TEDxCopenhagen

I attended the TEDxCopenhagen event held on the 18th of September expecting to be amazed and inspired, and I was! For people unfamiliar with TED talks, they’re a series of inspiring talks that are held every year at TED conferences. TEDx events are similar in scope and feel, but are independently organized events, usually centred around some form of theme. TEDxCopenhagen’s theme for 2012 was Movement, which was interpreted in many different ways.

As the last of the 650 participants were trying to find decent places in the theatre, the TEDx presenters Lærke Ullerup & Mikael Colville Andersen kicked off TEDx by getting the audience to sing Jeg er så glad for min cykel, a traditional Danish children’s song. After everybody sat down, an introduction was given and we started the conference with the first topic to be discussed: Love & Leadership. The first talk was given by Soulaima Gourani about “How to ignite and empower children”. She described the need for people to have emotional intelligence, allowing people to interact with others and communicate effectively. She also described her childhood and trying to cope with being half Moroccan and half Danish.

The next talk was given by Jakob Silas Lund about “Using football to reconcile people torn apart by war”. He described African villages that had lost their sense of community after being torn apart by civil war and power-hungry warlords, and the effort he and his team made to try and restore that sense of community by using football. He also described a tale of a woman who was raped by a man in the village, and they eventually confronted each other on the football field, and later on, underneath the local peace tree, where he broke down and begged for forgiveness.

We then watched a TED talk on the big screens. This particular talk was by Ric Elias entitled “3 things I learned while my plane crashed“, in which he recounted the thoughts, wishes and regrets that went through his head while his plane was about to crash into the Hudson River. There were two quotes that particularly inspired me from this talk:

“I regretted the time I wasted on things that did not matter with people that [do] matter.” – Ric Elias

and:

“I no longer try to be right; I choose to be happy.” – Ric Elias

TED is actually an acronym from the topics that are usually discussed at the conference: Technology, Entertainment and Design, and the next talk was actually not a talk at all, but entertainment. Tuk & Sofie came up on stage and provided some very entertaining pair acrobatics.

We moved on to another talk by Ole Qvist-Sørensen, entitled “”Draw more, together”. He highlighted the idea that while people were visual thinkers, most claimed they couldn’t draw. He claimed that drawing together was a personal way of bringing ideas together, as it aided visual thinking (since you could see the drawings), it provided clarification and allowed for multiple perspectives. He emphasized the fact that drawing together was co-creation, and drawing also helped to practice important leadership skills.

Up next was Eman Osman’s talk on “Building cultural bridges”. Here, she described her experience as a Somali-Danish woman and her efforts in trying to get immigrants in Copenhagen to interact with the locals.

The final talk from the first topic was Lars AP’s talk on “The Fucking Friendly movement”. Lars stated that Denmark consistently ranked as one of the highest as one of the happiest places on Earth. However, he claims, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is one of the friendliest places on Earth. He described his experience of having different personalities depending on which language he used to speak, especially since he was half-American. He highlighted the focus that most people have on first impressions, and suggested that we pay more attention to last impressions instead. He also described several ways he tried to encourage friendliness, such as by dressing us as a parking attendant and giving out prizes for good parking, and by holding a Friday bar in the middle of the street with his neighbourhood. His impression was that generosity bred more generosity.

After a brief break, we were back with our second topic of discussion: Food, nature & health. Claus Meyer, co-founder of the restaurant Noma, started us off with his fiery talk on” Unfolding the potential of indigenous food cultures”. He stated that religion has always tried to prevent the enjoyment of food, considering it a sin. For ages, he claimed, people’s attitude to food was that eating should be a matter of efficiency, must be cheap and must be eaten quickly, which he said was not the right attitude. His father’s attitude to happiness, as a businessman, could be summed up in this sentence: “Happiness is doing everything you did yesterday, but more efficiently.” Meyer vehemently disagreed with his statement, and recounted the story of the time he spent living in France with an old man and chef, where he learnt what happiness really was:

