TedxWarwick: the business of ideas

Photo by Mark Bristow

There’s an old Yiddish expression popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, a writer who seeks the magnificent in the mundane that, for me, captures the essence of TED: “To a worm in horseradish,” it goes, “the world is horseradish.” Sitting through this series of impassioned talks in Warwick Arts Centre, the maxim is rarely far from my thoughts. We are conditioned to view the world as one big finished product, rather than a constantly evolving body of parts. Everything is normal and most things are unchangeable, so why bother trying to look at anything differently? Yet those that can train their eyes beyond the horseradish are the difference between stasis and progress. How different might our lives be if Galileo had yielded to the Vatican’s flat-earth theory 400 years ago, or if Alexander Fleming hadn’t fished his mould-ridden dish from the bin?

As anyone who has ever suffered from appendicitis will tell you, evolutionary paths are filled with imperfections. By the same token, few of the ideas voiced at TED will revolutionise, but most are worth listening to, just in case. At one point during TEDxWarwick, there’s a man standing next to a car he’s built out of carrots, tofu and chocolate, quoting Kermit the Frog (“It’s not easy being green”). It’s a tad surreal, but utterly fascinating. That he has fashioned a functioning vehicle from the contents of a shopping trolley is barely believable, and more of a statement of intent than a business model. But coming away from Kerry Kirwan’s talk on sustainability, you’re aware of an alternative – albeit one with questionable commercial viability – that wasn’t in your mind before, which is what today is all about.

The overarching title of TEDxWarwick, organised by students at the university, is Global Challenges. How can we, as an ever-expanding, consuming, demanding, developing species, ensure our increasingly digital society continues to thrive on our rapidly decaying planet? The common topics are sustainability, education, spatiality, healthcare and digitalism. Unsurprisingly, it’s the speakers who approach their problems most laterally who are the most memorable.

The internet of ideas

Hyperconnected Andy Stanford-Clarke is an IBM master inventor and has come to tell us that “innovation begins at home”. In a lesser forum, he might have espoused the theoretical wonders of DIY from a lectern. For TED, though, he’s come fully wired to his own humble abode on the Isle of Wight, allowing him to show us exactly how we can make our lives more exciting, efficient and inexpensive through the “internet of things”. He turns on his patio lights all the way from Coventry, then powers up the water feature. He casually shares an anecdote about the time he designed a GPS-tracking system for the notoriously tardy, hard to track Isle of Wight ferry. The ferry operator didn’t realise it existed until Stanford-Clarke altered the ferry’s final destination to Milton Keynes on April Fool’s Day, prompting thousands of worried queries and inspiring the operator to buy his system. By remedying a problem that affected his daily life, he helped out thousands of others in the process.

Taking things a step further, Koen Olthuis’ floating city apps could, at some point in the distant future, provide salvation for billions. “Why can’t a city,” he asks, “work like a smartphone?” Why, indeed? In his vision of the future, Olthuis sees overpopulation alleviated through popup islands floating on the Rivers Hudson and Thames, buoyant favelas providing upgrades from the coastal slums of urban sprawls, forests transposed into city centres, Olympic stadia shuttled between venues quadrennially. For him, urban landscapes should be as malleable and responsive as the contents of your iPhone. Ridiculous, right? Not exactly. In his low-lying homeland the Netherlands, where every day is a battle to stay above the tide, Olthuis has already started working on floating city apps to be used locally and in other tidally threatened nations like the Maldives. Talk of Dubai-esque floating golf courses is frivolous, but with the reality of climate change challenging the very existence of Pacific states like Kiribati (last week the tiny country outlined plans for wholesale migration to Fiji should sea levels rise much further), Olthuis’ futuristic apps are almost pragmatic.

 Are we human?

The trial-and-error process of innovation seems inherently human and TED – a cauldron of ideas, some ingenious, some harebrained – is case in point. Cue Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, to provide the most thought-provoking 18 minutes of the day. At some point in the future, could the process of idea generation be dehumanised? Warwick’s work facilitates the fusion of the digital and analog worlds within the human body. By wiring people up to prosthetic microarrays – chips designed to integrate with our own complex nervous and cognitive systems – a world of extra-sensory perception is just around the corner. For the most part, he’s his own guinea pig. He‘s allowed his wife to gauge his mood from the other side of the Atlantic by wearing a necklace connected to a chip in his arm which changes colour with his temperament. He’s also trialled a system of heat sensing magnets built into the fingertips which allow the subject to detect the presence of someone else without seeing them. Next on the agenda is the creation of a synthetic “human” brain, to be used by a robot. Astonishment flashes across the faces of the audience at this point, no doubt inspired by memories of Skynet or Hal. Far from being dystopian, though, this is riveting, inspiring fare.

In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig wrote that “for every fact, there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look, the more you see.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Kevin Warwick when he quips: “I always seem to end up with more questions than when I started.” TED isn’t just about changing people’s perceptions, but how they perceive. It’s about realising that everything is interesting – you just need to approach it from the right angle. On the grey, dreary train journey from Coventry back to London we talk about gerontology, universe bending, nuclear fusion and warp speed. On the way there, we talked about coffee, iPads and how little sleep we’d had the night before. TED: one, Virgin Trains: nil.

Originally published here
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