A perfect blend: Inspirefest serves up a stimulating mix of STEM and humanity

22 Jun 2018

Inspirefest founder Ann O’Dea. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The science, the technology, the personal, the political, the business, the culture – Inspirefest puts everything on stage and leaves an audience motivated for more.

“To pitch a VC, don’t say ‘vagina’.”

“If your culture doesn’t support diversity, your business will die.”

“We need to talk about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in Irish STEM workplaces.”

“What if history was written by women?”

These are just some of the powerful soundbites you catch during the Inspirefest experience. This is the conference that sets an agenda built around diversity and inclusion, and focuses on topics at the intersection of science and technology with culture and the arts.

True to a conference that celebrates the interdisciplinary, the speakers don’t present as though the personal, professional and political are separate. Whole selves were on stage sharing the life-altering moments that brought them their ideas and motivations.

Fidelity International’s Ranjani Kearsley had a childhood she described as something like that depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, but her candour and confidence in asking for opportunities led her to academic and professional success. Sheree Atcheson spent the past year on a personal journey to find her birth mother in Sri Lanka and realised: “If my birth mother hadn’t been selfless enough to give me up, I wouldn’t have had the life I’ve had … I had to give something back to that country.” This led to the founding of I Am Lanka, a social enterprise to highlight Sri Lanka’s local and global role models. Surbhi Sarna’s own health scare led her to found a company dedicated to early detection of ovarian cancer – the company she just sold to Boston Scientific for $275m. She explained that she was lucky not to have had her ovaries removed, prompting her husband (Rajeev Behera, who spoke earlier in the day) to join her on stage with their child, who gave us a mic-drop moment.

Indeed, not just whole selves, but whole families were in the spotlight. We could not only see what great people had achieved, but the journey they took and the many factors that contributed to their ideas, innovations and successes.

Ireland is currently on a high of political progression, but with international visitors at the event suffering through the trauma of their leaders’ decisions, the personal and passionate talks were often laced with threads of activism.

Images of hand-painted signs from different events of the past year appeared in presentations throughout:

‘We’re here. We’re peer reviewed. Get used to it.’

‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.’

‘I fancy Simon Harris.’

There is a lot happening in the world outside of science and technology. But it’s all part of the same world of culture and greater humanity. This was the kernel at the heart of Domhnaill Hernon’s talk, as he returned to Inspirefest once more to introduce another of Nokia Bell Labs’ Experiments in Art and Technology featuring beatboxer Reeps One. Reeps’ performance – a blend of formal presentation, incredible beatbox mastery, documentary screening and a stunning live demo of artificial intelligence and voice technology – was a perfect representation of the artistic side of sci-tech that this event strives to showcase. And, according to Reeps One, we must embrace “that nervousness we avoid, that friction that we run from” to drive creativity.

In the closing session, as strategist Thaler Pekar directed the audience to engage with conversations among themselves, it was clear the boundaries had been successfully broken down. We were all connected. Not because of science or technology, but because of our humanity.

Take this inspiring moment from a new Ireland, and run with it.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.