A sold out crowd. 1010 lanyards collected. 1010 faces turned towards the big screen. We were ready for TEDxTauranga to begin.
I found myself sitting next to one of last year’s speaker’s who was able to describe how charged the speakers will be feeling and how many weeks and months of polishing had gone into preparing the messages we were about to hear.
Lead organiser Sheldon Nesdale introduced us to what we could expect to experience today; thoughts we may have never had, friends we would have never otherwise met, conversations you just ever get the chance to ordinarily have.
After the housekeeping rundown and description of how the zero-waste event was to run, we were issued with three orders; ignore people you know, fall silent when there is a speaker on stage, and meet someone new in the breaks.
And with that, TEDxTauranga 2015 began.
1. Ellis Bryers: Our cultural identity as New Zealanders. Our Kiwi-Tanga
Growing up the son of a Maori dad and a Pakeha Mum in 1970s New Zealand, Ellis was told that the Maori world was a dying one.
Later in life, deciding on his own cultural transformation by “stepping through the greenstone door”, Ellis saw the irony in people who were fluent in Te Reo being just about the only ones guaranteed a job.
As a cultural advisor in the Bay of Plenty and having now officiated his 95th local wedding, Ellis is witnessing in real time the development of what he calls “Kiwitanga’; Maori welcoming the development of their ancient traditions and pakeha embracing a cultural identity that respects the Maori heritage from where it came.
He believes this is a significant moment in our country’s evolution – one of unity and respect.
Best thought challenge – if we don’t put a stake into the ground that declares what our unique identity stands for, then others will for us. How will I express my kiwitanga?
Spine tingling moment – Ellis’ taiaha demonstration. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up
2. Dr David Pattemore: The pollination puzzle: Unexpected alternatives to honey bees
Bees, as hear endlessly in the mainstream media, are bad news. Well, losing them will be bad news for the earth, this we know.
But this is only a scary headline that represents a sliver of the wider problem and the wider solution.
These headlines are in fact referring to the European Honey Bee, which is one of 7 varieties of honey bee, among 25,000 other species of honey bees.
These bees are certainly in danger but the picture is wider and less grim than this.
Because David’s research on predator-free islands such as the Little Great Barrier showed that a variety of species actually love to pollinate our native plants too – birds, bats, beetles, and flies all help to move the pollen around to keep our native plants reproducing and flourishing.
Head-tilting moment – the New Zealand avocado industry sees a Central American fruit being pollinated by the European Honey Bee and grown in a South Pacific climate. It’s a human engineered process.
3. Catherine Iorns: How a Simple Change to the New Zealand constitution could protect the environment
Catherine opened with a challenge that we’re being asked currently in New Zealand; that 100% Pure tourism campaign provides a convenient screen for a host of evils currently afflicting our natural environment.
Catherine used New Zealand’s waterways to illustrate her argument that this can no longer be accepted as the status quo; Nitrates, pesticides, fertilizers and toxic fracking waste are raising potentially lethal issues in the use of this water.
Catherine’s solution is to provide for environmental protection in our human rights legislation.
A line in the Bill of Rights or Human Rights Act would allow the protection of the environment be discussed in national courts, and therefore compel governments and populations to take active measures to protect these most precious of resources.
Biggest wake up moment: The Philippines has a more advanced formal environmental protection regime than New Zealand. I’ve been to Manila, yikes.
Question I’d love to have been able to ask – how central has been formal human rights recognition been for the development of rights relating to women, race, and sexuality? A conversation that is worth having.
4. Sir Ray Avery: Disruption, Innovation, Spin-Offs: 3 reasons New Zealanders are better at turning dreams into reality
A man approaching household-name status in New Zealand, Sir Ray strode onto the stage musing that humans are the only species that know we are going to die, yet we still haven’t done anything about it.
He is determined to use what days he has changing the world, and asked us what we wanted to use our remaining days doing.
He believes innovation is primarily driven by the power of observation: it was by observing the details in front of him that allowed him to have breakthroughs in designing and bringing to market the Lifepod Infant Incubator.
He says New Zealanders are perfectly suited to innovation because we don’t like rules, they don’t like the status quo, and they dare to dream.
Best sharing-the-love moment – Sir Ray listed off a list of New Zealand companies who you’ve never heard of but whose products billions of people around the world use every day, such as Buckley System’s electromagnetic chips sitting in our iphones.
Fun trivia – When Sir Ray is called “Sir” when shopping he never knows if they know he’s a knight, or they are just being polite!
Lunch time! Yum Mexican inspired snacks in compostable boats. An hour to chat and mingle and digest the food and thoughts.