“Happiness is about knowing what you want to do in your life and having the guts to do it.” – Claus Meyer

He then related this to bread-making, stating that:

“Haste is the worst thing, both for gastronomy and for life.” – Claus Meyer

He highlighted his example by pulling out a loaf of bread, the type that you would find in the supermarket, and furiously stated that it was not real bread, while throwing parts of it to the audience. He then told us his method of making bread:

  • There must be more water in the dough.
  • The bread should be kneaded like mad.
  • The amount of yeast used in the bread should be decreased.
  • The bread should be left to sit for longer (he recommended 8 hours)
  • The bread should be baked in a piping hot oven.

Next, we had an inspiring talk by Kirsten Ejlskov Jensen’s talk on “Running strong”. A runner at heart, she was struck by cancer and considered stopping running. However, she always felt that running gave her energy and revitalized her, and so she she continued running anyway, stating that physical activity is indispensable for the body.

Before the next performance, we watched a TED video by Pam Warhurst entitled “How we can eat our landscapes“. Here, she described the concept of propaganda gardening and the “Incredible Edible” initiative started in Todmorden, England, which grew vegetables, fruits and herbs in unused plots of land in the village. This also led to the introduction of local courses in agriculture, as well as people becoming more aware of how to grow produce and how to tell whether it was ripe for picking or not, since as she stated:

“There’s so many people that don’t really recognize a vegetable unless it’s in a bit of plastic with an instruction packet on the top.” – Pam Warhurst

Moonhound Theatre provided the next performance, titled “The Tale of Lunarville”. The performance was a drama that spoke about the relationship between the creatures called the Moonhounds, a local village and the mayor, with interesting results.

We then had a talk by Klaus Phanareth on “Moving healthcare to your fingertips”. He dreamt of a healthcare system that allowed patients instant access 24/7 to the system, high quality health data, a system that empowered patients and allowed them access to their health data. The ideal healthcare system would also be coordinated and coherent, allow for one point of contact and ultimately move health care to the patient. In reality, Phanareth claims, the current system is exactly the opposite; it acts as a gatekeeper for the patient’s data, it is controlling, budget driven and moreover, health data easily gets lost in the system.

Phanareth states that the healthcare system has not changed in a 100 years, with the concept of hospitalization as being system centred. His dream was a complete redesign of the healthcare system (where he demonstrated Epital.org as an example), and he stated that it was something that everyone should be concerned about since eventually we all become patients.

Up next was Bente Klarlund’s talk on “Making more minds up to move”. She opened her talk by stating that she personally hated sport, which seemed a little odd considering the title of her topic. Klarlund claimed that this generation might be the first where children do not outlive their parents. She highlighted the important of exercise and physical, stating:

“Those who think they do not have time for exercise will soon have to find time for illness.” – Bente Klarlund

She also stated that no matter what one’s body mass was, it was important to exercise; not only to keep fit, but also to stay healthy. Here, she gave an example of two men; one who was thin and skinny but led a sedentary lifestyle, and the other who was not thin but led an active lifestyle. She also claimed that fat on the hips was the good type of fat, while abdominal fat was the bad type of fat.

Klarlund described an experiment that she tried on her children. Instead of using their bikes or walking and generally being active, they had use a car to get around and lead a generally more sedentary lifestyle. Klarlund claimed that 2 weeks of inactivity had an effect on their concentration and focus.

Finally, if one was not up to sports, she mentioned several different methods that one could use in order to still remain somewhat active. Biking and walking were the most obvious options, but Klarlund also mentioned skipping the elevator for 12 weeks (where she also mentioned that architects should place stairs in a more visible position in the building to encourage people to use them.)

The final talk from this topic was Selina Juul on “How can a consumer movement change the future?”. Juul claimed that on average, individuals waste 25% of the food they buy. Moreover, global food waste is able to solve world hunger 3 times over. Juul claimed that a possible solution to food waste would be to stop quantity discounts at supermarkets.

