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“What if?” The talks of TED@UPS

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Wanis Kabbaj speaks at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if traffic flowed through our streets as smoothly and powerfully as blood flowed through our veins? Wanis Kabbaj speaks at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016, in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

At the foundation of every significant transformation is a question: “What if?”

These two words unlock the imagination and invite us to explore possibilities. A sentiment of hope, of new ways of thinking, of dreaming and discovery, “What if?” unearths answers waiting to be found.

At the second installment of TED@UPS — part of the TED Institute, held on September 15, 2016, at SCADShow in Atlanta, Georgia — 14 speakers and performers dared to ask: What if we used our collective talents, knowledge and insights to provide the spark to an idea or movement that could make a positive impact on the world?

After opening remarks from Teresa Finley, UPS’s chief marketing and global business services officer, the talks in Session 1

The blood in our veins, the cars on our streets. Biology has all the attributes of a transportation genius,” says UPS’s director of global strategy in healthcare logistics (and transportation geek) Wanis Kabbaj. Take our cardiovascular system, for example, in which blood vessels flow from our heart to our outermost extremities using a transportation system that is three-dimensional, and effective. If you compare this to our highways and the stop-go-traffic during rush hour, Kabbaj says, you’ll see how much better biology is at moving things around. He asks us to consider how we might look within ourselves to design the transportation systems of the future, and he previews exciting concepts like suspended magnetic pods, modular buses and flying urban taxis that promise to change how we travel from one point to another.

The most dangerous animal in the world. Each year, mosquitoes kill more than one million people by spreading diseases like malaria, dengue fever, West Nile and Zika. While vaccines are the best weapon against this epidemic, 50 percent of vaccines go to waste due to improper handling and challenging logistics. Logistician Katie Francfort came to the TED@UPS stage with an inventive idea to use the problem, to fight the problem. Why not use bioengineering to build mosquitos that carry life-saving vaccines?

In defense of emojis. Marketing analyst and avid emoji-defender Jenna Schilstra knows firsthand how ambiguous digital communication can be, even with loved ones. A simple emoji can help clarify and amplify subtext so that we can better understand each other, but their benefits extend far beyond clarifying the dreaded “K.” She shows how emojis have been used in new ways, like helping abused children describe complex emotions to helpline service workers, or like making expression more accessible to people on the autism spectrum. Our attachment to emojis makes sense, says Schilstra, when you remember that they’re part of a long lineage of visual communication that began 40,000 years ago with the first cave art. However they continue to evolve, she’s confident that emojis “will not only provide the opportunity to leverage an age-old system of communication, but will profoundly deepen our emotional connections.”

Jenna Schilstra speaks at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if we recognized that the key to global communication is … emojis? Jenna Schilstra speaks at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016 in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

Rediscovering heritage through dance. Coming to America at a young age from Indonesia, marketing manager Amelia Laytham decided to shed her language, accent, traditions and culture in order to fit into her new role as an “ordinary American teenager.” It wasn’t until she had her own children that she realized that there was enough room in her single identity for both her Indonesian and American selves. She performs a traditional Balinese Birds of Paradise dance to showcase her heritage and prove that it’s possible to live in duality and still be a whole.

Doing more with less in healthcare. We’ve made great progress through innovation in healthcare, but we’ve also made keeping each other healthy very complicated — and expensive. Over the last 20 years, healthcare spending doubled in the US, while our lifespans increased by only three years. Soon, “we won’t be able to afford the healthcare system as we know it today,” says UPS’s director of healthcare marketing and strategy Jan Denecker. “We’ll have to find new ways to keep healthcare affordable.” For inspiration, Denecker looks to the developing world, where constraints on resources have caused the healthcare industry to adopt a mindset of doing more with less. He provides three lessons for healthcare innovation, inspired by these places: look for alternatives, like replacing a $30,000 surgical drill with a $450 (sterilized and protected) power drill; keep it simple, like creating a stripped-down baby incubator that costs 70 percent less than a traditional one; and search for the answers that are right under our noses, like using barcodes to identify patients and their needs.

Why a Mexico-United States wall would backfire. The United States and Mexico are important trading partners, which means that $1.4 billion in goods crosses the border in both directions each day, sometimes multiple times as part of border-crossing production processes. So … what if we did build a 2,000-mile wall between the two countries to prevent illegal immigration, as some have suggested? In step-by-step detail, supply chain expert Augie Picado explains how the impact would ripple across the production process, raising the price of thousands of consumer goods, costing millions of jobs on both sides of the border, and ultimately aggravating the problem the wall was meant to solve. In Mexico, 20 percent of the workforce depends on jobs tied to US exports. And when those jobs disappear,Picado asks, “where do you think those out-of-work people will go?” 

Augie Picado speaks at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if we looked beyond the heated rhetoric and started counting the true cost of building a Mexico-US border wall? Augie Picado speaks at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016, in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

A global village in your pocket. A smartphone reflects more than a swift leap in technology — hidden within each phone is the story of modern commerce. Following the globetrotting logistics behind an average smartphone in this animated short, “A Global Village in Your Pocket,” which reminds viewers of the complex global networks behind the products we use every day. Watch it here.

Finding a new frequency. Accompanied by drums, bass and a keyboard, UPS package car driver and musician John Bidden closed out the first session with a soulful and energetic performance of his original song, “New Frequency.”

