The Intellectual Particle Accelerator that was TEDxManchester

We are 3 talks into TEDxManchester and Tara Shears is giving us a crash course in advanced particle physics. On the screen is a giant animation of particles smashing together in the Hadron Collider at CERN, and she is talking and gesturing enthusiastically about how this is part of the scientific community’s ongoing quest to find that God(damn) Higgs-Boson particle and validate the notion that we might have some kind of a clue what the universe is all about. Because, as Tara explains, without Higgs our theories for the universe simply don’t work. We’re back to square one, or at least in need of a bloody good plan B.

Now I can’t say I completely understood everything that Tara was saying (what is a quark? Anyone?). But I love this. I love that some of the world’s greatest minds have spent decades (and several billion pounds) searching for something that might be nothing more than an idea, all so that we can understand the forces of the universe a little better. Yes, the technology used at CERN will undoubtedly have practical uses at some point down the line, but right now its primary purpose is just to turbo charge global knowledge and understanding about the world around us. It’s purely and simply an exercise in discovery.

Which is probably the same reason why TEDx appeals so much. Like some kind of giant intellectual particle accelerator, this Manchester based event has gathered together a collection of experts from fields ranging from arts, music and philosophy to science, digital technologies and architecture, put them on the stage in Cornerhouse cinema 2, wound them up and let them fly at us.

Mary Anne Hobbs on pursuing your passions

We had Tom Bloxham, standing against a slideshow of some of his massive architectural achievements, appealing to us to stop striving for perfection and make more mistakes. David Erasmus, social entrepreneur extraordinaire, who is intent on changing the world and for whom the word ‘can’t’ simply does not seem to have a place in his vocabulary. Brendan Dawes, whose playful approach to constant iteration and discovery resulted in the creation of his seminal work – Cinema Redux – which is now part of the permanent collection at New York’s MOMA. And Mary Anne Hobbs, reminding us that even living on a bus for a year with questionable sanitation surviving on a diet of chips is no hardship at all if it’s in pursuit of your passions and dreams.

TED might be about ideas worth spreading, but what struck me most about all the talks yesterday was the consistent theme of Action. Do something; even if it means making mistakes along the way. Do something; even if you don’t know if it will work. Do something; as it’s the only way you’ll achieve your dreams. Do something; as that next tiny step might result in greatness. Do something; because things are not ok the way they are, and we can do better.

And, as is the point of these kind of events, I for one left feeling a little more excited and inspired, and a little more ready to take some action of my own.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested, you can read my reflections on TEDxManchester 2009 here.

TEDxManchester: On the hunt for new ideas…

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go along to TEDxManchester – an independently organised TED event where Manchester’s great and good joined together in BBC Philhamonic studio hall to hear and share some new ideas worth spreading. 

You can’t argue with the concept, and this being Europe’s largest TEDx event, it brought with it some good speakers and interesting discussions. But as I walked into the hall for the third session after 4 hours of talks to listen to Hugh Garry’s presentation on mobile filming and Paul Coulton’s presentation on online gaming (both of which were enjoyable), two things suddenly struck me, keeping me awake until the small hours last night as I mulled them over in my jumbled and exhausted head. I’m going to try and deal with the first of these thoughts in this blog post. It goes like this.

Bar Phil Griffin’s brilliant talk on urban spaces and architecture, virtually every live presentation at TEDxManchester had been in some way about technology and social media. While in part this is likely to be down to the fact this is the main interest area of most of the organisers and attendees (demonstrated by the fact that the event was primarily promoted through twitter), it does raise a question about whether the digital space has become the primary home for ideas and innovation.

After all, throughout the world entrepreneurs, academics, creatives and social commentators are flocking to digital and social channels as their main means of doing what they do. And as a result, we think that this is where the innovators live. The assumption is that if someone has something worth saying or doing, they’re probably saying or doing it online.

And more than that, the unbridled development of the internet has had and is having a profound effect on almost every area of our society, from how we manage our lives, businesses and relationships to what we expect from governments, corporations and media giants. You would struggle to talk about creativity, innovation and social change without mentioning the digital world, which is probably why the digital world featured so prominently in yesterday’s programme.

But it would be really, really dangerous for innovators to look only to the digital space for inspiration. The very basis of TED is that good ideas – ideas that inspire you and change the way you think – can and do come from anywhere. History, philosophy, politics, international development, economics, literature, nature, quantum physics, health research, psychology…it’s a massive world out there and it’s filled with people taking routes to try and understand it that are not purely digital. Or (shockingly!) are not in any way digital!  

Think about the people in your life and world that inspire you and make you think about things differently. Or even think of those people in the public eye who challenge the way you think about the world. For me, it’s been statesmen like Al Gore, writers like Liz Gilbert, explorers like David Attenborough, not to mention all the musicians, artists, campaigners and journalists out there. And while some of them might have a blog, their ideas are usually about people, nature and what it means to be human, and have absolutely nothing to do with technology.

‘So what?’, you might say. Let’s face it – a lot of the innovation happening out there is happening online. Does it matter if this is the main place we go to when seeking new ideas? Well…yes! If people in the digital space are only hearing ideas from the digital space, then the sphere of inspiration narrows and you end up with the same ideas churning and repeating, putting them in danger of becoming stale. Without external stimulus, progress and innovation grinds to a halt pretty quickly.

The beauty of TED is that it reaches into virtually every field and craft on the hunt for ideas, oiling the wheels of global innovation by giving you access to the minds and thoughts of people you would never ever come across otherwise. TEDx has a massive opportunity to take this philosophy and bring  it into our local towns and cities, and while yesterday was great, I really hope that a) it happens again next year and b) it throws the speaker net wider to bring us ideas and perspectives from fields we wouldn’t have thought to look in ourselves.