With the end of the second topic, it was time for lunch! The picture below shows the lunch that we were given by the TEDx organizers, all wrapped up in a red chequered piece of cloth.

After lunch, we went back inside Bremen theatre to continue the second half of the conference. The third topic of discussion was titled Science & discoveries, and Birger Lindberg Møller kickstarted the discussion with his talk on “Plant power – the ultimate way to ‘go green’”. His initial statement was that without plants, none of us would exist since they provide humans with food and biofuel and they are simply powered by solar energy. Møller claimed that plants also had their own language, albeit one which was made up of complex chemistry and chemicals. Taxol for example, which is a compound that can be extracted from the Pacific Yew Tree, is an anticancer agent. However, one problem is most plants that contain useful compounds like this make the compounds in small amounts, or are rare. The compounds cannot also be made in the laboratory since the method is not sustainable and too much waste is produced.

One interesting that Møller mentioned is the advent of synthetic biology and the concept of biohacking. He also emphasized the concept of combining systems and knowledge in new ways that weren’t thought about before.

Up next, we had Signe Bjørg Jensen with her talk titled “Watch out for the scouts”. As a scout leader, Jensen mentioned that her mission and of every scout leader was to turn children into awesome adults. In everyday life, children are expected to have certain abilities or talents; things they are especially good at.  The only requirement to join the scouts is that children behave and be nice.

Kasper Guldager was next with his talk titled “Material world”. As an architect, Guldager believes in experimenting with different materials used in buildings, and not just stick to concrete. He mentioned examples such as spidersilk (which can’t be mass produced since the spiders attack each other, but due to recent developments, mountain goats can now grow silk), as well as carbon nanotubes.

One project that he mentioned was The Cube, a building with all of its façades made out of glass. But how do you insulate glass? Aerogel, he said, could be one example. Dubbed “the world’s lightest material”, most of it is air and it is one of the best insulating material available. Furthermore, it lets sunlight through. Guldager also mentioned the use of self-cleaning glass and a plaster ceiling with small small plastic capsules with paraffin inside added to the mixture to catch the heat. The use of algae in the façade for solar shading struck me as particularly ingenious.

Guldager stated that half of the global waste being produced came from the building industry. However, nature does not have waste, and he mentioned the possibility of integrating buildings into the local biotrope.

Up next was a TED talk. This particular one was by Juan Enriquez titled “Will our kids be a different species?“. He spoke about the fact that technology was moving quickly, and that the rest of society had to keep up. Quoting Vladimir Lenin:

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Enriquez has several hypotheses as to the future of human beings. One hypothesis was the “fast food fetish” and the effect obesity had. Another was the “sexy geek” hypothesis, a mating hypothesis involving like-minded and intelligent people clustering in several different places. Yet another hypothesis was the possibility of “too much information” being fed to people, and resulting in hypersensitivity. Finally, another hypothesis was the involvement of chemicals.

We then had a surreal and weird digital performance entitled “Time, space and light” by a group called Dark Matters. The performance seemed to move through mathematical dimensions, first starting out as a simple white point on the black screen, and then transitioning into a line. Eventually, it seemed like we were walking through a forest of lines. During the whole performance, a strange and guttural voice asked us to follow him to his room.

Moving on, we had Lasse Birk Olesen’s talk on “How technology moves society – not politics”. It was a talk that could possibly be deemed as “controversial” by some, Olesen opened his talk with the following quote:

“Our time is better spent on technological innovation than political agitation.” – Lasse Birk Olesen

Olesen questioned who truly were the individuals that moved the world, and gave examples from global politics and global technological innovators. Was it Julian AssangeSean Parker and Steve Jobs, or was it George W. BushTony Blair and Barack Obama? Olesen stated that the former 3 had a global impact using technology, and gave another example by mentioning the introduction of the The Pill which had the effect of a population decrease. He also stated that technology did not need a majority consent in order to act, unlike politics.

