Ned Breslin - PopTech 2010 - Camden, Maine
“Sustainability and transparency are buzzwords” that no longer have any meaning.  That’s what Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People said from the stage of the this year’s Poptech conference.

He went on to rail against the well intentioned but often shorted sighted work of NGOs working on water and sanitation projects in the Global South, telling the story of a young boy who falls ill as result of drinking contaminated water when the water pump in his village breaks down.  The villagers, unable to repair the pump go back to drinking the water with the pathogens that most have developed some immunity to.  The boy, born after the introduction of the water pump, never developed the tolerance.  Breslin, a friend of the boy’s mother, races to the village to get the boy to the hospital, but it’s too late.   On the drive back to the village, they slow down as they drive by the broken water pump, the mother finally breaks down screaming in sorrow about the loss of her son, and cause of his death.

This is not the way to save the world.

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the 2010 PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.  This first session, entitled “How (Not) To Change the World” was a sobering introduction to this year’s theme: Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs.  The world’s problems are complex and interconnected.  Trying to solve one problem may result in creating new ones.

Poptech curator, Andrew Zolli pointed out that a project to bring clean water to villages in Bangladesh during the 1970s actually ended up contaminating the wells with naturally occurring arsenic.  The subsequent “solution” was to paint the tainted water pumps red and untainted pumps green.  Unable to collect water, the women living in areas with the red water pumps had to resort to prostitution.

As NGOs, we need to pay particular attention to these lessons.  It’s not enough to show up with good intentions.  We need to continually evaluate the work we’re doing, be open to the possibility that the plan is wrong, and be willing to adapt and change.  As Zolli describes it, “What has to die, so the right things might live?”

2010 Social Innovation Fellows from PopTech on Vimeo.

Even with an emphasis failure, this year’s PopTech remained optimistic, continuously making the point that failure is a necessary by product of experimentation and ultimately, of success.  PopTech’s  Social Innovation, and Science Fellows Program exemplifies this optimism, bringing together “change agents” – scientists, social entrepreneurs from the for-profit and non-profit sectors who are working on solutions to problems ranging from renewable energy along the Thai-Burma border to LGBT rights.

The reoccurring theme from this year’s PopTech, wasn’t about failure, but rather different paths to success, and recognition that complex problems often have complex solutions, and that the key to figuring out these solutions is acknowledge when something isn’t working and learning as much as possible from it, and trying something else.

Additional videos the conference are available at the PopTech website.

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