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What if? … and other questions that lead to big ideas: The talks of TED@UPS

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Hosts Bryn Freedman and Kelly Stoetzel welcome us to the show at TED@UPS, July 20, 2017, at SCADshow in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

What if one person could change the world? What if we could harness our collective talent, insight and wisdom? And what if, together, we could spark a movement with positive impact far into the future?

For a third year, UPS has partnered with TED to bring experts in business, logistics, design and technology to the stage to share ideas from the forefront of innovation. At this year’s TED@UPS — held on July 20, 2017, at SCADShow in Atlanta, Georgia — 18 speakers and performers showed how daring human imagination can solve our most difficult problems. 

After opening remarks from Juan Perez, UPS’s chief information and engineering officer, the talks in Session 1

Why protectionism isn’t a good deal. We’ve heard a lot of rhetoric lately suggesting that importers, like the US, are losing valuable manufacturing jobs to exporters like China, Mexico and Vietnam. In reality, those manufacturing jobs haven’t disappeared for the reasons you may think, says border and logistics specialist Augie Picado. Automation, not offshoring, is really to blame, he says; in fact, of the 5.7 million manufacturing jobs lost in the US between 2000 and 2010, 87 percent of them were lost to automation. If that trend continues, it means that future protectionist policies would save 1 in 10 manufacturing jobs, at best — but, more likely, they’d lead to tariffs and trade wars. And with the nature of modern manufacturing inexorably trending toward shared production, in which individual products are manufactured using materials produced in many different countries, protectionist policies make even less sense. Shared production allows us to manufacture higher-quality products at prices we can afford, but it’s impossible without efficient cross-border movement of materials and products. As Picado asks: “Does it make more sense to drive up prices to the point where we can’t afford basic goods, for the sake of protecting a job that might be eliminated by automation in a few years anyway?” 

Christine Thach shares her experience growing up in a refugee community — and the lessons it taught her about life and business — at TED@UPS. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

Capitalism for the collective. Christine Thach was raised within a tight-knit community of Cambodian refugees in the United States. Time after time, she witnessed the triumphs of community-first thinking through her own family’s hardships, steadfast relationships and continuous investment in refugee-owned businesses. “This collective-success mindset we’ve seen in refugees can actually improve the way we do business,” she says. “The self-interested foundations of capitalism, and the refugee collectivist mindset, are not in direct conflict with each other. They’re actually complementary.” Thach thinks an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality may just be able to shake up capitalism in a way that benefits everyone — if companies shift away from the individual and rally for group prosperity.

In defense of perfectionism. Some people think perfectionism is a bad thing, that it only leaves us disappointed. Jon Bowers disagrees; he sees perfectionism as “a willingness to do what is difficult to achieve what is right.” Bowers manages a facility where he trains professional delivery drivers. The stakes are high — 100 people in the US die every day in car accidents. So he’s a fan of striving to get as close to perfect as possible. We shouldn’t lower our standards because we’re afraid to fail, Bowers says. “We need to fail … failure is a natural stepping stone toward perfection.”

Uma Adwani shares the joys of teaching math at TED@UPS. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

Math’s hidden messages. “I hated math until it saved my life,” says Uma Adwani. As a young woman, Adwani left her small hometown of Akola, India, to start a career and life for herself in an unfamiliar city on her own. For months, she scraped by on three dollars a day — until a primary school hired her to teach the subject she loathed the most: math. But as Uma worked to prepare her lessons (and keep her job!), she started to discover “the magic of even and odd numbers, the poetry, the symmetry.” She shares the secret wisdom she found in the multiplication tables, like this one: if I am even to myself, no matter what I am multiplied with or what I go through in life, the result will always be even!

Truck driver turned activist John McKown tells sobering stories of human trafficking at TED@UPS. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

Activism on the road. As a small-town police officer, John McKown dealt with his share of prostitution cases. But after he left the force and became a truck driver, he faced prostitution in a new light — at truck stops. After first brushing them off as an annoyance, McKown came to realize that the many prostitutes who go from truck to truck offering “dates” at truck stops weren’t just stuck, they were enslaved. According to the FBI, 293,000 American children are at risk of enslavement, McKown says, and now he sees it as a moral imperative to help. When he pulls into a truck stop, he’s not just looking for a parking spot; he’s looking for a way to help — and he encourages others not to turn a blind eye to this problem.

A life of awe. For artist Jennifer Allison, getting dressed can feel like rubbing against a cactus, the lights at the grocery store seem more like strobes at a disco, and the number four is always royal blue. It wasn’t until Allison was an adult that she was given a name for the strange, and often painful, way her brain processes information — Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Allison shares the many ways she tried to cope with her condition — from stealing cars (and returning them) to self-medication and eventually an overdose — before returning to her childhood love: art. In an intimate talk, Allison shares how art saved her life, transforming her world “from pain and chaos to mesmerizing awe and wonder.” She urges us to find what transforms our own worlds, “whether it’s through art or science, nature or religion.” Because, she explains, it’s this sense of awe that connects us to the bigger picture and each other, grounding us and making life worth living.

Johnny Staats grew up singing gospel in church and his family band. Now a UPS driver and bluegrass virtuoso, he plays music with people along his route and at Carnegie Hall. Joined by multi-instrumentalist Davey Vaughn, Staats closes out Session 1 of TED@UPS with a performance of his original song, “His Love Has Got a Hold on Me.”