5. John Boone
Coming back from the first break, the crowd each grabbed one of a thousand hand-held drums that were stacked on the side of the venue.
What for? We found out as John Boone sang and drummed a call-and-response routine. Singing, banging, clapping, giggling. The dude was a hilarious conductor and we all decided we were buying a bongo drum tomorrow. Uplifting.
6. TED Video: Rita Pearson: Every kid needs a champion
A video TED talk from Rita Pearson discussing education followed.
I won’t forget her describing how she graded failing students; she’ll focus on giving credit for the two answers they got right rather than the 18 they got wrong; “Minus 18 sucks the life out of you. Plus 2 says I’m not all bad”.
7. Dr Bronwen Connor: How to Turn Skin Cells into Brain Cells
Holding up a real human brain (preserved in resin), Bronwen described how when a healthy human brain works as it should, it is a natural supercomputer.
1 in 50 New Zealanders, however, suffer from some sort of neurological disease and this number is increasing.
Bronwen’s research team devised a technique called direct reprogramming which forces genes into skin cells to make them behave like, and eventually turn into, healthy brain cells.
This has radical potential for understanding for the first time how normal and diseased brain cells differ, thereby understanding what is needed to cure neurological diseases.
Bronwen reminded us that we need to trust our crazy ideas, even, or perhaps especially, in fields of work that look linear like science.
Coolest thing – Bronwen, along with her technical staff, was the first person in history to physically see what a brain cell grown from a skin cell looks like.
Interesting factoid I learned – the majority of testing is done on rodents and drugs don’t reach humans until clinical trials which are admitted under very limited circumstances.
8. Dr Harold Hillman: Should you fit in or stand out? Finding your authentic voice
In 1993 Harold was one of a select group invited to serve on a governmental commission to investigate whether the US military’s policy of banning homosexual men and women from serving should be overturned.
While honoured to have been selected for such a prestigious role, Harold was equally terrified.
He was homosexual, but was so caught in his projection of what was required of him as a “professional” that he felt he compelled to hide this truth.
He spent his days in the commission listening to and watching brave pro-gay advocacy groups make their submissions in the face of both passive and aggressive anti-gay pressure and wondered why he couldn’t be his authentic self.
He left the military as Obama overturned the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that that 1993 commission had implemented and swore to never again lose his integrity for the sake of being accepted by others.
Best breath-intake moment – “When you’re too focussed on holding yourself in, it’s harder for people to make a connection with you”.
Thing to remember – you may see someone receiving medals and plaudits, but you don’t know what inner battles they are waging.
9. Bekki Richards
Becky Richards’ short film entitled “There’s a Problem in our Backyard” was about environmental protectionism in the Bay of Plenty was shown. A young, local, film-making talent.
Afternoon tea break! Cupcakes and tea!
10. Marcus Winter a.k.a. The Sand Man
The end of the break saw us ease back into the sessions with Marcus Winter, the ridiculously talented sand performing artist.
A what? I hear you ask.
Marcus moves dry sand around a backlit lightbox while filming it from above, creating images that shape-shift and transform in front of our eyes as he makes and destroys them to tell a story.
He presented an utterly compelling sound and visual performance of the Battle of Gate Pa, a very significant piece of local history during the Maori Land Wars. Hard to describe, impossible to forget. Magical.
11. TED Video: Rana el Kaliouby: This app knows how you feel — from the look on your face
A video TED talk from Rana el Kaliouby illustrated how she has been developing technology that allows screens to literally read emotions.
How would you describe the difference between a smile and a smirk? It’s hard, but computers can now tell the difference, with huge implications for human social development.
12. Dr Michael Quintern: The 600 million year old technology beneath our feet
This is a guy that likes muck. Which is lucky, because New Zealand has a lot of it and needs to work out what to do with it. Primary industries in New Zealand create a lot of waste product like fibrous wood chip waste and sludge from dairy factories.
This waste is urgently needed to produce hummus for our soils that are lacking in nutrients.
But, this mucky waste is difficult, expensive, and occasionally unsafe to transport around leaving most of it abandoned to methane-producing dumps.
The cutting edge technology needed to solve this equation is: Earthworms.
They churn through waste and turn it into vermicast which is fluffy, nutrient-dense, and economical fertilizer that farmers love.
Best soundbite – Look for global worming, not global warming
Best worm trivia – worms eat their body weight a day, they can double their population within two months, and compress waste into 80% of what it was. If they were pretty they’d be everyone’s favourite creature.
13. Jason Edgecombe: Do you always read the label? When diagnosis can suppress recovery
As a kid in the ‘90s, Jason’s parents were given his diagnosis; doctors declared him afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder and therefore mentally disabled.
