Reflections from PopTech on Scaling Change

I’m back in the office today after four inspiring days at PopTech. For those who don’t know or haven’t been, PopTech is an assembly of some of the leading minds driving change around the world… assembled together in Camden, Maine for four days of immersive sharing, learning, and connecting. From musicians to artists, to educators and scientists, to behavioral economists and journalists, to the experimental mayor of Braddock, Penn., all of the presenters are pushing the boundaries of their respective disciplines in new and creative ways. These are truly some of the most brilliant people in the world doing some of the most important work on the planet. I was humbled to be sitting anywhere near them.

As the conference went along, I kept coming back to a fairly simple question, “Are we innovating for the needs of the environment, business, art, public policy, etc., or are we innovating for the needs of human beings?” One could argue that the two are one and the same. But to me, the former requires a deep knowledge of the issue and a creative approach to its challenges. The latter—innovating for the needs of human beings—requires a deeper understanding of us. Of what it will take to get people—real human beings—and in many cases, lots of them—to change.

All of the presenters’ brilliant work requires us to change. To change our perspectives, to change our beliefs of what is possible, to change our behaviors. And it’s tough to get us to change. We go for the default option. And too often the default, seemingly innocuous choices we make carry with them terrible repercussions.

Many of the PopTech presenters shared alarming statistics detailing some of these repercussions. Did you know:

  • It takes 700 gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt? 
  • 150K Cattle produce as much waste (untreated) as the population of Chicago? 
  • Education employs 100K people in California, only 40% of whom are teachers?
  • A vegan in a Hummer has a smaller carbon footprint than a meat eater in a Prius?
  • When high school students get less than 8 hours of sleep their rate of depression doubles?
  • Cardiovascular disease kills more people in the U.S. than all other diseases put together… yet 95% of cardiovascular disease is preventable?

But if you only experience an issue in statistics, it’s impossible to engage in it. It’s impossible to feel it. Few have changed as the result of a statistic.

Rather, it’s emotion that creates action. We are not rational beings that see a better alternative and naturally adopt it. We make bad choices, we behave irrationally (even predictably so as Dan Ariely suggests), we don’t feel the personal imperative or benefit to change and so we don’t change.

While I am truly inspired by what I heard and experienced at PopTech, I am also struck by how much change is required for many of the proposed solutions to scale. I’m worried that many of the solutions won’t become realized as they don’t fully account for the alternative, the default, the subconscious choices we make every day.

Perhaps then, the biggest challenge is to better understand human beings. To understand not only that people need to change, but how they will or why they won’t.