Planner Spotlight: A Bigger Bang: Organizer of Pop!Tech leaves negative carbon footprint

Ten years ago, some IT guys who'd moved from the Silicon Valley to Maine wanted to start a conversation about technology's effect on humans. They pooled their Rolodexes, called some friends, and began meeting once a month to plan the Camden Technology Conference, named for the town where they lived.

When you're the guy who forced out Steve Jobs at Apple or one of the inventors of Ethernet (one of the most widely used computer networking technologies), your Rolodex is golden. Today, that gathering, now called Pop!Tech, is one of the most prestigious to attend. Its mission has moved beyond talk to action, encouraging attendees to use its discussions of science and technology "to take action to change the world." (A Tanzanian village now has a maternity clinic, thanks to an African Nobel Prize nominee, a California architect, and engineers from Paris and Boston -- who met because of Pop!Tech.)

Talk Is Cheap

Until recently, Pop!Tech was almost purely voluntary, still run by the original 10 or so founders. But for last October's conference, its 10th, it hired a full-time, paid CEO -- Tom LeVine, who deals with the nitty-gritty of organizing the meeting, while Andrew Zolli, the curator, handles content.

The gathering is still a mix of for-profit and nonprofit. Speakers -- who in 2006 included Pop!Tech cofounders Bob Metcalfe and John Sculley (of Ethernet and Apple fame, respectively), Will Wright (inventor of the influential computer game The Sims), and Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker -- work for free, as does Zolli. Meanwhile, conferees pay thousands (if they're not waitlisted), and attendance is basically capped at 500, the number of seats in the venue, a restored 19th-century opera house.

What's the Big Idea?

This past year LeVine upped capacity 10 percent by adding a viewing room outfitted with flat-screen TVs and comfy furniture. Pop!Tech has nearly "outgrown" Camden, he admits, but he's not contemplating a venue change: "It's out of the way, but it creates a special atmosphere -- it has that New England town-hall charm -- with few distractions."

So he plugs away at expanding Pop!Tech's intellectual reach (with Webcasts and a TV show that was screened on PBS) and walking his talk: The conference burned about 1,000 tons of carbon, so Pop!Tech invested enough money in the Solar Electric Light Fund to generate twice that amount -- offsetting "double the damage done," he says.

LeVine, whose background is in tech startups, sees conference planning as "managing thousands of projects -- like the biggest project-management problem you could create." But the final result is worth the work: "It's like being invited to the greatest party you've ever been to, and hearing exciting ideas that are artistic, intellectual, all across the board."

Pop!Tech 2006

Theme: "Dangerous Ideas"

Attendance fee: $2,500

Sponsors: HP, GE, Sun Microsystems

Staff: 3 full-time, 4 part-time, plus 60-odd volunteers