Last week, I attended the TEDx conference in Washington DC. It was great to just drive down and have some time off from New York and the New School, but moreover, it was a great experience, seeing so many people working in the field of realizing ideas. Worth all the sleep I missed and all the hours spent driving.
The photos and videos from the event seem to be trickling out slowly, so I figured I might give you a heads up on some of the more interesting speakers and ideas you should look into later. I’ll give you the name and some key ideas I took down, but as a general rule, if you like the ideas from my notes, research it further: my notes are very basic, my attention was on the speakers, not my notebook. You can find a little biography of the presenters on the TEDx website. The summaries just cover the ideas presented, and do not go into in-depth discussion (though you are more than welcome to start a discussion on any idea in the comments thread). Also, I have marked presentation I found interesting with an asterisk (*), and have missed a few speakers that I found boring. Anyway, here you go, I hope you find something for yourself as well:
TEDx MidAtlantic (Washington, D.C.) – Talks on the Theme of “What If?“, looking at how business works, recent environmental trends, and understanding creativity. “Ideas Worth Spreading”
Section 1: The first section fo the event focused on entrepreneurship, on what ideas are and how they circulate and are made real.
*Steve Case – (founder of AOL) - Steve gave a pretty thorough introduction to “today” and “ideas”, a forecast of what the TEDx would be about and how we should think about ideas as well. He talked about the internet, politics, communication, and of course, ideas. He brought up points of that
- There should be competition between ideas, encouraging ideas to become more developed and closer to actualization, as well as to spread growth. This reminded me of something I read earlier, encouraging yourself to give away all of your ideas, so that there is always room for new ones (because hoarding ideas makes you paranoid and so focused on your one idea that you forget there are other ways of thinking and miss inherent flaws [this line of reasoning is actually the foundation of modern security systems-- a security system is passed around to as many people as possible to test how strong it is]– interplay of ideas with other people makes ideas become more developed.)
- A fully interactive internet has not yet arrived, and when it comes, there will be a fully new “second internet revolution”, not this web 2.0 type business.
- He mentioned “gerrymandering” or “redistricting”, the process of redrawing district lines, and how organization principals that are meant to keep things fair (in politics and elsewhere) are often used as tool of oppression/control.
- He also briefly discussed likeminded versus different minded communication.
Matt Mountain – (Space Telescope Science Institute) – For anyone with an interest in space and science, Matt’s presentation was a brief introduction to the science of Astronomy. Because it was so similar to my Astronomy courses at Ithaca (thanks professor Luke Keller!), I didn’t take notes, but jotted one idea down: “finding intelligent life outside our own planet seems to be becoming more likely (lets forget the drake equation), and will inevitably and irreversibly change our worldview.” Hurrah for little green men!
*Saras Sarasvathy – Darden Entrepreneurship Professor – In an interesting talk, Saras covered the basic ideas of entrepreneurship, and how to teach it and analyze it. The following is a brief summary of her work:
- She covers the theories of entrepreneurship: “Great Men”, “Luck”, or ”Situations” leading to success. She points out that successful entrepreneurs generally hate doing market research and following the scientific method. How come? Because…
- … great entrepreneurs believe that “to the extent that we can control the future, we do not need to predict it”. This goes against the systems that big business run through: entrepreneurs are successful in that they create new markets, they innovate, as opposed to satisfying an existing demand or overspecializing. [Here is a link to a great article about John Scully talking about Steve Jobs, Apple extraordinaire. It shows similar a similar process of how Steve Jobs created his empire]
- Saras creates a flowchart of entrepreneurship method: Step 1: “Who I am, what do I know, what do I do” –> Step 2: “What can I do (within affordable loss)” –> Step 3. “Interact with people” –> Step 4. “Make commitments (promises from other people to help you in some way)” –> Step 5. “Expand Resources using those commitments” –> Step 6. “New resources lead to new means of creating something, which leads to new goals being achievable, leading to new markets and ideas being actualized”. The most important steps involve knowing how to work with people to get what you want/need.
- She also introduces a little square showing the correlations between control and prediction and what kind of entrepreneurship this leads to: “Adapting” is formed by having low control and low predictive powers. “Planning” come from having low control but high predictions. “Persisting” coming in having high prediction and high control. “Creative entrepreneurship ” comes from high control and low predictive powers, and is the one most correlated with those one-in-a-million entrepreneurs.
*Otis Rolley – Urban Policy Development - Otis Rolley gave a great foundation to what urban studies and urban policy is, a topic of interest to most readers here. His very brief and charismatic talk covered the foundations of city planning and designing/fixing cities, the story of Robert Moses and the NYC urban renewal, how the city is a vast system of social networks (!important!), and how people are what make our cities great. The first really charismatic talk of the day, I highly recommend this to understand a few basics about urban studies.