Olesen claimed that the last major innovation in political systems happened 300 years ago with the joining of the United States of America, and that therefore we needed space to experiment with new political systems. He then went on to mention 3 technologies that he believed would change the world dramatically. The first technology was seasteading, the concept of moving living on the ocean. Using seasteads, he claimed, would allow people to experiment with different political models and systems. The second technology was the Bitcoin, an open-source cash currency. It is decentralized and no fees are required to be paid when sending or receiving money. This would allow people to instantly access a global market without having to open a bank account. The third technology was 3D printing, the printing of physical objects. This would allow the democratization of production, as well as allow companies and individuals to work for innovation.

Olesen boldly claimed that if all money currently going to political lobbies and campaigns went to science and technology, Democracy 2 could have been discovered. He then ended his talk by slightly modifying Otto von Bismarck’s quote:

“Politics is the art of the possible. Technology makes the impossible possible.” – Lasse Birk Olesen

To end this topic of discussion, we had Troels Petersen’s talk on “Moving at the speed of light”. As a researcher at CERN, Petersen felt that his work felt like a marriage between cosmology and particle physics. He briefly walked us through the ever-decreasing scale of matter, from atoms, to electrons, to protons and neutrons, and finally to quarks. He also described the search for Higg’s boson and why it mattered, since according to their model, no particle should have any mass and all move at the speed of light. He reminded people that although the research that occurred at CERN (which he referred to as the “cathedral of science“) might seem esoteric and useless to some people, the World Wide Web emerged from CERN. He admitted that the knowledge of the existence of Higg’s boson might not have any practical knowledge, and ended the talk with a quote by Richard Feynman:

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” – Richard Feynman

We were then treated to a short break. I decided to grab that moment to exchange the book I had brought with me (namely, Miguel Sicart’s “The Ethics of Computer Games“) and placed it in the book hammock in order to exchange it with another book. There were a few books in Danish, and some which were simply reading books, and I admit that I was expecting books similar in scope to research books or reference books. However, finding nothing in that area, I decided to grab a book by Banksy called “Wall and Piece“. Before returning to my seat, I was then asked a couple of questions (and recorded) by one of the volunteers for TEDx (a Polish girl) about my background and which topics I had found the most inspiring so far.

The fourth and final topic of the conference was Alternative societies. The first talk in the topic was by Risenga Manghezi entitled “Sharing your freedom”. Manghezi spoke about Christiania, which was an abandoned military base that was taken over by squatters and turned into a free state. Christiania’s identity has always been one where the people living there do not own the land; however, the Danish government issued an ultimatum which forced them to take a difficult decision. Either they had to buy the land, or the Danish government would sell it off to other interested parties.

Manghezi explained that in Christiania, important decisions were taken in consensus, therefore all 650 inhabitants must agree to the final outcome of the decision. As they held a meeting in the Great Hall, people started suggesting different possible solutions to the problem. Here, Manghezi stated that he felt that living in Christiania operated on 3 important principles:

  • the freedom to express yourself
  • the freedom to be who you are
  • the freedom to take your time

Allowing people these freedoms, he claimed, introduced the idea of “hurrying up slowly”, and allowed people to come up with creative and unexpected solutions to the challenges they faced. In fact, they approached the problem using 2 unique solutions that might not have intended to be serious in the first place. First, they closed down Christiania, buying them time. Although it meant turning away tourists and the homeless at the gates, it allowed them to come eye to eye with their purpose and realize that they should share their freedom with everyone. Secondly, they reached the consensus decision of buying the land together, but not owning the deeds to the land, thus keeping their values intact.