Worse even than the fact that this diagnosis was incorrect (he has high-functioning autism) was that the adults in his life told him that his differences meant that he would never achieve social, academic, or professional success.
Negative feedback from his external environment compounded the harsh negative messages Jason gave himself.
By drawing inspiration from the video game characters he loved, Jason challenged the assumption that he wouldn’t find success by studying martial arts, moving across the world, finding love and ultimately deciding to abandon the fruitless task of hating himself.
Now a dad, he’s discovering that there is a lot to love.
Note to self to follow up – I want to learn more about the differences that exist in people’s experience of autism; what’s the difference between high functioning autism and other experiences of autism?
Best chat during the break – everyone was reminding each other to be kind to those who experience life differently than the majority after this talk
Our third break saw me refuel with a frittata (and possibly a second cupcake).
14. Phil and Tiley
Settling in for the final session of the day, the smooth acoustic tones of Phil and Tilley washed over my buzzing brain.
One of the duo played an instrument I’d never seen before, it looked like a deconstructed double bass adding a baritone to the guitar accompaniment.
They played a song about leaving someone you love and not feeling right until you’re back with them – we all know how that feels, gulp.
15. TED Video: Julian Treasure: How to speak so that people want to listen
A final video TED talk came from Julian Treasure talking about how the human voice can be used to its most powerful effect.
The seven deadly sins of verbal communication (gossip, judging, negativity, complaining, excuses, lying, dogmatism) can be overpowered by HAIL; honesty, authenticity, integrity, love.
By being aware what you say, and how you say it, powerful change can come from your voice.
16. Rachael van der Gugten: Fart free for life: Why good digestion is essential for optimal health
We all do it, but do we all know that flatulence is actually a warning sign of what’s going on in our bellies? Rachael’s research is joining others in showing that a diet too heavily reliant on carbohydrates causes an imbalance of microflora in our guts.
Over-consumption of carbohydrates can cause the “thunder from down under” that sounds funny, but is probably a sign to eat more nutrient dense meat, healthy fats, and fibre.
And if your “yodelling from below” is stinky? It may be that your stomach is low in acid and therefore not properly processing the food that is in it.
Stress, nutrient deficiencies, and some medications can cause farts to be smelly and another sign to check your overall health.
Most helpful contribution from the audience – my neighbour suggested I could remember that carbohydrates and stress may cause loud and smelly flatulence by naming them ‘stink links’. Thanks, neighbour.
A more relevant helpful hint – Rachael suggested you can test your stomach acid levels by drinking a glass of water with ¼ teaspoon baking soda in it; if you burp right away your stomach levels are fine, if it takes longer than 5 minutes to burp it’s time to look into it.
17. Stephen Lethbridge: How to create a workforce that can answer “ungoogleable” questions
If we are in the golden age of connectivity, and about to enter into the age of hyper-connectivity where machine intelligence works inextricably in with our daily lives, then someone is going to need to know how to create this with code.
Stephen is a principal of an Auckland school that is focussing on nurturing a generation of kids that know how to be digitally literate.
By offering innovative programmes such as Zombie Robot Club encouraging children to tinker, design, collaborate, and iterate Stephen is turning the kids in his school into effective problem finders as well as problem solvers.
The school’s Make Club sees kids join with their parents to work on issues such as making the 3D printer print with chocolate rather than clay, thereby encouraging both generations to welcome mistakes and teach each other.
Best head-nodding moment – when kids ask, “what should I do now”? Answer with “how might you find out what you should do now?”
Idea that reaches across disciplines – Stephen said that we mustn’t limit our children to the world that came before them. While he was referring to what they are taught in school, it can apply to so many aspects of a child’s development. Fascinating.
Sheldon closed this transformative day by thanking the 40 businesses that put their hard-earned money and services towards this wonderful event.
The speakers and performers were applauded again, and the team of amazing volunteers who collectively donated over 3000 hours to make TEDxTauranga fly.
Members of the audience shared some thoughts they had of the day including expressing their appreciation to Sheldon for his mammoth efforts.
One more drink with the crowd before it was time to take my bursting brain home to let the experience wash over.
TEDxTauranga is not simply a collection of live speakers.
It’s not simply a local community event.
It’s not simply an art experience.
It’s one of those things you do that you can’t file neatly next to something similar you’ve done recently.
It transcends genres and expectations.
It’s connection, and challenging assumptions, and sparking neurons you didn’t know you had.
It’s a supremely hopeful experience.
One you’ve got to have, at least one time.
Written by Claire Piper