Esther Dyson – Journalist & Entrepreneur of Emerging Technologies - Esther talked about brief aspects of her life and living with death, and then addressed emerging technologies that make you more aware of things you cannot be physically aware of in yourself. She demonstrates “MyZeo“, a website/product that tracks your brain functions during sleep, and what the possibilities for monitoring/adjusting personal health are, once you have mapped out and read your full genome (sorry, I forgot to copy down the link). She closes with the ideas that your activities are as important as your genetics in determining your future.
Section 2: The second section was a follow-up to the TEDx conference on the BP oil spill, and a examining of environmental sciences and how we live in the world, as well as some points about ‘green theories’.
Susan Shaw – Marine Environmental Research Institute - Susan Shaw gave a great presentation on the effects of the recent BP Oil spill, but as this lay outside my immediate field of knowledge, I could not summarize it in a few easy points. She gave a thorough analysis of effects and research on the spill, further citing the need for independent scientists to look at disasters, and about the war of misinformation going on with BP and the news.
Francis Béland – X Prize Foundation – Francis talked about his X Prize foundation, and how competition encourages ideas to develop, a theme that had come up earlier. He also brought up solution crowdsourcing, meaning a “the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to a large group of people or community (a crowd), through an open invite (call)” (definition taken from crowdsourcing.org). With that said, he introduced a number of solutions to the BP oil spill in the gulf created independently through his X Prize open call.
*Cesar Haranda – Open_Sail/International Ocean Station - Cesar presented one such solution to the BP oil spill, a robot controlled sail boat called “Protei” that accomplished a similar goal to the boats cleaning the spill now, but more efficiently and without the need of people. It was an unmanned boat with a tail behind it to absorb the surface oil, and the design featured a rudder the went the span of the boat, allowing the boat to drift through the water like a snake. A really neat idea, I was hooked. Then he also claimed the benefits of having an open source system to this disaster, and showed how he keeps his own projects open to have other people take the ideas and use them and make them better or different in ways he would not have thought.
Adam Pruden – MIT/ Senseable City Lab – Like Cesar, Adam presented an unmanned solution to cleaning up the surface oil from the BP disaster. His project was interesting as well, and while similar in basic principles, took a very different approach. His project was called SeaSwarm, a fleet of unmanned and programmable ocean-surface ‘vacuum cleaners’, if I may call them that. They were programmed (instead of Cesar’s hand controlled from afar), and worked by sharing information between themselves: by relaying data back and forth, they could create thier own mental maps of the spill area and address it as they were best programmed. The solution was a great example of how programmers nowadays are trying to create cognitive AI through information exchange and relay. Though he did not talk too much about the AI aspects, I want to bring up the ideas: it works like ants or any other sort of hive-mind animals, where individually they are not capable of much, but when all linked together through some sort of system or collective, they can accomplish exponentially more than their sums. Or, if you do not like insects, think of it as how the internet exists, hyperlinked pages all connected with each other to create a web of information. Another interesting aspect of this sort of AI is how it grows. Cory Doctorow touched a bit upon this topic in one of his essays in Content, a free downloadable book (and I highly recommend it). A programmer will write a sort of algorithm that creates variations of itself to solve various tasks, and upon completion of these tasks, will judge them based on efficiency and results. Then using the best variations, the algorithm will continue to make variations of variations to complete tasks, each time rooting out if inefficient variants and keeping the ideas of the best ones. In this manner, an algorithm can optimize itself with little to no input from outside of itself. A slightly crazy and elegant solution, I think.
*Christoph Gielan – Photographer - Gielan was the only photographer/visual artist to present at this conference, but his was work stunning as both art and idea based. His projects focused on taking photos of developments and housing/community projects from the air to see organization principles that would be hard to notice otherwise. The conclusion he comes to? — our communities and suburbs are designed in the same way our prison systems are designed– that is, in how the road systems travel through the community, the various placements of public space, entrances and exits out of the community, and it’s relationship to the rest of the land. His project started with an examination of community statistics (such as foreclosure rates, average ages/incomes, and such), using areas with slightly unusual statistics as the area he would focus on, and found that most of our planned communities and suburbs do not work. Often, a higher viewpoint would reveal that the community is nothing like what the advertisements seem to offer, and the statistics showed in which ways the community failures correlated with how it was designed. For example, if there were no public areas to gather in, people would spend their times either at home/in front of the TV, or in a car, going from place to place. Likewise, the roads would disrupt the natural flow through a community, to the point where it was almost impossible to see the neighbor with whom you shared a backyard, because your front doors would be on different streets that did not connect in any way– people, living so close together, would be divided so much because of unnatural roads. Likewise, he asked, “why certain shapes?” A good question, and beautiful photos.
