Zolli explores impact of our digital selves on the world



Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

With origins in the small town of Camden, Maine, the global innovation network PopTech could be considered a distant cousin of Chautauqua Institution, said Andrew Zolli, the organization’s executive director and curator.

“We bring the world’s creative community to this small town in much the same way that Chautauqua brings some of the world’s best thinkers and leaders to its community,” he said.

Friday morning, Zolli will close Week Six’s lecture platform on “Digital Identity” at 10:45 a.m in the Amphitheater. His lecture will focus on the intersection between our digital selves and real world outcomes.

The PopTech community comprises corporations, foundations, scientists and on-the-ground practitioners who together tackle the world’s “giant hairball issues” in innovative ways — issues such as climate change, energy, public health and urban violence.

As the chief creative force behind PopTech, Zolli is an expert in global foresight and innovation. He is the founder of futures research think tank Z-Plus Partners and served as a National Geographic Society fellow and futurist. He also served as the futurist-in-residence at Popular Science. He is co-author of the new book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.

PopTech operates on the notion that positive change is possible by bringing together experts of diverse disciplines in collaboration.

With this mindset, innovation happens not through the traditional “silos of excellence,” but rather allowing ideas from one field to be “mashed up” with those from another, according to the organization’s website.

“We bring innovators together from many different fields — science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities, among others — in a network that complements the silos,” the website states.

Project Masiluleke, a current PopTech initiative, aims to fight the spread of HIV and TB in South Africa, a country with the most HIV-positive citizens in the world. Using “low-cost, high-impact” mobile technology, PopTech and its partners can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people — through specialized text messages — to get tested. According to the PopTech website, more than 685 million free “Please Call Me” messages have been sent throughout the country, driving more than 1.5 million calls to the National AIDS Helpline.

Our digital selves, Zolli said, let us impact the real world in a way that we could not before. During his lecture, he will give an example of how a group of people used Twitter to save lives in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake.

“It required deep trust in an environment where they never actually had an opportunity to meet in person,” he said. Those people’s digital identities fostered cooperation, which is key to bolstering a community’s resilience.

“You might think about who you are on the Internet as being a manifestation of some truth,” Zolli said. “Some version of our true selves can come through there, and in some cases, our truer selves.”