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PUSH Conference: Day Two

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By Jessica Chapman

This year's PUSH conference was titled "The Fertile Delta." The intended meaning of this enigmatic title was revealed in increasing depth as the conference progressed. The phrase encapsulates a belief in the opportunities available through the collision of ideas, the birth of something new from the intersection of the unexpected.

For example: presenter Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Rochester, encouraged those who hold disparate religious worldviews to get over their hang-ups about each other and seek connections. The opportunity to foster dialogue in place of frustration, anger and silence is a fertile delta.

And presenter Antoine Bigirimana, who has no family or friends left in Rwanda as a result of the country's horrific genocide in 1994, has dedicated himself to improving technology there. That dedication to rebirth where many see only barrenness is a fertile delta.

I think it might be fair to say the fertile delta describes something approximating alchemy: the process by which two disparate entities are able to somehow, in an unexpected way, come together and make something new and different and good. PUSH attendees all seemed to harbor a desire to do something good, in more than a pie-in-the-sky way.

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So, who attends PUSH? The open-invitation conference draws a varied group including journalists and municipal govermnet staffers, though a casual glance of the attendee roster is sprinkled heavily with titles like "president," "senior" and "leader," as well as a lot of marketing folks. Most people at PUSH this year were from the Midwest, though PUSH founder Cecily Sommers said that hasn't been the case in past years. She speculated yesterday that the economy may have discouraged some from traveling.

A few snapshots: one attendee, who works for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, heard about the event on the radio and paid the $1,350 admission fee out of his own pocket for the chance to simmer for a few days with a group of innovative thinkers and leaders. Over lunch he spoke passionately about the link between home ownership and good health (the topic was the focus of a segment of a PBS documentary screened at the conference). One man, who attended this year for the third time, is at work on a screenplay. A consultant from Seattle, here for the second consecutive year, was almost at a loss to describe her feelings. This brand of speechless, breathless excitement has characterized many attendees' descriptions of their experience this week.

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Beth Kolko gave a fascinating presentation this afternoon. Kolko, an associate professor of technical communication at the University of Washington, has traveled to many of the world's lesser-known regions, studying the communication habits and innovations of resource-deprived communities in nations like Cambodia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Kolko is particularly excited by the economic empowerment she sees available to the world's poor via text messaging: for example, how SMS technology is helping rural farmers. Before selling produce to a middleman, they can text ahead to someone already at the market to check the going price for their items. Fishermen can determine their day's work by finding out via text what kinds of fish are selling fast or are unavailable at the market. Kolko cited Robert Jensen's work with fishermen in India on this topic.

She also enthused about Kenya's M-Pesa phone cards, which allow residents to essentially use their phones as bank accounts, enabling them to, among other things, transfer money to one another. The recipient need not even have their own M-Pesa account to get cash from the phone transfer. "People empowered financially have more of a say," she explained.

Kolko also briefly mentioned one case in which a broader market has responded to the communication needs of the developing world: Microsoft Research India has researched the potential for a multi-user mouse. With more people than computers in many developing countries, Kolko said it's common to go into an Internet café and see several people huddled around one computer. The new "multimouse" would allow several users to interact on one computer at the same time, using different colored cursors.

A quick note on an interesting exchange overheard yesterday that some may find interesting: In a short Q&A session on Monday morning, presenters Jonathan Greenblatt and Chandran Nair discussed the utility of direct financial aid to the developing world.

Nair, who leads the Hong Kong-based NPO GIFT, emphasized the necessity of having the developing world--particularly Asia, where he concentrates his efforts--focus on producing wealth and investing locally. GOOD Magazine CEO Greenblatt, however, expressed belief in the ongoing need for development aid and the genuine good it remains able to do.

NAIR: "Too much development aid in Laos results in more 4-wheel drives than anything else … How do you get wealth to invest in opportunities rather than development aid?"

GREENBLATT: "Let's not fail to acknowledge aid and trade … Aid still matters … Aid is important for a segment of the population, of society."

NAIR: "Aid needs to be less associated with just the West. The point I'm trying to make is that there is so much wealth in Asia and it needs to be tapped into. Dependency needs to be broken.

Also, a compelling quote people were talking about, even one day later, spoken by Clyde Prestowitz, former Reagan Administration official, founder of the Economic Strategy Institute and one of yesterday's presenters: "Globalization is not making democracy stronger. It is making the autocracies stronger." Prestowitz made the comment in the context of talking about Singapore, saying that the country's impressive economy has arguably been strengthened by the fact that it is a repressive environment with restricted freedoms.

PUSH has already opened the registration gates for next year's conference, set to take place June 14-16 in Minneapolis. The title for 2009 will be "Make/Believe".

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Jessica Chapman is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis. You can reach her at jchapman678 [at] gmail [dot] com.

All photo credits: Jessica Chapman

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