TEDx hits Dublin: innovators want to help shape the new economy

16 Sep 2013

Science Gallery volunteer and astrophysicist Joseph Roche showcases at TEDx Dublin the act of quantum locking a superconductor. This superconductor may have the scope to store energy in the future. Image via Luis.faustino.com

Visitors to the latest TEDx Dublin event found a fusion of arts with science, brains and beauty, human capital and big data, as well as innovators sharing their insights, at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Saturday.

So eager were people to get to the second TEDx organised by Science Gallery that tickets sold out before they were even advertised, according to Róisín McGann from Science Gallery.

The sunny day itself was an ideal backdrop to the event, which was packed to the gills with people from every age group, and a plethora of nationalities.

Outside the venue were skateboarders, dragon boats swishing in to dock, plus an orchestra wooing the crowds with music.

TEDx kicked off at 1pm, with a line-up of about nine speakers. Following is are highlights of a few, beginning with Fiona Newell, a psychology professor at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Newell, who focuses on human perception, heads up the Multi-sensory Cognition group at TCD.

Fiona Newell TEDx Dublin 14 September 2013

TCD professor Fiona Newell pictured during her talk at TEDx Dublin on 14 September 2013


Newell wanted to share her research insights about aesthetics, or what is beauty?

She referred to a recent article in The Irish Times, in which people were surveyed about what they thought was the world’s ugliest creature. Most people chose the blob fish.

Speaking about the subjectiveness of beauty – how beauty can be in the eye of the beholder – Newell asked topical questions, such as why do we like particular faces? Or why do people like different colours, especially in relation to girls and the colour pink, and boys and the colour blue.

Based on research, she drew upon faces and why people generally like faces that are symmetrical – apparently this has something to do with humans’ innate liking for symmetry.

“The brain seeks regularities,” explained Newell.

She also spoke about an Attractiveness Test that she carried out with her research team, giving people faces to look at, which also played with their peripheral vision.

She said our preferences are universal, not subjective. In other words, a child in East Timor or a child in Australia or a child in Hungary will all go for similar faces, due to, it seems, the pre-frontal cortex in the brain, and how it has evolved over the millennia.

Easkey Britton TEDx Dublin 14 September 2013

Champion surfer and PhD graduate in marine science Easkey Britton talks surfing and the social economy at TEDx Dublin

Surfing and making a social difference

Next up was Easkey Britton. With a PhD in marine science, Britton is probably best known in surfing circles for becoming the first Irish person to surf the so-called ‘hell-wave’ off the coastline of Tahiti.

Britton grew up in Rossnowlagh, Co Donegal, a part of the world that has become famous for its surf. She has been surfing since she was a tot. Her talk at TEDx was all about ‘sharing your passion’, as that is what Britton has been doing.

The five-time national surfing champ, and a finalist in the Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards, is also an artist, an explorer and a seeker.

While she was wrapping up her PhD in marine science, Britton decided to explore Iran and managed to find some coastline in the mostly landlocked country. Naturally, Britton then took it upon herself to become the first woman to surf in Iran.

Not just content with that achievement, she decided to share her passion with Iranians – women in particular.

In the province of Balochistan, she has been teaching women and kids how to surf.

In her TEDx talk, Britton said it is all about “facing fears” and that surfing teaches us to fall.

Not only that, she said that when surfing you need to become part of a crew, so people will look out for one another.

It’s about working as part of a team, and developing trust, Britton told the TEDx audience.

Drawing upon the importance of female role models to inspire more young women to become athletes, Britton talked about UN Women.

She said it is important for female leaders, and especially athletes, to share stories.

‘Swallow the Pacific Ocean in one gulp … ‘ – the late surfer Rell Sunn

Britton returned to Iran with a film crew in tow, to produce a documentary on her ‘Waves of Freedom’ project.

Her aim, she said, is to “challenge and transcend social and gender inequalities” through surfing.

