TEDx Vancouver 2010: A Lengthy Review

I’ve been back and forth over whether I should write this review or not but I figured in the end that the whole idea of TEDx is to be a launchpad for discussion, so here is my review.

As a measure of the quality of the event, I’ve decided to analyze it based on its mission, which from the TEDx Vancouver website is:

… bringing together a diversity of innovators, industry leaders, and other speakers of diverse backgrounds who educate, inspire, and stimulate change in technology, entertainment and design and presenting speakers who are “… extraordinary voices in our community who have a unique story or an unusual perspective — and who can convey it in a dynamic way.

Since the whole idea of TED (and thus the TEDx) events is to produce videos of “ideas worth spreading,” I’ve devised a simple rating system based on whether the videos are worth watching or not. It has three levels:

Share It – the talk was great and you should get as many people as possible to watch it
Watch It – the talk was interesting enough but some of your friends will find you wasted their time if you share it
Skip It – the talk didn’t bring anything new or interesting to the table and your time is better spent watching a different TED talk

Yes it’s harsh, but the premise of TED is to bring forth the best and brightest, so that’s the scale it should be judged on.

This review has three sections: The Talks, The Event and Ideas for the Future.

The Talks

Nazanin Afshin-Jam: A Voice for the Voiceless

The first time I saw Afshin-Jam was when she appeared on Citytv’s BreakfastTelevision back in 2006. At the time she was just kicking off her campaign to collect signatures to stop the execution of an Iranian teen who shared her name and was wrongfully convicted of murder. Afshin-Jam succeeded in collecting over 350,000 signatures, got both local, national and international governments to take notice and eventually persuaded the Iranian government to relent, give the condemned Nazanin a new trial which lead to the acquittal of all charges.

On the heels of the success of this campaign Afshin-Jam co-founded the “Stop Child Executions” organization and she now works to bring awareness to the injustices perpetrated by governments and religious leaderships in Iran and around the world upon children, youth, women and other oppressed groups.

Afshin-Jam’s talk was more or less a walk-through of her experiences working to free Nazanin and bringing awareness to the cause of justice for the oppressed. It is a good story, and it is one that should be heard, but I’m not sure it brought anything new to the table. Yes, we all know Iran has a horribly oppressive regime and that something needs to be done about it. And yes, we know that in spite of its high aspirations, the United Nations is inherently crippled and largely unable to deal with states such as Iran, Burma and China when it comes to human rights abuses. What we need is a solution to the problem. Afshin-Jam lamented the inefficiency and impotency of the U.N. and suggested instead an organization called the United People who would represent the real voices of the people. The problem is such an organization would be both powerless and bogged down in endless quarrelling. The problem with the U.N. has as much to do with cultural bias, incomprehension, opposing value systems and national sovereignty as it does corrupt leaderships. And these problems would not be solved by United People. For true change to take effect, something else has to happen – and that something else is, at least in my view, true understanding between cultures.

Take-away: Things are bad in Iran – probably worse than most people are aware – but with enough support and enough pressure even a single person can make a difference by being the voice of the voiceless.

Bottom Line: Watch It.

Greg Power: The Fine Line Between Speaking and Being Heard

In some ways you could say Greg Power’s talk was vaguely related to that of Nazanin Afshin-Jam. The title, The Fine Line Between Speaking and Being Heard, was the starting point of a discussion about why certain messages prevail while others crumble into our collective amnesia. So how do they relate? Both talks were about communication, though on different levels. Afshin-Jam spoke of communicating a demand for justice to a regime with selective hearing. Power spoke of communicating a message that would resonate with people and foster action and change. And he communicated that message quite well.

The core of Power’s presentation was the simple principles used by marketers for decades to change our opinions, get us to buy products and vote for politicians. He started with a question of why Hillary Clinton’s message got lost while Barack Obama’s message prevailed even though you’d think it would be the other way around. The answer (in my extremely condensed form) was that Obama’s message resonated with people’s emotions. If you appeal to their emotions and make a connection there, people will emphathize with your message and let themselves be swayed by it. This is core marketing strategy and it is something everyone should know whether they are in marketing (so they can use it) or they are at the receiving end of a marketing message (so they can be aware of it).

Power is a solid speaker with a clear message that resonated well with the crowd. I would have liked to have seen some more ideas and new approaches rather than a basic breakdown of the principles, but I think I’m in the minority on that front and my view is tainted by my field of work. For someone not working in media, his presentation is a must-see.

Take-away: Your emotions control you, so if someone manages to tap into them, you will do what they want whether you like it or not.

Bottom Line: Share It.

Fiona Rayher and Tara Mahoney: Gen Y – The Next Hero Generation

Fiona Rayher and Tara Mahoney run the Gen Why Media Project which aims to engage Gen Y, a.k.a. The Millennials through media to make change happen. Considering this generation is often labeled as lazy, apathetic, self-righteous, superficial and said to have an unjustified sense of entitlement, such a project is not only necessary but vital.

Rayher and Mahoney based their talk on the generational theories of social historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. At the centre of Strauss and Howe’s theory is the recurrent cycles of generations. The basic idea is that each generation takes on one of four archetypes. They are the Prophet generation, the Nomad generation, the Hero generation and the Artist generation. These theories are based on historical analysis of generations past. The last Hero generation (considered to be transformative and world-changing) was the G.I. generation born between 1901 and 1924. That means if the theory is correct, the next Hero generation should be Gen Y. And that was the foundation of Rayher and Mahoney’s talk.

Let me sidetrack for one minute to put this into perspective: In science there is a type of theoretical fallacy that is both warned against and encountered all the time: The theory dependence of data. In short, the problem arises when a scientist starts making judgements about the validity of a particular theory by either selecting or even shaping the data to fit with that theory. In my view Rayher and Mahoney’s talk was a text-book example of just such theory dependence.

The premise, actually the foundation of their talk was the assumption that Generation Y is, by virtue of being the fourth generation since the last Hero generation, in fact the next Hero generation and that it will produce transformative change simply for this reason. There are several problems with this theory. First off, it assumes that generational behaviour is somehow predestined based on the generational cycle principle. Secondly it makes statements and assumptions about future events of the type “we will be the ones changing the world.” The result was a talk in which the presenters inadvertently represented their generation (which I, being born in 1978, am a part of by the way) as one that sees itself predestined and entitled to be the one that saves the world and fixes all the messes caused by generations past.

Watching the talk I was struck by the self congratulatory attitude and the lack of historical and theoretical understanding displayed. And I don’t think Strauss and Howe would disagree. I decided to reserve judgement, but based on conversations outside the auditorium directly following the talk it became clear I was not alone.

Here’s the thing: I actually believe in what Rayher, Mahoney and the Gen Why Media Project are doing and I think they are doing a bang-up job at it. They have the potential of becoming the voice of a generation and they are helping their peers realize their potential. Unfortunately their talk was a wrong turn onto a dead end sidetrack and had little if anything to do with what they do and what they stand for. Had they focused on their actual achievements, of which there are many, and showed how they empower youth and Millennials to use media to foster change and better the world, their talk could have been excellent. In the end the only thing that really worked was the PSA video they ended with.

If anything Rayher and Mahoney’s talk was an excellent starting point for a discussion on whether the established generational X and Y labels are correct or even sufficient. Few of my peers feel that they are in the same generation as those born from 1985 and later and there seems to be a generational divide not around 1976 but rather the mid-to-late 1980s between the generation that grew up without and with the internet. But that’s a whole different discussion.

Take-away: Generation Y is a technologically competent generation that understands how to use technology and media to further their goals, have their voices heard and make change.

Bottom Line: Skip It.