Dickson Despommier – Ecologist/ Vertical Farm Project – Dickson Despommier continued discussion of green trends with his project of urban agriculture and urban farming. He began by demonstrating the failures of modern agriculture worldwide (that many people do not get their minimum birthright of water/calories per day, that the world wide agriculture space is the size of South America, how agriculture creates resources differently from how they naturally come about in an ecosystem), and then showed how cities compounded the problems, how they acted as resource-blackholes, turning resources into waste, and how cities are not self-sustainable. He argued then for bio-mimicry in our cities (bringing up the point that natural evolution was not clever, but essential to survival, and thus represents the optimal solutions). He also brought up the point that “if nature has all the answers, what are the questions we should be asking?” From there, he outlined his project of eco-cities and vertical farms, following the interesting trend of urban agriculture.
Section 3: The third section focused on the process of creativity and creation, my personal favorite section
*Diana Laufenberg – Science Leadership Academy - Diana’s talk was one of the highlights of the TEDx ,and I could not recommend more highly for everyone to watch it, especially since it went so close to the ideas we address on this blog. She gave a talk about her experiences as a 7-12 grade teacher around America, with a short history of the evolution of the educational system. She began with a description of how education is related to ways of gathering information: around the 1930s and earlier, kids would go to school for information, because that was where it was stored. As things changed, our relationship to information became much more democratic and accessible, and to continue teaching kids information becomes a huge waste of time and money, as they could do that themselves. As such, she proposes an education system where kids learn by action, experience. with a surplus of information, kids must learn how to pick out what is useful and not, and then to act on it, creating their own solutions and pathways. Diana mentions we must embrace failure, because that is an essential point in learning, in seeing our mistakes and learning more from them– a wrong answer teaches as much as a right answer and only through personal experience do kids know what and why and how to avoid certain things. She provides a lot of examples of this sort of experimental learning system versus the traditional information based system, and delivers a beautiful presentation. So once again, I highly recommend listening to her ideas, they encapsulate what education is all about.
*Albert Yu-Min Lin – Explorer/Researcher for National Geographic – Albert Lin’s presentation was another fascinating highlight of modern technology and the continuing importance of people within it. As an explorer, Albert Lin mapped out a huge area of Mongolia by point of interest. He accomplished this through crowdsourcing at a scale unmanageable by even a large sized team of people. Uploading satellite imagery of the Mongolian steppes to the National Geographic website (Valley of the Khans), he had an open call to anyone interested to view those pictures and choose points of interest in them, each image broken down into smaller and more manageable images. People were asked to mark down everything from tire tracks to roads to buildings to weird blemishes on the land and possible historical sites of anomalies of interest. Working in the field, he would collect this data from NG and follow up on it based on what seemed like the best leads, finding everything from forgotten monuments to ancient burial sites, lost in the unexplored wilderness. He brought this idea of crowdsourcing full circle by explaining how computer algorithms and human perception differ and how they work very well in harmony: computer algorithms can find “waldo” in a picture very easily– that is, spot patterns or anomalies within large amounts of data. Human perception, on the other hand, is good at analyzing those anomalies and labeling unknowns, and finding important information that does not stand out of a patter. Thus, integrating both computer algorithms and people, data gathering was optimized to make exploring the whole of the Mongolian steppes a manageable task. Also interesting, Boris and I had a chance to speak to him after the event, and he told us a bit about himself– apparently, he had been crowdsourcing all the way through the initial stages of the project when he had no funding and luck did not seem to be heading his way: he was living with friends, and sleeping on couches, and getting by on the helpfulness of other people on the way to his goals. A different nature, but crowdsourcing nonetheless (also see CouchSurfing).
Sam Shelton – Design Ignites Change - Sam Shelton’s presentation showed the possibilities of using design as a tool for action, showing projects his students have created to address certain social conditions in a manner different than how those issues were addressed before. This sort of work is similar to that of our own Rostislav Roznoshchik and his active-design projects and theories, so this was a good presentation to see some of these ideas happening outside of the New School University area.
Nina Fefferman – Rutgers/Tufts University - Nina presented a talk about social behavior and its relationship to epidemics, how risks and solutions come from both inside and outside of a society, and how things like social order affects disease risks. She gave a good foundation to the ideas I have been encountering in my courses in epidemiology and disaster research, and as such, I recommend this video to anyone who is interested in what I am studying as an overview to the concepts I discuss.
