A Recount of TEDxTauranga 2016: What fits your future?

It started with a shady looking character wondering onto stage… he’s our stand-in MC for the day?

He clears the stage for our mihi from Pahu Akuhata, our respected local Kaumatua from Ngati Ranginui and Kapahaka performance from Arataki School. The bright smiling faces and thumping feet build energy in the room and we’re all focused for the day ahead.

Our eyes are drawn to the big screens where we see the Arena doors open and two very smart machines stealthily roll into the break out area. The winners of the “win a ride to TEDxTauranga in a Tesla” competition are here and we’re ready to roll.

The day started with a confronting question: who is truly to blame for the environmental damage caused by farming. The farmer or us?

New Zealand highly values its clean, green image and its multi-million-dollar tourism industry. But regulating farming conflicts with the business context in which farmers operate. It’s like controlling air pollution by telling all car salesmen in Tauranga they’ve reached their quota of sales in August, and can’t sell another vehicle until January!

Mike and Sharon Barton challenged us all to think about what we as consumers are willing to pay for the true cost of our meat – meat that is produced on farms which actively protect the environment? What if we aren’t willing to pay? Either our water will degrade or food production will be pushed offshore to countries which don’t value their environment. Encouragingly it seems we are willing to pay a little bit more. And maybe awareness is the first step.

At the end of the first break I find myself sitting next to Gordon. He tells me that the real cost of a McDonalds hamburger is something like $30! I had an inkling but I’m still a little stunned. In the days since TEDxTauranga, I’ve told at least 5 people about this little discovery. And I’m googling…meatonomics tell me that each time someone buys a McDonald’s hamburger, society is out of pocket more than $7 USD for the associated healthcare costs to come, animal cruelty issues to be dealt with, and environmental damage that can’t be undone!

I’m left quietly uncomfortable by Mike and Sharon’s final question: who is the real polluter?

Darwin’s daughter Anne died of an infection which, 70 years later, would have been easily treated with antibiotics. In the years since antibiotics were discovered, our overuse of them, and the natural ability of bacteria to evolve and develop resistance, has led us almost full circle. Now it’s superbugs!

Something I didn’t know? The Majority of antibiotics used today are used in the agriculture sector – trying to keep animals healthy in sub-optimal conditions! Oh great… now I’m thinking about the real cost of hamburgers again?

But Dr Heather Hendrickson gives me hope. She is hunting bacteriophages – tiny naturally occurring viruses which attack bacteria. Where antibiotics are blunt instruments in the treatment of infection, and kill as many good bacteria as bad; bacteriophages are very specific and targeted. The most exciting thing is that we’ve discovered very few so far, and they’re not hard to find. They’re in the playground! And they’re providing hope in that agriculture sector as well. Bacteriophages are being used to combat PSA.

As we settle in for the third talk, I hear a lady behind me ask if this might be an option for pregnant women who can’t risk taking anti-biotics? Her friend suggests they go find Heather in the first break and ask. That’s what TEDxTauranga is all about.

Dr Johan Morreau posed a simple question: just how important are the first 1,000 days of a child’s life? It seemed a simple question but within 10 minutes, most of the audience was in tears.

While the health system has delivered advances in the treatment of medical conditions over the past 40 years, it is still failing our children in those critical first 2 ½ years. Dr Morreau highlighted the importance of a child’s learning attachment and affection, empathy, fun and self-worth in those first 1,000 days of life. If they don’t, there is a very good chance things will go wrong in the next 32,000 days. He presented a harsh reality for the increasing number of children living in poverty (now estimated at 25-30% compared to 10% in 1980): children with parents who are financially struggling and stressed with no good parenting models and supports, living in damp, cold housing with inadequate food, and no fun.

It was a very sobering picture when compared to countries like Holland which provide all new parents with free in-home support in the first weeks of a baby’s life, and a social welfare safety net which ensures a parent can still parent, even if other parts of their lives don’t go to plan.

Johan’s take home message? We should be investing in parenting, not in prisons. When I get home I google “Holland, prisons”. The first article that comes up?  Netherlands doesn’t have enough criminals to fill its prisons as crime to drop. “New Zealand, prisons”? NZ’s prison population booming. I’m already drafting a letter to … anyone who’ll listen. And I’m hoping the TEDxTauranga community will be right behind me!

I was really excited to hear from our fourth speaker Donna Miles-Mojab. She promised to challenge what I knew about a women’s right, or lack thereof, to wear a hijab. While the papers were peppered with articles about the French burkini ban, I remained naively ill-informed.

I didn’t know that a law mandating the unveiling of women could be just as damaging as a law to cover up. In fact, it could sow the seeds of extremism to follow! Forced modernization of Iran in 1939 did just this. Women were forced to remove their veils and were subsequently abused and marginalized, becoming prisoners in their own homes. This cultivated a hatred of westernization, which contributed in 1979 to the fall of Iran to an extremist Islamic regime, which then forced women to again wear the hijab and loose clothing. 