Dr. John R. “Jack” Horner: Shape-Shifting Dinosaurs: The Cause of a Premature Extinction

Dr. John Horner is a renowned paleontologist specializing in dinosaurs. And he has discovered something earth-shattering both for scientists and 8-year-old kids: Many of the dinosaur species science has defined are actually just the same dinosaurs at different stages of maturity. As a result, it looks like there are fewer species of dinosaurs than we previously thought.

Dr. Horner has taken on the establishment and proven a lot of people wrong. In the process he is rewriting a huge part of our planet’s prehistory and a lot of books will have to be rewritten as a result; which is exactly how science should work. His presentation style and attitude is hilarious and inviting in its weird and quirky understatedness. And backed with true, hard-core science he presented something new, unique and groundbreaking – exactly what the TED conference promises.

Take-away: Dinosaurs are awesome and new discoveries are made every day. I want to go to Dr. Horner’s museum.

Bottom Line: Share It.

Yael Cohen: Using the F Word to Fight the C Word

You may have seen people walking around with t-shirts with the subtle message “FUCK CANCER” prominently displayed on their chests. It’s a bold statement and it’s a fresh take on a topic that is both touchy, complicated and a bit oversaturated.

Yael Cohen’s story is not unique, but what she has done with it is. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer and being a true child of her generation Cohen immediately turned to the internet to learn everything she could about her mother’s affliction. What she found shocked her: Turns out 90% of cancers are curable if found in stage one! And from that follows a simple conclusion: With better early detection far fewer people are going to die from cancer. Realizing this, Cohen made it her mission to bring awareness to early detection.

What’s unique about Cohen’s story and her approach is that she has gone in a totally new direction – early detection rather than the hunt for a cure – and she is using shock and humour to get the message out. Both of these elements are welcome in a field that has become dominated by walks, runs, drives, branded sales and a never-ending hunt for the ultimate cure.

Cohen’s approach is fresh and extremely gutsy and she is making great headway with it. Personally I’ve always wanted to wear a shirt with a swear word prominently printed across the chest and I will definitely buy one of hers. Her presentation was littered with expletives and facts and went by in a snap. She knows what she’s doing, the message resonates with the audience and it is a cause worth supporting.

Take-away: 90% of all cancers are curable in stage one, yet most cancers are only discovered in late stages. In other words a focus on early detection may save as many if not more lives than continued focus on a cure alone.

Bottom Line: Share it (but warn your friends of some seriously foul language).

Nardwuar: Doot Doola Doot Doo… Do It Yourself

I must admit I’ve never understood the attraction of Nardwuar. Until now that is. Watching his presentation (I’m not even going to attempt to describe it – you have to see it to get it) I realized my lack of understanding of the man was grounded in my not understanding his cultural and historical importance in Canada (I moved here in 2002).

His presentation was insane, funny and surprising. And when it was done, he did what was by all accounts the first ever crowd-surf in TED history.

Take-away: If you want something, ask for it. You may be surprised how far you can get with the right attitude.

Bottom Line: Share It.

Jeet-Kei Leung: Transformational Festivals and the New Evolutionary Culture

You may have heard of Burning Man or some of the other new-age’y festivals that are happening all around the world and in particular here on the West Coast. Jeet-Kei Leung is firmly planted in the middle of this movement and he came to share it with the world.

I don’t know quite what to say about Leung’s talk other than that it seemed to be the wrong talk for the wrong audience. The cultural phenomenon Leung presented, though interesting on an anthropological level, is an extreme fringe element. And as a fringe element it’s hard to understand for anyone outside. The talk took the audience on an imaginary trip with a “lightship” to visit some of these festivals where we got to see photos of different events and the characters who attend them. Leung talked about the importance of dance and music in old cultures and how these “transformational” festivals were going to change the world by bringing us closer to nature. His intention was to introduce and invite the audience to a new and exciting cultural phenomenon, but in the end it became more of a slideshow presentation of a fringe counter-culture people have a hard time relating to.