Manghezi stated that this ordeal made him realize 2 important things. If they had never listened to all suggestions in the audience, including suggestions that might not have been serious, they would never had reached the decision that they came to reach. He observed:

“Society has a tendency to kick out people that come up with creative solutions.” – Risenga Manghezi

Finally, he stated:

“Sometimes, we have to close down to open up.” – Risenga Manghezi

Next, we had Emil Wilk’s talk on “The future of advertising is – good”. Wilk started the “Free Bikes” movement, an ad-supported  advertising movement. This allowed Danish students to get free bikes that were supported by advertisements, and then send the bike to Ghana to support the local population.

We were then treated to a video from the TED archives. This time, it was by Michael Norton entitled “How to buy happiness“, where he examined the relationship between money and happiness. He disagreed with the common quote “Money can’t buy happiness”, stating:

“If you think money can’t buy happiness, you’re not spending it right.” – Michael Norton

Norton stated that lottery winners didn’t lead the glamorous lifestyles that people thought they would lead. In fact, winning the lottery often led to ruined lives. Norton backed up his claim with experiments involving telling a group of students to spend money on themselves and another group of students to spend money on others, and measuring their state of happiness after some amount of time. He found that more often than not, the group of people that were told to spend money on other people experienced elevation and were happy, while the others experienced nothing. Norton stated that spending money on other people had a bigger return of investment and encouraged people to visit DonorsChoose.org.

The final performance was by IKI, entitled “Anything can happen”. This was an improvised vocal performance by 6 talented Scandinavian girls. The result was a chilling soundscape that was an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Moving on, we had Mary Embry’s talk on “The Copenhagenize project”. This was the idea of taking the best elements from Copenhagen and transplanting them into different cities. Elements such as safe streets, safe bike routes for kids, a quiet city with less car horns and more bicycle bells, all leading to the importance of Copenhagen’s bicycle culture. It has suddenly become important for a city to brand itself as being bicycle friendly. She made reference to a quote by Lewis Carroll:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” – Lewis Carroll

Embry stated that there were two things that could help introduce a more bicycle friendly culture to cities. The first was to prioritize cyclists over automobiles. She made an example with Amsterdam, where cars entered the city as guests and they entered at their own risk. The second was to only take the car when it made sense.

We then had Joseph Hamoud’s talk on “Syria, road to freedom”. Referencing the recent Syrian uprising, Hamoud told chilling tales that were happening in Syria. He urged people not to be politically apathetic and to take action, referencing Martin Niemöller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller

The final talk of the conference was by Jerry Michalski, titled “What if we trusted you?” He stated that in schools, there was one hidden lesson that was being taught to children, the fact that the clock was much more valuable than the student’s passion, flow and inspiration. Michalski claimed that the current education system didn’t trust the students to learn without having them present, relying on obedience, compliance and dependence.

Michalski also highlighted the problems that teachers faced. Teaching is not a well paid job, and he claims that only individuals who are truly dedicated to the cause of teaching enter the profession. It takes time to settle the children down and correct the previous lesson’s homework, leaving very little time for the actual lesson. Moreover, the teacher usually has very little budget to aid teaching.

He also claimed that a zero-tolerance policy had crept into the system, where students were being over-medicated, learning under the influence of security cameras and responding with gun shootings. The actual educational content had been reduced to “teaching simply to pass tests” (which he claimed was made worse with the USA’s No Child Left Behind policy, and students had less and less free time.

Michalski then asked what would happen if the system trusted students? What sort of system could be built? He made reference to unschooling, edupunks and free range kids. He claimed that while school was a compulsory educational system, unschooling would be child led and curiosity led learning. He also made reference to deschooling, where a child who has been to school switches to being unschooled. This, he claimed, was a process of healing the child’s natural curiosity.

Michalski stated that it was impossible for schools to force everyone to learn things at the same time, since not everybody learnt at the same rate and countless hours were therefore wasted. He also suggested the idea of having school be voluntary, where children could drop in voluntarily.

We were then treated to a improvised rap in Danish by Per Vers, who walked us through the talks in the TEDx conference.

And with that, the TEDx conference came to an end. It was an intensely inspiring session that I would readily recommend to anyone interested!

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