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[TEDGlobal 2007] Session 4: Emergent Design

Posted by: June Cohen

To understand Africa’s technological future, TEDGlobal Program Director Emeka Okafor calls Russell Southwood to the stage. Publisher of Balancing Act and respected tech commentator, Southwood envisions a future in which Africa leapfrogs the entire industrial phase of development, and skips straight to a high-tech competitiveness. To achieve this, he identifies several “door-openers” to fundamental change, including ever-cheaper cell phones and plentiful, cheap bandwidth. Once those two commodities come in financial reach of more Africans, the continent could reach a technological tipping point, with much broader implications. “This revolution isn’t just about tehnology, it’s also a social and cultural revolution.”

And now we step sideways to exercise other parts of the brain: Stanford-based bioengineer Kwabena Boahen gave a brain-twisting overview of his research, which aims to first understand how brains work, and then build a computer that works more like the brain. His beautiful simulation of neurons at work, and cogent explanation of the brain’s networked approach to data transmission had all synapses firing.

From neural networks to urban grids… Architect Issa Diabaté took us next on a tour of African cityscapes that inspire his work. Clean lines and well-executed plans hold less interest for him than the messy, makeshift solutions so common in growing cities. “World progress needs a good dose of spontaneous human intelligence to realize that the answer to many of the questions we ask ourselves are just around the corner”

And from urban grids to fractal-shaped villages… “Ethno-mathematician” Ron Eglash set my mind on fire with his talk, explaining the research that led to his book, African Fractals. By looking at aerial-view photos — and then following up with detailed research on the ground — Eglash discovered that many African villages are purposely laid out to form perfect fractals, with self-similar shapes repeated in the rooms of the house, and the house itself, and the clusters of houses in the village. The shapes and algorithms vary from village to village (and not all villages are laid out this way), but always correspond perfectly to mathematically predictable patterns — the same sort of patterns we see in nature (in Acacia trees and fern leaves and snowflakes). Isn’t that fascinating? And bizarre? And: What does it mean? I don’t know, actually. But I can feel some theories coming on …

For more extensive descriptions of each talk, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s real-time posts on Kwabena Boahen, Issa Diabaté, Ron Eglash and Russell Southwood.

Watch for these talks on TED.com beginning midsummer 2007.

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