On Wednesday evening, Belfast Harbour Commissioners’ headquarters was full of ideas and creativity as Belfast’s first ever independently-organised TEDx event brought together six speakers, one orchestra and the lucky 100 ticket holders.
Davy Sims had been planning the event for six months or more. I’ll update this post when the full talks are uploaded shortly to the TEDxBelfast.com website. In the meantime, I caught up with the speakers to get a flavour of what they’d been talking about.
Sinclair Stockman was first up, taking the subject of A Fully Interactive World. He took a look at a number of very ancient technological advances in early postal and communication systems. Sinclair was taken with the vastly distributed (though low volume!) postal system set up in the time of Genghis Khan. He pointed to infrastructure sometimes getting in the way of efficiency. Sinclair said it was criminal that while Northern Ireland probably has the best broadband network of any territory its size in the world, yet we have 20,000 illiterate children.
Ruth Morrow, is professor of Architecture at QUB [I posted last year about her inaugural lecture] and co-founder of Tactility Factory a spinout company that combines concrete with textiles to create softer surfaces. While a lot of education is about transmitting knowledge, she believes that architecture is transformative, developing the design process in people, and empowering students to change places and lives.
Ruth talked about “making mad ideas sane”, reckoning that if you’ve faced difficult problems before, then you can approach new madcap schemes with a greater bravery and chance of success. She’s a believer that “critique is a sister of creativity”, of mixing contrasting materials and styles (“vinegar and chips” / linen and concrete), and of encouraging cross-fertilisation of thinking.
Her final challenge to TEDxBelfast attendees (and anyone who watches the talks online afterwards) was to help develop a “Designed and Well Made in NI” branding that would expose products that are not just quality crafted but also have a strategic relevance and opportunistic fit in the market place, communicating value.
Biomimicrist Ken Thompson spoke about Seven Secrets of High Performing Teams. To be honest, at times it came across like a précis of his book. But in amongst the management speak and the jargon, there were some nuggets of advice for people organising and operating teams. How often does the simple lack of clear ground rules cause disruption and conflict in projects?
His sixth “secret” was “Fast co-invention”. There’s room for command and control “leader decides” management, and there are occasions when wisdom of the crowds copes well when no specialist knowledge is required. But sometimes it’s a matter of figuring out who is most expert on a subject in a team and give them the responsibility to decide of those matters.
Just before a short break for refreshments and serendipitous networking, The Really Rubbish Orchestra demonstrated what was possible with handmade instruments made from reclaimed rubbish: an electric guitar made from a couple of lab stools, various stringed creations based on skateboards mounted on a wooden ladder complete with wobbling spoons!
Maureen Piggot, director of Mencap in Northern Ireland, was a revelation. She provided a window into a world of which I’m mostly ignorant.
f(impairment, environment) = disability
In our text-based society, she pointed out that there is no symbol to designate learning disability. Maureen suggested that
“the computer is the new wheelchair … the power of computing technology offers new solutions for people with intellectual disabilities that could be as useful and as liberating as the wheelchair is for people who have mobility difficulties.”
Fundamentally Mark Dowds challenged why so many people continue to feel so unhappy and dissatisfied at work. Remarking that non-democratic countries are amongst the most corrupt, he suggested this could apply to companies and organisations too.
His talk dovetailed well with the one from Ken Thompson. Instead of employees continuing to arrive at work with long faces, he suggested that more democratic workplaces would offer greater employee satisfaction, productivity and results for their employers. He cited examples where senior managers had become facilitators, where HR policies had been thrown out the window, and where workplace democracy had led to sustainable growth.
Paul Moore heads up the University of Ulster’s School of Creative Arts at Magee and holds a personal chair in Creative Technology. In his talk he rubbished the kind of city creative quarters and notions of a creative class espoused by academics like Richard Florida. As well as saying “the creative class is a con-trick”, he spoke out against “symbolic creativity”.
Instead of believing in an creative elite, Paul explained his passion for the “bottom-up” creativity of ordinary people. He used local examples to demonstrate NI creativity, and pointed out the (not always originally foreseen) long tail of their work.
While I wish there had been more time at the end of the evening for attendees to mill around and discuss what they’d heard and been challenged by, it was an excellently curated event with a good range of talks. It also avoided buffer overload by providing space to mull over the ideas rather than being constantly bombarded with more.
In the spirit of Ruth Morrow’s challenge to “make mad ideas sane”, I look forward to Davy applying to organise a follow-up TEDxBelfast in 2012!
Update - three of the TEDxBelfast talks are now available online.