Transformation: A day of future-forward talks in partnership with Brightline Initiative

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Ricardo Vargas, executive director of Brightline Initiative, welcomes the audience to TEDSalon: Transformation — a virtual event featuring talks on the future of business, society and the planet. (Photo courtesy of TED)

The world is in a state of flux. Humanity is undertaking aggressive climate action, technology is rapidly evolving and the very nature of human connection is being reconfigured. At every corner of the globe, people are shaking up the old and plotting to revolutionize in big, bold ways. At this salon hosted on TED’s virtual event platform, four speakers and a performer explored how transformation will define and change the future of business, society and the planet.

The event: TED Salon: Transformation, a virtual gathering hosted by TED technology curator Simone Ross and senior curator Cyndi Stivers, presented in partnership with Brightline Initiative, with opening remarks from Brightline Initiative executive director Ricardo Vargas.

Singer-songwriter Falana performs her version of “soul fusion” at TEDSalon: Transformation, in partnership with Brightline Initiative, on November 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Music: Singer-songwriter Falana, who splits her time between Lagos, Toronto and London, performs “Send Down the Rain” from within the auditorium of the Alliance Française of Lagos — a “soul fusion” of jazz, afro beat and R&B.

The talks in brief:

“Maps are a form of storytelling,” says photographer Tawanda Kanhema. He speaks at TEDSalon: Transformation, in partnership with Brightline Initiative, on November 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Tawanda Kanhema, photographer, digital strategist    

Big idea: Huge swaths of the African continent are unmapped by the apps we take for granted in the West. This might mean you can’t zoom in on a specific address in Zimbabwe — but it might also mean that it’s difficult to deliver food or vaccines to unmapped areas sorely in need of them. Is it possible to get these communities on the map and ramp up the digital representation of Africa?

How? Tawanda Kanhema began his journey to build maps by combining existing software and data, mounting a hi-res camera on his car, a helicopter and his own body in order to photograph communities missing from digital maps. But one person can only do so much, and many places remain invisible. Kanhema shows how we can leverage existing tech to illuminate every corner of the land.

From “smart dust” to DNA-collecting swabs, journalist Sharon Weinberger takes us inside the massive (and unregulated) world of surveillance tech. She speaks at TEDSalon: Transformation, in partnership with Brightline Initiative, on November 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Sharon Weinberger, journalist, author

Big idea: The growing, multibillion-dollar market for surveillance technologies is largely unregulated. Sharon Weinberger believes it should be regulated — and that surveillance tools should be classified as a weapon.

How? Weinberger leads her talk with a chilling story of a colleague who travelled the world selling governments technological tools to spy on people, like a “caller ID” that can identify and locate people by voiceprint no matter what phone they’re using. From “smart dust” — micro-tracking devices the size of specks of dust — to surreptitious DNA-collecting swabs, everyone from governments to hacking companies are getting in on the trade of these surveillance tools. To curb this burgeoning marketplace, Weinberger proposes that we recognize data mining and surveillance tools as the weapons they are.

What does innovation really mean? And are all ideas good? Author and entrepreneur Alex Osterwalder offers some answers at TEDSalon: Transformation, in partnership with Brightline Initiative, on November 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Alex Osterwalder, author, entrepreneur

Big idea: We might be intimidated by the biographies of amazing entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but each one of those narratives holds something we can use to enrich our own success stories. Alex Osterwalder shows us a cunningly designed business model that could help us all become disruptors, even if we don’t have the technical know-how to become inventors.

How? Osterwalder introduces the Business Model Canvas, a visual tool that helps would-be entrepreneurs find and communicate with their customers, identify assets and partners and figure out how much their idea is going to cost (and potentially earn). And while the entrepreneurial path is full of risks, Osterwalder’s model can help minimize potential pitfalls and enable pivoting at a product’s earliest stages — and scaling when it’s exactly the right time. “Innovation, entrepreneurship and disruption is not about the creative genius,” he says. “It’s increasingly a profession, a discipline that you can learn.”

Geographic information systems pioneer Jack Dangermond shares the vision behind a Geospatial Nervous System, in conversation with TED technology curator Simone Ross. They speak at TEDSalon: Transformation, in partnership with Brightline Initiative, on November 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy of TED)

Jack Dangermond, geographic information systems pioneer, in conversation with TED technology curator Simone Ross

Big idea: Since the dawn of civilization, humans have visualized solutions to problems in much the same way we look at maps, spreading arrays of information on top of each other and discovering new connections between the layers. In the digital age, geographic information systems (GIS) help decision-makers map complex data on a macro scale, facilitating delivery of everything from retail products (like Starbucks finding exactly the right corner to build on) to disease control (think of linking cancer outbreaks to environmental hazards like pollution). Call it a “Geospatial Nervous System.”

How? Jack Dangermond is the founder of Esri, the world’s dominant GIS company. Starting with work on digitizing maps at the dawn of the tech era, it now builds large-scale tools that tie resources from across the globe together to help its users find and understand hidden connections between data points. Its clients range from NGOs to large corporations, but most of its users are in the public sector, and literally “running the world.” It’s Dangermond’s dream to build a web-based, Geospatial Nervous System to help us use tech to improve a world stricken by natural crises like the coronavirus pandemic — with even bigger crises like climate change looming close behind.