The Day TEDxTO Took Over
What is TEDxTO? TEDxTO is what happens when you pack the Theatre Passe Muraille from wall to wall with a hand-selected group of Toronto’s most eager social media types, ply them with free quinoa salad and chocolate truffles, and then give them a packed day full of presentations from noted local artists, performers, and professionals to watch, then discuss. Essentially, it’s one part performance appreciation, and one part networking bacchanal. We’ve seen plenty of rooms worked in our day, but none of them so thoroughly, or so well. Even noted Twittermeister Mayor Miller made an appearance, and spent one of the event’s two designated “conversation breaks” encircled by his followers.
As we mentioned in a previous post, all attendees (except media) were required to submit applications for tickets, with details about their life achievements. As a result, the atmosphere was rarefied, but the crowd was nevertheless gregarious and open. And those who didn’t make the cut had several webcast viewing parties around the region to attend (including one at the Toronto Reference Library, sponsored by Torontoist).
TED talks, by way of background, are an increasingly prestigious series of annual lectures put on by New York City based company, TED Conference LLC. TEDxTO, it must be noted, was not an “official” TED event. It was produced under the imprimatur of TED’s “TEDx” program, launched just this past March, which allows independent organizers to stage TED-style events, using the TED logo (and the accompanying TED prestige). A representative from TED’s New York offices told us that TEDx talks are occasionally promoted to full-fledged TED talk status if the home office deems them worthy. TED headquarters also carefully vets all TEDx events by means of a series of applications. But that’s as far as the association between TED and TEDx goes.
TEDxTO, which happened on Thursday and was based around the theme of “What’s Next?”, was the first-ever TED-affiliated event to be put on in Toronto. Its organizers are hoping to make it an annual occurence. If you completely missed it, worry not: Torontoist has a look at every TEDxTO talk, with photos, for your reading and viewing delectation. See them after the jump, in chronological order.
d’bi young (Playwright/Performer/Dub Poet): “What’s Next” [pictured above]Young’s answer to TEDxTO’s thematic question was unequivocal: “What’s next is love,” she said. “Yes. Love love love love love.”
Her presentation was a poetic performance, full of stern crescendos and little lulls. It defies in-depth description, but it was haunting to listen to. It was a perfect call to attention for the start of the main event.
Don Tapscott (Author of Grown up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World): “The Future of Education”
“One of the things that’s next, may I modestly propose,” Tapscott began, “is that we need to rebuild the world.”
Tapscott’s research deals with the rapidly evolving learning styles of so-called “digital natives” (essentially anyone born after the advent of the personal computer). His thesis was that these younger learners—these native users of digital technology—are ill-served by existing forms of pedagogy. As evidence, he told the story of a twenty-two-year-old Rhodes Scholar he once met, who claimed never to read books unless absolutely necessary, because all he really needed to know in order to be his successful self was available online.
Tapscott proposed a radical overhaul of educational practice, to accommodate the learning styles of people like his distinguished, non-reading acquaintance, who might feel isolated and alienated by the traditional “drill and kill” lecture-and-test routine.
The evidence was anecdotal, but the conclusions felt correct.
Tom Rand (Co-Developer of Planet Traveler Hotel): “Planet Traveler: The Green Hotel”
Rand is one half of the entrepreneurial partnership behind Planet Traveler Hotel (the other half of the partnership is—full disclosure—this writer’s former landlord, who couldn’t be bothered to fix a leaky ceiling for six months). Planet Traveler, designed to consume only one-quarter the carbon of an ordinary establishment its size, bills itself as “North America’s greenest hotel.”
Said Rand of his naivete prior to embarking on his green project: “I didn’t know geothermal from a hole in the ground, to be honest.” That cracked up the room.
Rand said that Planet Traveler’s green features, which include geothermal heating and cooling, efficient lighting, and solar panels, actually make the building more cost-effective to operate than a standard hotel. In a gutsy conclusion, he called upon policy-makers to either subsidize or mandate green retrofits for all commercial buildings.
Michael McClelland (Principal, ERA Architects): “Renewing Concrete Communities”
McClelland’s talk was easily one of the highlights of this year’s TEDxTO. His thesis was that Toronto, contrary to popular belief, is actually a relatively dense city, with enough high-rise communities to forestall urban sprawl. In fact, by McClelland’s count, Toronto has “the second largest number of towers in North America.” The thing is, a lot of them aren’t downtown.
According to McClelland, a large percentage of Toronto’s citizenry lives in high density apartment buildings, most of which are located outside the city’s core. These areas aren’t on the subway lines, which makes them, for all intents and purposes, “invisible.” McClelland expressed hope that planned light-rail expansions would bring these hidden communities, many of which are poor, back into the light, and render them more vibrant. He also said that unless something to improve community life in these places did occur, that “Toronto could have riots in five years’ time,” which seemed a little, well, dire.
But in his conclusion, he mentioned that City Council is already on board with a plan to start making improvements on some of those old apartment buildings. Maybe there’s hope, yet.
Steven Woods (Site Director, Google Waterloo): “Google’s Vision for a Mobile Web”
Ever since Google noticed a spike in mobile internet usage (Woods pegs the world’s mobile user base at somewhere around 3.2 billion people), they’ve been working on ways of capitalizing. This presentation was full of graphs and figures, all illustrating the explosive growth of mobile computing.