I am convinced then that we need to trust women’s own choices. Donna shares the individual choices women make about why they choose to, or not to, wear the hijab. In a world where a women’s worth is determined by her sexual allure, covering up can be freeing. And given the likelihood that force in either direction is only likely to fuel reactionary responses, surely trusting women to decide for themselves is the only sensible option?

It’s time for our first break! There are delicious goodies on offer but it’s hard to politely eat while holding a serious conversation about valuing social capital! I’m munching down a frittata but before I know it, Justin Timberlake is crooning over the load-speakers and we’re all scurrying back to a new seat (under strict instructions to sit somewhere different in each session).
Up first is a fresh, lively session from the Jason McIver Collective, a trio based in Auckland who warmed the crowd up and had everyone toe-tapping, clapping and head bobbing along!
We then turn to the big screens for a TED video which is a modern, very human perspective on the refugee experience in Europe – a story which unravels the mystery behind two wetsuits washed up on beaches in Norway and the Netherlands. An eye-opening talk from Anders Fjellberg: Two nameless bodies washed up on the beach. Here are their stories, and one which is well-worth sharing.
Psychopaths…what we know about them comes almost entirely from the criminal justice system: they are the Ted Bundy’s and Mark Chopper-Reid’s of the world. But what if we were to see it as a spectrum of psychopathic traits? And accept that those traits are functioning in society in ways we know very little about? This is the possibility raised by our next speaker Dr Armon Tamatea.

When we get down to it, we know very little about psychopaths who manage to function in society because they do not come into contact with the systems which document their behaviour in detail. Psychopathic traits include superficial charm and charisma (ability to engage and build networks), fearlessness (resilience to stress and the ability to make tough decisions), and lack of empathy (an ability to pursue goals without regard for relationship costs). Dr Tamatea posits that these traits can be channelled to productive pursuits and that a better understanding of psychopaths can tell us what we are willing to tolerate as a society.

I can almost feel the collective buzz in the room. It’s a lightbulb moment. How can asking “what would a psychopath do?” help us make to make tough decisions in our own lives?

Just as everyone in the room starts examining their loved-ones for psychopathic traits, Jody Jackson-Becerra steps onto the stage to open our minds to the power of Fagogo – traditional Pacific island story-telling.

She rolls out her pandanas mat and starts to weave a story. But we play a part and as the story unfolds, the audience is carried along with her. We can see island sands, coconut trees, bountiful feasts, dark caves, disgruntled elders, little people… and by the end we’ve all absorbed a very important lesson but we’re not quite sure how: be careful what you wish for!

Our last speaker in this session Michael Hershman has flown direct from Rio where the world’s best are battling it out for sporting glory. Michael Hershman clearly loves sport and believes that the spirit of competition inherent in sport, must be protected.

He is clearly disheartened by the influence which money has had on fundamental ethics and values in sport, and the corruption which he has seen trickle down from big sponsorship to infect athletes themselves. He reminds us to teach our children to play for the fun of it; “to win with humility and lose with dignity”.

At the end of his talk, Hershman offers a shared moment of recognition for the sportsmanship demonstrated by New Zealand Olympian Nikki Hamblin in her qualifying heat for the 5,000m. It’s a welcome reminder that the kiwi sporting spirit is alive and well.

After a short break during which I drool over the Tesla Model S parked outside (I cannot work out how to open the fancy electric door handles?)

… we are back into session 3 which kicks off with a provocative poetry session from the amazingly talented Te Kahu Rolleston. He challenges us to make the TEDx concept more accessible to a wider range of people, and to question how the education system might better value traditional forms of knowledge.

Then an enlightening TED video by Tabetha Boyajian: The most mysterious star in the universe.
As Tabetha finishes, our MC Mark Wright welcomes Joshua Konowe, a start-up veteran who believes that trust is the cornerstone of success in business.
I’ve never previously thought how defeatist it is that we start new ventures by first preparing for their demise? It’s like getting the divorce out of the way before the relationship has even begun. And yet we know that so many of our decisions in the market-place are built on recommendations from family or friends – built on trust? Somehow we have developed enough trust in companies like Amazon and AirBnB for them to hold personal information on us? How did they do it?

He proposes three essential ingredients for business success: transparency (fiscal at least), purpose (clarity about the problem you are solving or the pain you are removing) and execution (the ability to measure results). I decide to only work for trustworthy companies from now on. We’ll see how that goes.

Shama Sukul Lee obviously had a perfect life. Or at least, the version of perfection she’d always thought she was chasing. Until she realized it wasn’t enough and she began to shed her adopted personalities. She describes her journey from atheist, vegan feminist (in her own words “a very angry person”) to someone with clarity of self and purpose: belief that she could do or be anything, gratitude for the grace and strength of women in her life, and a deep love and respect for animals.

Her honest and real story about a journey toward vegetarianism had us all in fits of laughter. But out of that journey came an incredible mission: to make meat from sunshine and plants by deconstructing the food chain and skipping the animal. It sounded impossible, but she’s done it. And I can’t wait for green-pea chicken to hit the shelves of our supermarkets to I can alleviate some of my “mostly-vegetarian” guilt.

