What is TEDxToronto? Well, first the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) concept is a volunteer-based conference that allows communities to create their own set of talks under the TED umbrella and motto ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’. Toronto has been hosting a conference for five years now and is Canada’s largest TEDx event and one of the most prominent in the world.
The idea is to bring in diverse speakers to talk about a wide variety of things to a diverse audience and just spark conversations and thought. You have to apply to be a delegate so that the organizers can ‘curate’ the audience to be diverse (I’m not sure how that works). I attended this year for the first time because I wanted to get outside the film, tv and digital world that I live in, hear other ideas and see what I could bring back to my world. I’m sharing my experience because you might be inspired to do the same next year.
The first thing that I noticed about the conference (held at the Royal Conservatory of Music – great location) was that about ¾ of the people there were under 30. And they were ethnically diverse. I don’t know what this conference is doing right that the film, tv and digital world hasn’t figured out but the room was more reflective of multicultural Toronto than any conference I’ve ever been to. I’m going to be spending some time thinking about that. We’ve got some work to do.
The speakers covered a wide range of topics ranging from technology to mental health to how we interact with the world. The theme that was intended to give coherence to the day was ‘the choices that we make’. It didn’t quite work as often the speakers didn’t make any reference to choice in their talk. The talks were for the most part very interesting in their own right so it wasn’t the end of the world but a wrap up that brought us back to the theme would have been helpful.
But back to the talks. There were very cool technology demonstrations (the ‘internet of things’ from Rodolphe el-Khoury, wearable computer from Steve Mann, gesture-controlled technology from Thalmic Labs and robot doctors from Dr. Ivar Mendez) that went beyond mere demos to talk about the potential impact on society of this technology. The audience didn’t just think ‘oh cool stuff’ but ‘hmm, where will this take us’. With some of these new possibilities we have some choices to make (see what I did there?).
There were several emotional and raw speakers. A young woman, Ti-Anna Wang, talked about overcoming her fear of public speaking to become an advocate for her imprisoned Chinese dissident father. Gabrielle Scrimshaw talked about the need to improve the standard of living of young aboriginals, the fastest growing demographic in Canada. Mark Henick talked about his suicide attempts as a teen and the work that he does now with young suicidal teens. Debbie Berlin-Romalis shared her experiences as a social worker at Sick Kids working with kids with cancer and the importance of being honest with them. Matthew Good wrapped up the day with a few songs and his personal story of the challenge of living with mental illness. They didn’t always talk about choice but you could see that each one had made a major choice about how they wanted to live their lives and improve the lives of others. That was inspiring.
The final group of speakers defied categorization. Michael Stone talked about how we need to recognize that spirituality adapts to changing cultures. Darrell Bricker reminded us that too often the Canada that academics, politicians and content creators describe is the Canada of the past and not the present – we are more culturally diverse, our population has shifted to Ontario and the west and the bilingualism rate is dropping. Joel MacCharles talked about being better connected with the food we eat and taking responsibility (and saving money) through home preserving. Maestro Fresh Wes rapped (“Let Your Backbone Slide”!) and encouraged us to stick to our vision. Steph Guthrie challenged the common wisdom in social media to ‘not feed the trolls’ and demonstrated how lack of consequence can lead to a false sense of popularity. Brendan Frey is translating the genome in the hope of being able to fix genetic diseases. Mark Bowden wants us all to fight evolutionary psychology and meet new people by sending ‘friend’ body language signals (didn’t quite get that one). I couldn’t always see the choice theme at play (I choose to preserve! I choose to reflect Canada accurately?) but most of them were very interesting none the less.
Now what do I do with that though. I know that I’m going to the farmer’s market on Sunday and I’m thinking about making and canning apple chutney (without raisins!). I’d like to get a copy of Darrell Bricker’s slides because I think we all need reminding that Canada is significantly more diverse than it was when we were growing up. Did you know that the largest group of immigrants in the last five years is from the Philippines, followed by India and China? I am inspired by Steph Guthrie to challenge trolls when I encounter them online and to tweak the part of my social media training where I talk about dealing with trolls. But those are the immediate, easy connections that I could make from the talks. The harder, probably longer lasting impact is to try and take from the speakers the inspiration to make sometimes hard choices and do something to have an impact on the world around you. This was an impressive group of people making an impact in small ways as well as big ways but they all had passion. That is something that we can all take with us into our daily work. Make a difference. Think outside the every day challenge of making a living and raising a family. We can do that as part of our careers or outside it in our volunteer activities.
One last anecdote. One of the speakers who made the strongest impression on me was Steve Mann. He’s kind of out there. He’s been making his own wearable computers since he was a teen in the 70s. Now he’s a cyborg. Literally. And his ideas have gone from fringe lunatic to mainstream (ref. Google Glass). He cracks himself up (you should see him laugh at his own jokes) and so clearly is having the time of his life pursuing his passions. That is inspiration.
I’m going again next year. You might want to consider it.
Update: You can view the videos of the talks here: http://www.tedxtoronto.com/talks/