Her ultimate guiding force has been the late surfer Rell Sunn, in order to bring together the global community of surfers to “accelerate change” and make a difference.

Human capital and the age of change

The times they are a changing: Economist Constantin Gurdgiev talks the creative economy: how it's getting groovy now to do an MFA rather than an MFA

The times they are a changing: economist Constantin Gurdgiev talks the creative economy: how it’s groovy now to do an MFA rather than an MFA

Next up was Constantin Gurdgiev. Accompanied by some colourful slides, the Russian-born economist, former editor and current finance lecturer at TCD wanted to talk about the next economy.

He is of the belief that global economies are in transition, and are experiencing a type of renaissance – towards an age he terms as being one of “human capital”.

He said the world is in transitory mode, with a new age, the era of creativity, upon us. It’s about strands such as innovative capacity, risk attitudes, entrepreneurship and social and emotional skills, Gurdgiev explained to the TEDx crowd.

He goes back to his own educational past, when in 1990 he said he became a “smart export”, after he left Moscow for the US.

Innovation age

Gurdgiev also spoke about the global flows of latent entrepreneurs and innovation.

Just this past week, Ireland was named third in the European Union for its innovation output – this is based on statistical analyses carried out by the European Commission of the member states.

On innovation, Gurdgiev had this to say:

In 1990, one needed to get an MBA in order to be a mover-shaker. Now the tables have turned, he said. Since the Noughties, it’s apparently all about the MFA (Master in Fine Arts).

Speaking about how the world has morphed through different epochs: think the age of knowledge, age of bricks, age of the machine, age of tech. Gurdgiev said both the age of the machine and the age of technology have substituted labour with machinery/technology, somewhat.

Big data and empowering people

Now, he said it is all about data mining, or big data, in order to empower people to make choices that will have an impact on economies, cities, and create jobs, as well as reinvigorate social economies.

It seems that the era of big data is putting humans back in the driving seat again.

“Technology will become an enabler of human capital, rather than the other way around,” said Gurdgiev.

He believes that the age of commoditisation is “waning”.

With tech-enabled human capital, Gurdgiev said there is scope to make an impact in areas such as healthcare and the creative industries.

“It’s transition time,” he said.

Communicating science

Fergus McAuliffe TEDx Dublin 14 September 2013

Scientist Fergus McAuliffe on the art of storytelling to communicate science

One of the final speakers at TEDx Dublin was Fergus McAuliffe. An environmental scientist, McAuliffe studied at University College Cork.

His research focuses on environmental sustainability and wetlands.

He is known in science circles for being the first-ever winner of FameLab Ireland, a competition that was hosted by the British Council at Science Gallery earlier this year.

McAuliffe is passionate about communicating science in a way that the person on the street can understand what exactly a scientist is beavering away at every day in a lab.

He started off proceedings by giving an anecdote that seemed to please the crowds.

Having been working on his research with his supervisor in London, McAuliffe realised during the summer that he had not contacted his girlfriend in a week. So, he decided to send her an email …

The crux was he was finding it hard to use everyday language in the email, as he was used to writing science talk for the past week.

This kicked off the nitty-gritty McAuliffe really wanted to get down to at TEDx Dublin: the language of science and how to share complex information with people so they can understand what scientists are really doing every day.

Communicating at TEDx Dublin 2013

The crowd communicate visually at TEDx Dublin 2013

Tell a story!

While there can never be room for interpretation in science, McAuliffe said he has found his own formula for communicating science to the public. It’s all about storytelling, he said.

“Tell a story and embed the science within the story,” he said. He has this piece of advice for scientists, based on his own experience: “Don’t be afraid of simple language. Simple language does not mean simple thinking.”

At the same time as the speakers at TEDx were on stage, visual communicators were busy interpreting their talks via the business of art on large whiteboards. And McAuliffe’s storytelling process seemed to be especially apt for such visual translation.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic