TedXSydney 2013

After watching countless talks on line, I was very excited to attend my first TedXSydney at the Sydney Opera House on May 24 2013. This was different to any scientific conference I had attended, and I came away inspired on a number of fronts.

For years I have been enjoying TED talks, an impressive collection of online talks from the now famous TED conferences.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Today the talks cover a wide range of intellectual and academic areas with only one thing in common: excellent communication of ideas.

Some of my all-time favourite talks include

Not only do TED events attract some of the brightest minds, for me, they also show case the best in public speaking, so I jumped at the chance to attend our local TedXSydney event, now big enough to fill the Sydney Opera House.

However, to register, I first needed to pass the TED test:

Why you? Why are you interested in attending TEDxSydney 2013 … and what do you think qualifies you to be in that room? 100 words please.

Here’s my response:

Ideas are my life. I want to attend TEDxSydney for the sake of ideas: to look to the future, meet people, brainstorm, get inspired, and contribute. As an evolutionary biologist and research scientist, I strive to understand how the world works, has come to be, and is changing into the future. As a citizen, I champion innovative ideas for society, from small to large. The world faces many diverse challenges. At TED events, new understanding of these challenges is presented and solutions are found. This is where I want to be.

Daniel Falster Application to Attend TedXSydney 2013

I meant every word. What particularly excited me about attending a TED event, was the opportunity to discuss ideas beyond my immediate area of expertise.

When I first became a research scientist in a university, I was expecting to meet people from many different faculties and discuss ideas. Unfortunately, this is not how universities operate. When you meet people from other faculties, it is usually to discuss administrative matters. And even within your faculty, it can be hard to get people discussing ideas. It turns out that TED conferences are a lot like my ideal, imagined university life.

I was also excited to see the “discussion of ideas” being something large enough to warrant using a venue like the Sydney Opera house. The Festival of Dangerous ideas is also held there.

Highlights

Talks

The day featured 18 talks, and in the spirit of TED, all are available online, along with the musical performances and video clips interspersed among the talks.

My favourite talk was Dr Lisa Murray’s talk on Future-Proofing Our Digital Future

Lisa Murray is the City Historian at City of Sydney Council. She described the challenge of archiving the increasingly digital records of our modern society, and the shocking reality that we – as a society, and more specifically, as the state of NSW – have no more than a couple of month’s funding allocated for this purpose. Apparently it’s easier to handle the records of an ancient monastery than a modern city.

This news may come as a shock. I mean, isn’t it easier to archive, now everything is digital? Well, no. Aside form the sheer volume of digital material that is being created (like this post), much of the material exists in specialised databases. For example, the bank accounts and tax records of probably every company and government institution in the world, are stored in some sort of customised database. To make sense of such records, you not only need the files themselves, but also the software environments needed to access them. According to Wikipedia:

Unlike traditional analog objects such as books or photographs where the user has unmediated access to the content, a digital object always needs a software environment to render it. These environments keep evolving and changing at a rapid pace, threatening the continuity of access to the content. Physical storage media, data formats, hardware, and software all become obsolete over time, posing significant threats to the survival of the content.

I also greatly enjoyed Alice Gorman’s talk about space junk, arguing that rather than being junk, dead satellites are important archaeological artefacts from our first interactions with the universe beyond earth.

Lisa and Alice presented the best ideas of the day. For pure entertainment, I enjoyed Professor Ron McCallum’s talk about Blindness, Technology & Reading.

Ron is blind. His talk highlighted how much technology can change our lives.

As a blind person, he has perhaps experienced the changes technology can bring more intensely than the rest of us to date. Computing has changed his world, entirely. However, his talk provides an important insight into the type of revolution we all may experience over the next 50 years, with the growth of computing power.

Access to speakers

One of the things I appreciated was the access to speakers in the foyer throughout the event. I spoke with at least 4 of the performers, and had opportunity to catch more.

The food

The food was amazing! This was dinner: roast lamb, sourdough bread, olives, dips, pickles, cheese; all locally produced.

In between sessions, there were sacks of fruit along the opera house steps, and cows being dismembered in the foyer. (yes!) The organisers went for a grow it local theme, and much of the produce was crowd sourced. Definitely a treat, and better than any other conference food I have ever had.

Performances

A surprising feature of day was the large number of performances between talks. The combination of academic talks with musical performance was very enjoyable, as it gave the mind a break.

Idle chat

I went along with my good friend and colleague Mark Westoby, which was a pleasure.

I also met a number of interesting people throughout the day, and this was a highlight for me. Rarely do you get to meet people spanning such a range of expertise, yet still interested in talking about ideas. Among others, I talked with the head of IBM research, fine art photographer Alexia Sinclair, a retired researcher from BOM, a teacher from shore grammar, and Anne Wickham from Boxing Clever, a PR agency.

Critical feedback

Mark and I debriefed after the day, and agreed on a number of points for improvement.

First, all of the talks were a little long. Enough said.

Second, many of the talks presented focussed on a social justice or environmental cause, but few of these posed any serious challenge to a mostly left leaning audience.

Third, there was perhaps a little too much self-congratulation from the organisers and presenters. Don’t get me wrong, the day WAS a huge success. But this success was being celebrated even before it had begun, and we were bombarded with emails in the lead up. I appreciate the enthusiasm, but …

Conclusions

A great event. I’ll be back next year, and hopefully presenting in the future. I’ve started thinking about what idea I want to bring to the public. Stay tuned. And thanks to Mark for accompanying me.

A collection of images from the day is available on flickr.