Take-away: There are a lot of new-age’y techno/trance festivals on the West Coast and the community is growing.

Bottom Line: Skip It (unless you’re into this kind of thing, in which case share it with all your friends)

Nicholas Molnar: Hey Internet! Grow Up and Make Us Better

You may have noticed that the applications we interact with on the web are getting awfully smart. Google knows what you are searching for almost before you make a search and Netflix is able to recommend movies you are guaranteed to like. This, according to Nicholas Molnar, is quickly turning into a problem, and I tend to agree.

The core of the problem, and the foundation of Molnar’s talk, is that applications only care about two things: Click-through rate and stick time. That means they will provide you with what you want to see to keep you engaged. In news and media this is a problem because it creates an echo chamber in which you are only presented with views and ideas that fit your world view. In games it is a problem because games keep you stuck to the screen spending money, wasting time and producing nothing of value. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Game developers and other interaction designers are now working on interactive services, applications and games that use these problematic elements to do good. From a chip that makes jogging into a game to a computer game that helps kids in cancer treatment recover quicker to an online game that makes chores fun, developers are starting to harness the power of the internet and gaming to make the world a better place.

Take-away: People are easy to hook with games that give rewards. And although right now most games are just in it for the money, developers are starting to create games that can do good.

Bottom Line: Watch it.

Josh Fox: Water on Fire: Tales of the Natural Gas Drilling Crisis

Ever heard of Fracking? I’m not talking about the imaginary swear word from the Battlestar Galactica TV show but hydraulic fracturing – a new method to extract oil and natural gas from rock and shale underground. Josh Fox was introduced to the concept when a fossil fuel company sent him a letter offering a humongous pile of money if he would let them frack the bedrock under his property to extract the large deposits of natural gas found there. First it sounded too good to be true but then he discovered that his neighbours, his whole city, his whole county was getting the same kind of offers. So he started researching what this “fracking” was all about. And what he found was truly alarming.

I’m not going to go into great detail here. You are better off watching the movie. But basically the method of fracking entails pumping enormous amounts of water infused with over 600 nasty chemicals into the ground at extremely high pressure to make the gas or oil come up to the surface. The method, although presented as safe and environmentally friendly, is in reality extremely hazardous and highly polluting – a point proven by the fact that in areas where fracking is underway residents can set their tap water on fire and get unexplained cancers.

Realizing he was discovering a horrifying man-made natural disaster in the making (fracking has been proposed for almost half the USA, large parts of Canada, Australia and is now moving to African and even Europe) he decided he needed to speak up. So he made a documentary traveling to the places where fracking is already underway and where people are suffering the consequences. The movie (called Gasland) has been made, it has won awards, it has been watched by millions, it has been featured on HBO and there is Oscar talk. Josh Fox may very well become the Erin Brokovich of natural gas extraction.

And did I mention he did his entire presentation while playing a banjo? Earth shattering and an absolute must-see.

Take-away: Natural gas extraction through “Fracking” could be (or is) the next man-made natural disaster. People need to watch this movie and tell their elected representatives to put an end to it right now.

Bottom Line: Share it. This talk should be featured at the main TED conference.

Michael Green: Love, Laughter, Sushi, World Housing and Climate Change

Did you know concrete represents 5-8% of the total output of CO2 in the world? That’s more than all air travel and shipping combined. And did you know that over the next 20 years, 3 billion people, or 40% of the world, will need a new affordable home. Architect Michael Green and his team has decided to take on that challenge using the most unexpected material: Wood.

As Green puts it, we are facing two major mountains that need to be climbed in the immediate future: The housing crisis and the climate crisis. If things continue the way they do now, solving the housing crisis with current methods and current materials (primarily concrete and steel) will just make the other mountain – the climate crisis – a lot worse. What is needed is a solution that takes on both problems at the same time. According to Green, that solution may well be going back to building buildings out of wood.

