community of data scientists to delve into massive data archives for nonprofits and mission-based organizations. Jake’s talk was a powerful example of how changing the narrative can have a considerable impact. –Karli Buescher, Associate Strategist 


Learning to learn

The founder of African Leadership University, Fred Swaniker, spoke to the importance of learning. We spend much of our life learning, be it new skills or occupations, or how to navigate new environments and relationships. And yet, Mr. Swaniker found that higher education did not place importance on teaching students how to learn—that learning itself was an essential learned skill set. In looking to cultivate the future leaders of Africa, he knew learning would play a central role in defining their ability to succeed. So, he took it upon himself to disrupt higher education and create a university where students learned at their own pace and worked to teach each other, thus gaining the most significant insight into their ability to learn, as well as how to convey their learnings. The model proved wildly successful, with more and more students enrolling every year, the opening of a second campus, and being named the “Harvard of Africa” by CNN. As we think about our work, indeed, we never stop learning, and we should always be re-evaluating our approach to learning and be open to exploring new avenues. –Maximilian Melamed, Naming Strategist 


Using VR as a tool for empathy

Derek Ham, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and Affiliate Assistant Research Professor of Architecture at North Carolina State’s College of Design, created the VR experience “I Am A Man” as a tool for empathy. “I Am A Man” places the user quite literally in the skin of a Memphis, TN sanitation worker during the historic strike in 1968–an event that coincided with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During the experience, the user works on sanitation trucks, peruses actual new stories and documents from 1968, joins the picket line, and witnesses the assassination of Dr. King, and the riots that followed firsthand.​

Dr. Ham said that someone once called this experience “the ultimate empathy machine.” It’s essential that we refer to this as a “tool” rather than a “machine.” A machine performs on its own; a tool is something the user needs to interact with. Stepping into the world of “I Am A Man” won’t immediately make you empathetic to its subject, but the goal of the interactive experience is to bring the user to action. ​

At Siegel+Gale, we should think not only about creating experiences tailor-made to our users but to also envision how breaking them out of their comfort zones, showing them new perspectives, can yield powerful results and actions. —Caitlin Devlin, Integrated Producer


Accidental activism

Among the crowd of scientists and inventors, we heard from singer-songwriter Michelle Lewis about how her career led her to become a music rights activist, something she never expected she would do. ​

​In the age of Napster, and later Spotify, legislation wasn’t updated to compensate many employees in the music industry adequately. Songwriters weren’t being paid for streaming because vendors claimed they couldn’t trace each song to a songwriter, which is hard to believe. Michelle rallied together famous musicians from every state to call their senator, and in time, the Music Modernization Act was passed​.

​In the end, it is an excellent example of when you fight hard enough, genuine change can be made. –Michelle Belgrod, Strategy Analyst 


DNA Barcode Scanner: Democratizing genetic analysis for the masses

Alex Dehgan, the co-founder of Conservation X Labs, discussed food responsibility at this year’s PopTech. He explained how approximately 20 percent of the world’s seafood, timber and wildlife products are trafficked illegally, disguised as other foods. Additionally, some foods are not regulated as strictly. Consequently, the food we purchase in supermarkets can be potentially mislabeled; the sumptuous white tuna you’re eating could be escolar.

Conservation X Labs created a DNA Barcode Scanner, in the hopes of democratizing genetic analysis for the masses. With the battery-operated device—which is the size of a Gameboy—users can insert a piece of food, and within half an hour, the scanner will tell you precisely what you’re eating and how close (genetically) it is to the real deal. It also comes with simple, easy-to-use instructions. Being able to hold distributors accountable is very important to uphold our ethical, moral and environmental standards. ​

​Farming and mislabeling fish can put entire species in endangered risk, can poison humans (some fish like escolar are considered laxatives by the FDA) and can hurt the middle man (the businesses that purchase the fish from distributors). Mitesh Rathod, Knowledge Manager


Key takeaways:

It’s advantageous to get out of the branding bubble:

  • Take advantage of opportunities to learn about new things, work-related or otherwise ​
  • Expose yourself to creative problem-solving​
  • Take time to get to know your colleagues
  • Connect with people outside your industry

Rethink established framework:

  • Technology makes new solutions a reality​
  • Attitudes are increasingly shifting (politics, social issues, technology/data/privacy) and there’s more than one approach out there​
  • Channel digitization is quickly becoming ubiquitous, and those who can’t adapt will be left behind

Certain strategies are more effective than others:​

  • Lead with positivity and vision​
  • Leverage personal connections, emotion and stories​
  • Use technology to tell familiar stories in new, exciting ways