To be fair, Woods’s angle of attack wasn’t all that Google-centric. Nevertheless, the whole talk had the feel of Google boilerplate, and, ironically, it was interrupted at points by Woods’s occasional struggles with his notes, which he was reading on his iPhone.
Richard St. John (Success Analyst): “Success Is Always Asking: ‘What’s Next?'”
St. John delivered a short motivational speech, derived from his years of interviewing “successful people” in an attempt to crack their secrets.
Here’s his closing platitude:
“Make sure you have a very small rearview mirror that doesn’t let you look behind, and a huge windshield.”
He was big on car metaphors.
David Makepeace (Eclipse Chaser, Filmmaker): “Understanding Ourselves in an Epic Universe”
“I was never a deep person, I never had deep thoughts about things,” said Makepeace (brother of Torontoist panorama whiz Tony Makepeace). “Until this, my first total eclipse of the sun.”
This was not so much a presentation as it was a soliloquy on the transformational power of solar eclipses, which Makepeace has travelled around the world to witness on all seven continents.
There was some legitimate showmanship on display here, and the video footage of solar eclipses that served as a backdrop for Makepeace’s performance was eerie and fantastic.
Dr. Charlotte Yates (Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, McMaster University): “The Future of Unions”
Yates devoted her time on stage to challenging the notion that unions are “anachronistic organizations.” Yes, there was a nod to Toronto’s city workers’ strike. Even better, Mayor Miller was there to receive it.
Yates shared data which demonstrated a correlation between higher union membership and higher levels of social protection. For unions to survive long enough to continue providing these benefits to another generation of workers, she argued, they will need to quickly acclimate themselves to a newly globalized business environment, and an increasingly individualistic culture.
This was a much needed reminder that unions, when they’re not refusing to collect our garbage, actually do manage to perform a significant amount of social good, and are worth preserving for the future.
Mathew Ingram (Online Communities Editor, the Globe and Mail): “Five Ways New Media Will Save Old Media”
“I help journalists figure out how to use the internet,” was Ingram’s self-supplied job description. Strangely, from what we were able to gather from the rest of his talk, this seems fairly close to the truth.
Ingram looks at his work cultivating a true, interactive online presence for the the Globe and Mail as a stab at nothing less than the salvation of so-called “old media.” It’s a task he compares to “teaching the fish to walk on its fins.”
Though he conceded that bloggers have all the tools necessary to compete with traditional media, Ingram holds out hope for print culture stalwarts like his employer, because, he said, they still have one thing most of their upstart competitors don’t: a long, established reputation for integrity and rigour.
“Trust is effectively a competitive advantage,” he said. And later: “Trust is the only thing we have left.”
Waawaate Fobister (Playwright, Choreographer, Dancer, Producer): “Telling Very Personal Stories”
Fobister gave what amounted to a synopsis of his hit one-man show, Agokwe, which won several Dora Awards in 2009. The story concerns a formative incident in Fobister’s life as a teenager on an Anishnaabe reservation: he develops a crush on a boy from a neighbouring reservation, contrary to the anti-homosexual mores of his community, and fails to act on it in time.
It was a good story, and it was “very personal,” as promised, but this talk left us wanting more of a thesis to take away and mull over.
Gavin Sheppard (Executive Director, REMIX Project): “Creative Education”
Sheppard delivered a strong speech about his efforts to create a life skills program for GTA youth. The inspiration for the program, which eventually developed into The Remix Project, was Sheppard’s own frustration with traditional education. “To be blatantly honest,” he said, “I feel like I’ve been insulted by the education system.”
Sheppard’s program uses hip-hop culture to reach out to youth who might otherwise give up on education. “Culture is our trojan horse,” he said. This talk neatly incorporated some of the day’s overarching themes (improving education, revitalizing troubled communities), and it was a pleasure to sit through. It’s easy to see why Sheppard has been so successful in reaching out to mistrustful kids: he’s sincere, and he’s really funny.
Min Sook Lee (Documentary Filmmaker): “Raising my Toxic Baby”
Lee spoke about the challenges of parenthood in a commercialized age. “There’s this whole baby industrial complex out there,” she said. “I think it’s part of our consumer culture. It’s this whole idea that you buy your way into the parenting hall of fame.”
Lee’s recent documentary, My Toxic Baby, which will be premiering at TIFF this year, tackles one particular consequence of this “baby industrial complex”: the presence of artificial toxins in seemingly ordinary items, like soap, food, and toys. Even cloth diapers, evidently, can contain pesticides, because the cotton from which they’re made is often heavily sprayed while it’s still on the plant. What’s a parent to do? Lee educated the audience about a fringe toilet training practice called “elimination communication,” which is, um, exactly what it sounds like.
Peter MacLeod (Principal, MASS LBP): “Imagining 2017 and Why it Begins Now”
Half elegy, half pep talk, MacLeod’s presentation lamented the absence of the spirit of ’67 in Canadian public life, while challenging the crowd to help revive that spirit in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial (that’s a 150-year anniversary) in 2017.
“In the run-up to 2017, we need to give ourselves permission to get imaginative as a country again,” he said, and got some mid-presentation applause, which was rare on the day. MacLeod has already organized a conference of prominent Canadian thinkers and organizers, for them to start considering ways of celebrating the sesquicentennial. It will occur in spring 2010.
By MacLeod’s reckoning, 2017 will be as much about multinationalism as 1967 was about multiculturalism. Judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction, he might just be right.
Photos by J. Adam Huggins and Aaron Rodericks, courtesy of TEDxTO.