The challenge is that as our population increases and becomes more centralized, an increasing proportion of us will be living in cities, and that means tall condos – currently the exclusive domain of concrete, steel and glass. But does it have to be that way? Turns out no. Using the example of a 1700 year old 13 story wooden building in Japan, Green contends that the only reason we are not currently building multi-story condos, office buildings and high-rises from wood is lack of innovation. That and restrictive building codes. Currently the height limit for wood frame buildings in Vancouver is 6 floors. That is contrasted by London’s limit of 30. And as we speak they are building a 17 story wood-frame building in Norway and a 30 story building in Australia. Clearly there is something amiss here.

Green and his team is developing new and exciting building techniques that makes it easier and safer to build multi-story wood frame buildings. And his goal is to develop wood-based building techniques that can be introduced in third world countries so that wood is treated as a building material rather than a source of heat or a nuisance to be cleared in place of crop. It is a monumental task and Green looks like the man for the job.

Take-away: Concrete is way more polluting than anyone thought. Building with wood may be the solution, but building codes have to change for that to happen.

Bottom Line: Share It.

Performances

In addition to the talks there were two musical performances; the first one by guitar virtuoso Dan Adler and the second by hip-hop artist Kyprios (plus a bonus collaboration at the end by both). Both musical performances were excellent in their simplicity and were a great addition to the event. What’s interesting though was that after Dan Adler’s truly amazing guitar artistry he offered what was in my opinion the best take-away message of the day:

If you are not a leader and can’t lead. Find a leader and help them lead.

The Event Itself

Overall I’d say TEDx Vancouver 2010 was a worthwhile event. The talks were extremely varied and had an overall high level of interest and innovation. Keeping 500+ people entertained for a full day is a huge challenge but the TEDx team pulled it off without any major hiccups.

The event was hosted at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. The centre has a very nice auditorium perfect for the event, but the rest of the venue leaves something to be desired. In particular the mingling space is sparse and fragmented. The space outside the auditorium is split into two main levels, one of which has a large outside space and the other with a large side room. Almost completely absent is any place to sit. As a result, in all the breaks people would mill into the different spaces, cluster in separate areas and the possibility of meeting new people was reduced. That’s not to say it was bad, it just wasn’t ideal. A one-level space would have been a lot better.

The one thing I missed from other conferences was a proper sandbox space with actual breakout sessions. Though it was mentioned repeatedly by the MC, there was no real space for sitting down and discussing the topics of the day with other attendees. As it was, pretty much all of the limited space was used up by attendees wanting to sit down while they were eating and there was no space left for starting an inviting conversation. This was primarily a locational problem as the Kay Meek Centre doesn’t really have the space for this to begin with, but there are some elements that can be borrowed from other conferences in the future that can help spark conversation and make the event more collaborative.

In particular I’m thinking of a proper sandbox room with pin boards, signed discussion areas and ample seating. The MIX conference in Las Vegas does this exceptionally well and the implementation is simple: You place one or more pin boards in a space where people can pin their thoughts, ideas and what they want to talk about. Then in the main sandbox / breakout room you set up groups of seating with small whiteboards where people can sit down for a discussion. The idea is a group would sit down and write the topic of discussion on the whiteboard. That way other attendees can come in, find a topic they want to discuss and join the discussion without having to hover for a while just to figure out what’s going on. It’s effective, it sparks discussion and it fits perfectly with the TEDx concept.

In summation TEDx Vancouver was well worth the effort of the application process and the $40 ticket price. In fact I would have paid more for more drinks (it was a nearly impossible task to find anything other than coffee), more discussion space and a more central location. I look forward to TEDx Vancouver 2011 and I will start working on a pitch for a talk right now!

For other takes on TEDx Vancouver check out reviews by Kimli, Rick Chung, Julia Spitale and Beyond Robson.

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