“2 ways of holding an idea”: Report from TED University Session 1

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TED University is our attendee-driven program, and this year’s is the most globally diverse group of attendees — people are here from 71 countries. We think of it as a snapshot and collage of who the TED audience is and what it is they do. And we begin with a meditation on what “radical openness” means …

Nilofer Merchant says: “There are 2 ways of holding an idea. One is with a closed fist. The other is with an open hand. And when you hold an idea like this” — open hand — “it gives them room to evolve.” Her talk explores how communities can collaborate to develop stronger ideas. A powerful image: Money and power used to come from being bigger than the other guy. But players in the social era will look more like gazelles.

David Bismark says: “The thing about randomness is that it’s so hard to understand.” A large number of random events together makes the unlikely likely. Randomness isn’t the whole story in evolution, but it’s certainly part of it. (That’s Bismark in the photo above, saying: “Randomness cannot be manufactured by a machine; it has to be plucked from the universe.”)

Laurie Coots is a self-described optimistic catalyst. She asks: Is social activism “the new black”? She shares some powerful stats from a survey of 20-year-olds, showing that while 33% of them consider themselves inactive and 11% “slacktivists,” 56% of 20-year-olds consider themselves activists. (Important: 67% of global young adults think companies have a moral obligation to do social good.) “What these kids believe in is who they are,” Coots suggests. “Causes have become an incredible social currency. They’re not protesting against something. They’re protesting for something. For social justice. For all.”

Designer Paolo Cardini asks us to consider “monotasking” — simply enjoying doing one thing at a time. But how could you only do one thing at a time with your iPhone? His answer is the monophone — a 3D-printed iPhone cover that only allows it to perform one function, as a phone keypad, “to downgrade our super hyper mobile phones into the essence of their function.” He asks us: “Find your monotask spot in the multitasking world”

Manu Prakash shows us “Monster Soup” — what water looks like under a microscope. We need microscopes to diagnose disease, test water, explore the unseen world. But research microscopes aren’t designed for field testing, are heavy, bulky, expensive and hard to maintain. And their design has not fundamentally changed in 40 years. His solution: the “Foldscope,” a completely functional microscope built completely by folding paper. It offers 3 optical stages, illluminating, mask holding, and it works with the standard stains and slides so it’s universal. Cost of manufacturing: $0.50. This could change everything. As host June Cohen notes: “I’m not sure there’s another word besides WOW.”

Ann Treacy is a librarian. She’d prepared a talk about the value of “ready, shoot, aim” — a process for developing products quickly in a changing environment. But when she got ready to come to Edinburgh to give it, she discovered her tickets were for … yesterday. What did she learn? Lesson 1: “Ready shoot aim” works well when the circumstances or goal have changed suddenly (like getting on a plane yesterday); Lesson 2: “Ready shoot aim” is an agile, iterative process (like making a new plan to get on a plane today). Lesson 3: The whole team must understand the goal (get on that plane). Lesson 4: Shoot straight. Once you know your goal, be prepared to share it with anyone who can help (like your new bff at American Airlines who said: “I get get you on that plane if you are ready to get on that plane right now”). Which leads to Lesson 5 of “ready shoot aim”: be ready.

Alanna Shaikh shares an astonishing new worldview: “How I’m preparing to get Alzheimers.” Her dad has Alzheimers, diagnosed 12 years ago. She says: “My dad was my hero and my mentor for most of my life and I’ve spent most of the last decade watching him disappear.” She knows she is at risk, and “If the monster wants you, the monster is going to get you.” So she is preparing, in three ways: Changing what I do for fun, building physical strength, and trying to become a better person. “For my dad, his new hobby is to fill out forms for fun. That got me thinking, what would my caregivers do with me? Would they give me charts and graphs I could color? So I am learning basic origami and drawing. And teaching myself to knit. What matters is that my hands know how to do it.”

Nina Tandon is a tissue engineer making the case for creating human tissue in the lab — for a powerful reason, that they let us model human conditions to test new drugs. “These tissues are awesome because they mimic us and our diversity better in labs to better test new medicines.” She focuses on induced pluripotent stem cells. “If we take skin cells of people with genetic diseases, we are able to create models of tissues with the disease and now have better models of the disease, which accelerates development of a cure. It gives new meaning to models against animal testing.”

Melissa Marshall says: “We desperately need great communication from our scientists and engineers in order to change the world. Scientists and engineers, please talk nerdy to us.” Making ideas accessible is not the same thing as dumbing it down. When you’re describing your science, make sure you’re using less jargon and avoid bulletpoints. She offers this formula:
(Science – (Jargon+Bullets))/ (relevance x passion) = understanding

Meklit Hadero shared stories from The Nile Project, an initiative to bring together musicians from the 11 Nile-based regions to play together. More than half of Africa is under 15 and ready to tell a different story. “We are all interconnected and we want to know what that sounds like”

Champion translator and TEDx host Anwar Dafa-Alla tells the story “Why I translate.” It revolves around a single poor man he knew, who donated the one thing he had to give: his blood. Which helped to save Anwar’s mother’s life. Whenever he finds an obstacle in doing what he does, he is overwhelmed with energy, passion and power by his memory of that man, who donated the only thing that he could.

Producer David Binder explores the emergence of the new arts festival: simultaneously local and global, interactive, site-specific theater projects like the Minto Festival in Sydney. These new arts festivals are radically open and can transform communities. The new festival asks the audience to participate by creating immersive experiences, often led by global arts groups, putting locals at the center of the action: “The dialogue between the local and the global is essential.” At base, such art festivals make cities better places to live.