“There will be very little volcano talk tonight,” said TED’s European Director Bruno Giussani, kicking off Monday night’s TED Salon at the Unicorn Theatre in London. The theme of the evening: “Different by Design.” Like most events in London, the Salon — organized with TEDGlobal partner frog design — had been disrupted by the Icelandic volcano that had been spewing ash for the previous three days, forcing speakers, performers, attendees and one of our co-hosts to cancel their trips. New speakers were booked, more audience invited (including stranded TED staff like June Cohen, center in the pic below, talking with TED Fellow Sheila Ochugboju and writer Lola Shoneyin), and 250 people filled the theatre on Monday night. The aim of this Salon: to create an island of normalcy.
“The media are full of stories of ashes and stranded people, most of us have spent the day talking about that volcano with the unpronounceable name and plotting train and ferry routes back home, and yesterday night there was TEDxVolcano,” Bruno said, “so let’s declare this evening ashes-free. With one exception.” Enter James Geary, expert on aphorisms and metaphors (watch his TEDTalk). He invoked the Icelandic sagas of Snorri Sturluson, which use kennings, or metaphors, that turn eyes into “moons of the forehead” and swords into “icicles of blood.” So what kennings could we create for this volcanic eruption? Geary suggests: “silencer of the skies.”
After that began a series of talks about looking at (and doing) things differently in many different fields. First up was Frank Stephenson, design director of McLaren Automotive. (Before this, he designed the new Mini.) He talked about bringing emotions of the past together with cutting-edge technologies: “Design is not about re-clothing something, but about creating something previously unimagined.”
Director (The World Unseen) and author (Despite the Falling Snow) Shamim Sarif talked about her evolution as a filmmaker and the moments when she followed her path into uncharted territory: going into film; coming out as gay; starting her own production company and record label. “Our faculty of imagination — our ability to immerse into other worlds — is one of our greatest gifts,” she said. She talked about her journey to discover and understand her modern audience. Some didn’t want her DVDs delivered to their homes (because they lived with conservative parents), so Shamim’s company added digital downloads. Then they discovered that illegal downloads were happening mainly in areas where women were disempowered. “Illegal downloads have an upside. They didn’t serve our financial goals, but they served our mission of reaching people,” she said.
Physicist Brian Cox (watch his TEDTalk) beautifully made the case for “continued spending on curiosity-driven scientific exploration.” “Our exploration of the solar system shows us its indescribable beauty. And it also may point our way to answering the most profound question there is: “Are we alone?” Brian was the host of a recent BBC Two documentary Wonders of the Solar System, where he took viewers to extreme locations around the world to show what those wonders may look like — and to explain the underlying physics. Said Brian: “An amazing fact is that the laws of physics are universal.”
“Education is today probably the only globally-shared truth,” announced Bruno during his introduction to the next speaker. “Everywhere people know and believe that it can lead to a better life. Even the Taliban believe it — that’s why they fight it.” Innovation expert and author of We-Think Charles Leadbeater (watch his TEDTalk) has travelled the world on a mission to understand how to innovate in education, looking for radical approaches developed in extreme social and economic conditions. “Radical innovation usually comes from the margins — where demand is high, resources small and traditional models don’t work,” he said. “Formal innovation doesn’t work in developing areas.” What does? “Disruptive and informal learning that comes more from questions and projects than from curriculum.”
“We’re on the verge of the “schoolification” of the world. By 2015, all kids who want to go to school can,” he said. It’s an amazing fact, but also troubling: “Our schools are 19th-century Bismarckian inventions.” Building more of them “may do some great things, but it will also lay waste to creativity and innovation.” (Download Leadbeater’s “Learning from the Extremes” report, published by Cisco; and his newest work, “Digging for the Future,” in which he finds inspiration for radical change in the 1960s Diggers movement, published by the Young Foundation).
The latest issue of design mind magazine was published on Monday by frog design, and Bruno took a minute onstage to introduce it and browse through. The theme of the issue is “Work-Life” — exploring whether work-life balance is still possible at all, or whether it ultimately matters. The author Jonathan Safran Foer is interviewed by frog editor Sam Martin (watch Sam’s TEDTalk). Sam, incidentally, had been intended as a co-host for this evening in London — but ended up stranded in his own American hometown. Another highlight of the new issue: New York Times columnist Allison Arieff writes about the quirky world of artist Steven M. Johnson. Browse the new design mind here >>
Next up was Rory Sutherland, a London ad executive who last July took TEDGlobal by storm (watch his TEDTalk), “so we invited him back for a short encore,” said Bruno. Rory picked right up where he left off: “Years of marketing have taught me that the small things make the biggest difference,” he said, and gave the example of clever salt and pepper shakers on airplanes. On the bottom they say: “stolen from Virgin Atlantic.” Another example: elevator buttons that say “garage, funk, rhythm and blues” — you choose the music. And another: the project described by Esther Duflo in her 2010 TEDtalk of encouraging the inoculation of children in poor areas by making it social and giving a kilo of lentils to the parents of participating kids. “We think big problems require expensive solutions,” said Rory. “But that’s not the case.” A graph showing “impact versus cost” illustrated his point. “Only two things that companies and organization do are of key importance: strategy, and care and implementation of tiny details,” he said. “We have boards and CxOs and many people for the former, but who takes care of the latter? All organizations need a Chief Detail Officer. Governments need a Minister of Details. People with lot of power but with tiny budgets — so they’re not tempted to spend it on big solutions.”
Talking of tiny, meet Bridget Nicholls, the founder of Pestival, a festival celebrating, in science and arts, how insects shape our world, and how we shape theirs. Eighty percent of all creatures on Earth are insects: 10 quintillion insects vs 6.8 billion humans. We call them “pests,” but we could not survive without them. She described her journey of going from being an insect hater to an insect lover, and showed insect-inspired art, such as a gorgeous “termite building” created for Pestival, where visitors could hear termites and wind moving through.
Finally, entrepreneur and philanthropist Marc Koska (watch his TEDTalk) told of his long journey from reading a newspaper article many years ago about the problem of HIV transmission through infected needles and syringes, to finding a solution. “Most injections given around the world are unsafe, syringes are re-used, misused and recycled,” he said. So he developed a simple design that disables the syringe after the first usage without changing the cost of production. A brilliant solution, but it took a long time to get it accepted and get to the current figure of 1.8 billion syringes sold. He ended his moving talk by launching an awareness-raising and action-prompting short video for his campaign LifeSaverAction. Watch it here >>
Photos: TED / Robert Leslie
Reported by TED staff, including June Cohen and Bruno Giussani.