Singer Stella Stevenson and pianist Danny Bauer open Session 2 by transforming the TED@UPS stage into a jazz lounge with a bold, smoky cover of “Our Day Will Come.”

What’s the point of living in the city? Leading organizations predict that by 2050, 66 percent of the population will live in cities with worsening crime, congestion and inequality. Julio Gil believes the opposite. Trends come and go, he says, and city living will eventually go, as people realize we can now get the same benefits of city while living in the countryside. With the delivery innovations and ubiquitous technology of modern life, there’s no reason not to settle outside the city for a bigger piece of land. Soon enough, he says, “city life” will able to be lived anywhere with the help of drones, social media and augmented reality. Gil challenges the TED@UPS audience to think outside big-city walls to consider the advantages of greener pastures.

Sebastian Guo heralds the arrival of the Chinese millennials — the biggest emerging consumer demographic in the world — at TED@UPS. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

Pay attention to Chinese millennials. The business world is obsessed with American millennials, but Sebastian Guo suggests that a different group is about to take over the world: Chinese millennials. If they were their own country, Chinese millennials would be the world’s third largest. They’re well-educated and super motivated — 57 percent have a bachelor’s degree and 23 percent have a master’s, and they’re choosing majors that give them a competitive edge, specifically STEM and business management. As the biggest emerging consumer demographic on the planet, Chinese millennials spend four times more on mobile purchases than their American counterparts. And then there are the intangibles. The Chinese are big-picture people whose thinking starts from the overview and makes its way to the specific, Guo says, which means they focus on growth and the future in the workplace. And 10 years of smartphones hasn’t erased thousands of years of Confucian ideals, which emphasize a sense of hierarchy in social relations and suggest that a Chinese millennial might be more deferential to their managers at work. The world is tilted towards China now, Guo says, and Chinese millennials are ready to be explorers in this new adventure.

Robot-proof our jobs. “Driver” is the most common job in 29 of the 50 states — and with self-driving cars on the horizon, this could quickly turn into a big problem. To keep robots from taking our jobs, innovation architect David Lee says that we should stop asking people to work like robots and let work feel like … the weekend! “Human beings are amazing on weekends,” Lee says. They’re artists, carpenters, chefs and athletes. The key is to start asking people what problems they are inspired to solve and what talents they want to bring to work. Let them lead the way. “When you invite people to be more, they can amaze us with how much more they can be,” Lee says.

Back with a welcomed musical interlude, Johnny Staats and Davey Vaughn return to the TED@UPS stage to perform an original song, “The West Virginia Coal Miner.”

How drones are revolutionizing healthcare. Partnering across disciplines, UPS joined with Zipline, Gavi and the Rwandan government to create the world’s first drone-based medical delivery system. The scalable system transports emergency medical supplies to remote villages in Rwanda. On track to its goal of saving thousands of lives a year, it could help transform how we deliver medical resources in the future as populations outgrow aging infrastructure. Learn more about this unique partnership in the mini-doc “Collaboration Lifeline,” shown for the first time at TED@UPS.

Planning happiness. City planners are already busy designing futures full of bike paths and LED-certified buildings. But are they designing for our happiness? It’s hard to define, and even harder to plan for, but urban planner Thomas Madrecki has a simple solution: Ask the public. “Our quality of life improves most when we feel engaged and empowered,” he explains, and one of the best ways planners can do this is by making public participation a priority. He calls for an “overhaul of the planning process” through public engagement, clear communication, and meetings the public actually want to attend. It’s not enough for urban planners to be trained in zoning regulations, data methods and planning history — they need to be trained in people, says Madrecki. After all, happiness and health are not engineering problems; they’re people problems.

Innovators don’t see different things; they see things differently. As a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve and an MD-11 Captain at UPS, Jeff Kozak thinks a lot about fuel, and for good reason. For his airline, fuel is by far the largest expense, at over $1.3 billion a year. Kozak tells the story of a counterintuitive idea he had to optimize fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions by focusing on finding the exact amount of fuel needed for each plane to get to each leg of its journey. Initially met with resistance by an industry that believed more fuel was always better, the plan worked — after just ten days the airline saved $500,000 and eliminated 1,300 tons of CO2 emissions. “Let’s all continue to strive to see things differently and stay open to ideas that go against conventional thinking,” Kozak says. “Despite the resistance this type of thinking can often bring, embracing the counterintuitive can make all the difference.”

Former professional wrestler Mike Kinney encourages us all to turn ourselves up at TED@UPS. (Photo: Mary Anne Morgan / TED)

That’s me … in the chaps. How do you go from a typical high school senior to a sweaty wild man in chaps and a cowboy hat? “You turn yourself up!” says retired professional wrestler and UPS sales supervisor Mike Kinney. For years Kinney was a professional wrestler with the stage name Cowboy Gator Magraw, a persona he invented for the ring by amplifying the best parts of himself, the things about him that made him unique. In a talk equal parts funny and smart, Kinney taps into some locker-room wisdom to show us how we can all turn up to reach our full potential.

To close out the show, violinist Jessica Cambron and flutist Paige James play a moving rendition of the goodnight waltz (and Ken Burns fan favorite) “Ashokan Farewell,” accompanied by Johnny Staats and Davey Vaughn.