In Session 2, speakers …

Jazzing things up. Accompanied by her three-piece band, jazz vocalist, Atlanta resident and wife of a UPS veteran Karla Harris opened Session 2, treating audiences to a soulful rendition of the Beatles’ “Blackbird.”

Karla Harris performs at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if, all your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise? Karla Harris covers “Blackbird” by the Beatles at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016, in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

The benefits of choice. As the mother of a 3-year-old and the curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, Stephanie Braccini Slade can attest that animals, just like humans, need to make choices to feel in control of their lives. Using her work with a troubled (and quite needy) chimpanzee named Holly as an example, she explains how creating more opportunities for choice in an animal’s environment can create positive behavioral outcomes and improve their quality of life. “I’m not an expert on humans,” Slade says in closing, “but I think we can learn a lot from the animal world.”

Claim property, claim other, claim yourself. Believe it or not, it’s often difficult to get people to claim abandoned funds, whether from a forgotten savings account, an uncashed check or a long-ago refund. Why is this? Unclaimed funds manager Monica Johnson explains that as a society we have developed a throwaway culture to such a degree that we’d rather toss aside even pieces of ourselves than deal with them. How did she come to know this? She shares her own heart-wrenching story of growing up unwanted, to the point where she began to abandon herself. On the TED@UPS stage, Johnson passionately asks that we abandon abandonment and recognize the impact we can make by embracing who we are and what we can do for others.

“When goods do not cross borders, armies do.” International trade expert Romaine Seguin came to TED@UPS with a question: Would the girls from Chibok, Nigeria, who were abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 still be in school today if the conditions that gave rise to the terrorist group had been different? The president of the Americas region at UPS International, Seguin believes that when communities are isolated from the global economy in the way that places like Chibok have been, they risk becoming breeding grounds for terrorist groups. The solution to that isolation: trade, which Seguin says is our most effective weapon against poverty and injustice. To illustrate her point, she tells the story of Deux Mains, a for-profit spinoff of the nonprofit REBUILD globally, which began employing people in Haiti to make sandals out of old tires and eventually caught the attention of Kenneth Cole. Deux Mains has produced more than 2,400 pairs of Kenneth Cole sandals to date, employing one Haitian for every 250 pairs of sandals sold. “When people have jobs, money and security, they don’t feel a need to take other people’s stuff,” Seguin explains. “Trade is a weapon against terrorism. Trade offers hope.”

Romaine Seguin speaks at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if we could help solve global crisis by building trade networks? Romaine Seguin speaks at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016, in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

Building a better address. “Our current address system makes people do the legwork. Why don’t we instead let people put themselves on the map?” asks Mario Paluzzi, a logistics and technology specialist at UPS.  He suggests a way forward for precision shipping and delivery, taking inspiration from the developing world. Many people in the developing world lack a traditional street address like 123 Main Street, but more than 90 percent of the population has mobile phones that could give the exact geographical data of a person’s location — which could be used to deliver packages to them. What if we could disrupt an industry “so rooted in its infrastructure that we’re stuck with what we have instead of implementing the best solution?” 

The age of exploration. Explorers and mapmakers of the past organized the wild. Today, the pathfinders carrying on the tradition face a new challenge: how to map the community knowledge that will help us find our way in a constantly changing world. The animated short “The Age of Exploration,” suggests that we are still not finished discovering the secrets of the planet where we live. Watch it here.

The life lessons of … soap operas. The larger-than-life stories and characters of soap operas may be melodramatic, but to Kate Adams, managing editor of, they reflect the intensity and drama of our own lives. “We cycle through tragedy and joy like these characters,” she says. “We cross thresholds, fight demons and find salvation unexpectedly.” Adams spent eight years as assistant casting director for As the World Turns, and she’s distilled four lessons for life and business from these dramas. First, surrender is not an option. Let All My Children’s Erica Kane inspire you as she faces down a grizzly bear. Next, sacrifice your ego … in the same way that Stephanie Forrester of The Bold and the Beautiful dropped her superiority complex and befriended her Valley Girl archenemy. Third, evolution is real. Just as soap opera characters are continually recast, we can evolve, too. Finally, resurrection is possible. Soap opera characters like Stefano DiMera from Days of Our Lives die and come back to life over and over, and we, too, can revive ourselves. “As long as there is breath in your body, it’s never too late to change your story,” Adams says.

Kate Adams speaks at TED@UPS - September 15, 2016 at SCADshow, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

What if soap operas could teach us about life? Kate Adams speaks at TED@UPS, September 15, 2016, in Atlanta. Photo: Jason Hales / TED

The future of corporate social responsibility: Give us your data. Data engineer Mallory Soldner laid out three simple, resourceful ways that companies can make real contributions to humanitarian aid: by donating their data, their decision scientists and their technology to gather new data. Because a corporate data set — say, information on the flow of a new product to local markets — could help a nonprofit organization better understand the flow of vaccines and food aid to those same markets. “We can revolutionize the world of humanitarian aid, by bringing the right data to the right decisions,” she says. 

Signed, sealed, and promptly delivered. Karla Harris and John Bidden returned to the TED@UPS stage, wrapping up the show with a lively duet and sing-along version of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”