The last speaker in session three, Robin Youngson was able to share his own story toward campaigning for compassionate healthcare. Over twelve years spent trying to educate and campaign for better treatment of patients emotional healing within the healthcare system, Robin was able to share some insightful learnings about how to best engage in change.

He has learned what does not work: being a moral crusader taking the high ground, being an evangelist filled with rational arguments and lots of evidence, being an expert amidst people who clearly know their profession, focusing on problems rather than solutions, and trying to do all this within a standard business model. His take away message is that successfully influencing people is about finding connection rather than creating separation (them and us).

As we all head into the last break out session, the bar-leaner conversations are becoming more expansive. We are welcomed back to the musical stylings of local cover band Ink-kahoots, and then the hilarious musings of James Veitch: What happens when you reply to spam, our final TED video.    

Bryan Winters gave us a unique insight into the importance that numbers and percentages play in our lives. Tracing a quick history of both via the decimal system, he suggests that numbers have dramatically shaped our beliefs and politics. I hadn’t previously thought about how the reduction of people to percentages and statistics might have brought with it an ability to see guilt as social rather than personal. Through being able to count the poor and generalize their condition, it became possible to use this evidence as a tool to shape and change society.

Bryan’s final comment hits home: decimal is truly the only language which the whole world understands. I’m brought back to Dr Morreau’s presentation and feel again the impact of hearing that 25 – 30% of New Zealand children are now growing up in poverty. I’m grateful that we have this knowledge, and that our Government shares a global language which makes it accountable for these statistics.

Our MC takes the stage to recognize the winner of the Enspire challenge supported by TEDxTauranga. This year’s winning entry is a short film by Christine Khor. She presents a challenge to planners and builders throughout the country – to think smaller as a way to address the rising cost of housing and increasing inability for young people to enter the market. It’s a fantastic lead in to our next speaker.
Engineers are trained to drain wetlands and bury streams so that we can build roads, shopping malls and houses in our tightly packed urban landscapes. But engineer David Boothway reminds us what price we pay for all that hard surface: increased risk of flooding and landslips as well as more devastating damage when those events do happen. And the costs of recovery from these events are astronomical for our local and regional governments!

He challenged us all to become more aware of the urban spaces we journey through each day, to remap the blue lines which are underneath all that concrete and bitumen. And if we are brave enough to go the next step – to open up these waterways and re-green our urban spaces, there will be associated benefits as well – like a reintroduction of community green spaces in which children can play and the social fabric can be strengthened.

It brings me hope that there are engineers and planners who are choosing to work with the natural environment, rather than against it. 

Our last speaker for the day is a US trained ER doctor who moved to New Zealand 3 years ago. Dr Michael Jones came from a health system which aggressively treats patient pain as a first step in treatment. It’s also a system which has in-built policies which rewards doctors for good patient feedback – of which pain management is a key measure. The result? Lots and lots of prescription opioid (narcotic) pain medications. The sad statistical consequence? Accidental overdose from prescription medications has become the leading cause of accidental death in the USA – it’s an “opioid epidemic”!

By contrast, an 80-year old Taranaki farmer came into the ER with his leg gouged open by his bull. He would only accept Panadol as his leg was patched closed again. And he was back out in the paddock again the next day!

The conclusion? Pain is universal. But our response to it is an individual choice. But if this is the case, what at a societal level is happening that results in fewer kiwis individually choosing to lose it over pain? Dr Jones presents some interesting observations. Perhaps we have a culture of toughness? Or maybe it’s our connection to nature and acceptance that pain and healing must run their course? Or maybe it’s that we empower our nurses to moderate in the treatment of patients?

There is also the policy explanation. In New Zealand, it’s just generally a lot more bother and hassle to prescribe these types of medications. And so doctors are less likely to offer them. Whatever the reason, it’s clear we should be thankful for our kiwi response to pain.

Rubbish! One of the goals of TEDxTauranga is to become a zero-waste event. Marty Hoffart, a speaker from the 2014 event is an expert on the matter and he helped the team achieve a nearly zero-waste event, and a quarter-filled rubbish bag was all that went to the landfill. A pretty remarkable achievement!

We also had a hilarious revelation, our hilariously shady MC dressed as a janitor revealed our very own professional actor Mark Wright. The audience was quite surprised as he peeled off his moustache and began to recite Shakespeare! Mark definitely added the element of comedy to the MC role this year.

By the end of the day, my head is full to bursting. I know that the threads from today are going to travel with me for days and weeks to come; into conversations with friends, family and co-workers. I already know that some of my personal beliefs have been nudged and I wonder how I’ll carry the burden. Because you see, being a part of TEDxTauranga comes with responsibility… responsibility to carry those ideas beyond the ASB Arena. Every one of us was so privileged to be here. What will you do with that privilege?

Photo Credits : Richard Robinson and Natalie Murdoch


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