*Charles Limb - Johns Hopkins University - An interesting (if a bit long) presentation, Charles Limb discussed how creativity works in the brain. Using brain scans, he examined systematically the differences in something you recite versus something you create or improvise, and focused on this with music: playing a jazz progression versus and improvised solo, or reciting a rap versus free styling (including a him rapping on stage). The interesting results were of how improvising in music between two people lights up the language-devoted portions of your brain, while free styling a rap ignited visual-perception portions of the brain. And as any musician will tell you, music is a language, and as any writer will tell you, you see your words. Interesting!
Section 4: This section focused on realizing happiness and community in projects or through projects, but such a description does not really cover what the talks were really about.
*Ted Leonis – Monumental Sports & Entertainment – President of a literally monumental empire of sports and entertainment, Ted talked about his work and his habits of organizations and the principals with which to run a company. He gave a great deal of discussion to happiness in work, and how principals should lead your work, not vice versa. The following are some major points of his presentation:
- Public space defines communities. This is an obvious one to public planners, but a good heads up to everyone else– communities are public, not private.
- Leave more than you take, and play offence: that is, you should not be thinking about doing the least harm, but actively taking a role in creating the most good
- The American Declaration of Independence went through many drafts, but one thing always stayed the same: our undeniable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
- When examining your business and your life and the value of both, we should consider the following things: the qualities of relationships we create (between us and our families, or us and others, or between other people that do not directly concern us), productivity or units of work, self-actualization (are you getting done what you set out to do or have you gotten lost/misdirected somewhere), impact on the communities we serve (no man or business is an island unto itself, as I like to quote John Donne), longevity (will our work outlast us), life accretion (don’t stress, everyone wants to lie a long time), return interest and investment (have we made back what we put forward?). Only when we examine these things can we figure out if our lives and work are conductive to our happiness or detrimental. He calls these ideas the principles of the ‘business of happiness’.
- Embrace reckonings, he tells us. Take active lifestyles, participate in the world or even just your local communities of interest (join a chess club or go bowling with friends or visit the neighborhood bar, if that’s what it takes), empathize with people, engage in modes of personal expression outside (outside of complaining, I might add), volunteer and give back what you have. Our personal happiness is dependent on our relationship, direct or indirect, with other people. Stopping thinking in terms of individual and in terms of the individual as part of a collective.
- And of course, to sum it up, personal happiness makes you successful, especially considering we most often judge success by how happy it makes us– no amount of money, at the end of the day, is worth going home miserable for.
*Tim McDonald – Onion Flats – Designer/Architect Tim McDonald’s presentation may have been flat and uninspired, but his ideas were definitely novel. Tim stressed the collaborative process in reinvigorating and rebuilding communities, stressing the differences in types of creation: creating as making something that does not exist, or creating as reinventing the old. Not to be confused with recreating the wheel, Tim projects take old communities and makes them completely different while keeping in a way, unchanged. By absorbing the old into the new, he creates diversity on a block of land through different facades and alternating heights of buildings, creates facades that excite exploration, where one cannot tell where something begins and something ends. By varying density, size, and locations of facades, they are made more appealing and change how we living in a building, from the outside-inwards. Interesting ideas here, if you can get through his complete lack of charisma.
*Storm Cunningham – Revitaliz LLC - Another great and charismatic presentation, this closed the TEDx with an examination of nature in community, examining how to rebuild a community through active community projects, and examining other methods addressing the despairing state of our cities as being just a “healthier cancer”. Like Ted Leonis, he argues that we should work at creating more good rather than limiting the bad, and shows how the relationship between resources and our economic system contribute to more than the price of goods, how a restoration based economy not only creates jobs and reinvigorates land and cities, but it contributes to overall world-wellbeing. A lot of information and examples in a short amount of time, this was an interesting idea to follow up on, though I do think it would work best either supplementing or being supplemented by other green movements.
The End – Alongside all the speakers were the poet Iyeoka whose spoken word and simple music asked us to consider how our lives can change within seconds, and um, something else (memory block here), and jazz quartet “Time for Three” (that’s right, there were four of them), who played a crazy mix of classic jazz, gypsy and Irish themes, and a bit of rockabilly. Also, I did not take any notes on David Gallo (who did work on oceanic and underwater research, having just come up from exploring the Titanic), Roshini Thinakaran(who had a very incomplete presentation on her work on… I’m not sure what), Paula Kreger (who did something for PBS), Yash Gupta (the Dean of Johns Hopkins Business School, examining how business and education affect the world), Jackie Savitz (who gave a presentation on wind energy, but neglected to mention side effects of controlling wind, which I thought was something you cannot neglect to mention), and Bill James (who wanted to create above ground third-rail based car-train blends which seemed like a bad joke from the 50s). Once again, great event, and I hope some of you will go on to look some of these speakers up, and we can hopefully get a discussion going about these ideas.
Thanks, Roman Kudryashov