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A recap of TEDGlobal 2011

Last week I was in Edinburgh Scotland for TEDGlobal 2011 along with Duncan Wilson and Stuart Smith of Arup and approximately 900 other visitors from around the world. It was my first time at TED and it became clear from quite early on and from the glossy promotional materials that the conference was going to be a very well produced and spectacular feast for the ears.

TED (technology, entertainment, design) features prolific intelligent individuals from a diverse set of industries which include economists, psychologists, biologists, technologists, politicans, historians and a few artists to keep the audience’s brains from over heating. This year’s theme was the Stuff of Life and what really impressed me was how Chris Andersen and his team curated the programme for the full four days so that there were life related themes for each of the daily 2 to 4 panels. Their curation is a clever way of ensuring that the talks travel and so do we as their listeners without ever physically having to leave the auditorium.  My favorite talks included Tim Harford, the undercover economist, philosopher Alain de Botton, and Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha because of their unique and inspiring ways of encouraging us to look beyond the seductive and somewhat myopic entrapments of our mental models in order to embrace what can be learned through humility, randomness, and attentive listening. Here is my summary of those talks.

Tim Harford is an economist who studies complex systems and through his research he has found that the most successful complex systems are arrived at through trial and error. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to accept and believe the infallibility of our solutions and ideas, which Harford refers to as the God Complex. We retreat into this God Complex because it’s comforting to believe that we understand the complexity of the world and that through this understanding we can endeavor to solve complex problems.

What Harford goes on to show is how impossible it would be for any one of us to be able to fully conceive let alone understand the complexity of our world. He uses a consumer product project developed by Cesar Hidalgo which tracks the interconnections between 5000 products (Wal-Mart sells 100,000)  to show the impossibility and naivety of the God Complex. And ultimately he goes on to demonstrate how the best complex systems, such as children, are born through trial and error.

Philospher Alain de Botton’s talk inspired me to buy a book by Sara Maitland on the pleasures and power of silence. In his talk the author makes the case for a new kind of atheism, Atheism 2.0, that spends less time on the science of disputing the existence of God and more time developing some life-affirming rituals. The starting principle of Atheism 2.0 is the assumption that there is no God, but just as I was starting to slip into a self-satisfied crouch in my seat he went on to chastize the audience for too readily dismissing religion entirely. He goes on to explain that you don’t need to believe in the doctrines, but what about the aspirations that religion imparts on its believers such as the pursuit of continued growth and the importance of being better, nobler human beings. Education helps us with these pursuits up to a certain point – graduation – but it somewhat falsely presumes that we are rationale beings who won’t need any help once we exit the ivy gates.

But the truth is we all need guidance at different points in our lives and if education is no longer there to teach us, and if we are not religious by nature, we atheists need another source for invaluable life coaching. To this point Alain de Botton makes the argument that there is a lot that can be learned from the richness of religion and that atheism should not cut itself off from a very time proven source and disseminator of ideas and meaning.

Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha surprised me with the simplicity of her message. As a documentary filmmaker she has spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East tracking the relationships between Israel and Palestine. And yet rather than focus her work on the conflict, she has turned her lens on the peace movement which has received so little attention in international media. Her message was simple: the power of attention is exponential. We, in the West, have trained our attention on suicide bombing and the violence between Israel and Palestine. Julia Bacha suggests that if we could divert our focus and simply pay attention to the peace movements, the power of our attention would have a profound impact on the peace movement and hopefully a positive consequence on the lives its the affected people.

What inspired me about all of these talks was the power that we wield as individuals and as a society to shape our circumstances in an incredible way if we are willing to be humble, listen and accept the randomness of life. Here are a few other talks which are worth mentioning:

Annie Murphy Paul, a science author, for asking us to think about when our education begins. According to her research education begins early on in the womb.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times, for her audacity, courage, and leadership when firing half of her male staff so that she could run the paper according to her principles.

Richard Wilkinson, social epidemiologist, for arguing that more equal societies are healthier, happier societies, and that if we want to live the American dream, we should move to Denmark.

Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, educator, for proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks by training grandmothers in different communities of Africa and India to set up solar PV technologies and for observing that their men were untrainable.

Pavan Sukhdev, nature accountant, for trying to end the economic invisibility of nature, for advocating  a valuation of biodiversity and for pointing out our inability to perceive differences between private profits and public losses.

Rebecca Mackinnon, media activist, for reminding us that there are sovereigns of cyberspace which are shaping what we can and cannot do in real life.

Links to these and many other speakers can be found here. And #tedglobalnyc for live Tweets from the event.

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Arup Hosts NYC2050

Last Thursday February 24th Arup hosted its’ first NYC2050 event at Green Spaces: an eco and social entrepreneurial co-working space and hub. The event brought together professionals and students from design, technology, and sustainability industries with a vested interest in shaping the future of New York.  The purpose of the event was to bring together a cross-section of stakeholders from various areas and to facilitate an interactive conversation on how to co-design and co-create a better New York in 2050.

The event began with an overview of ground-breaking Arup projects to showcase our  global leadership and investment in innovation. We then kicked off the conversation with a panel of visionary experts drawn from a range of sectors. The panel included Aaron Koch, a senior advisor with New York City Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Sonali Sridhar, a senior interaction designer formerly with the Open Planning Project and currently with R/GA, Jackrit Watanatada, a managing partner with KJK Climate Investments, Molly Wright-Steenson, a Princeton PHD candidate and digital strategist, and Sarah Rich, a writer/editor and co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project.

Panelists highlighted the challenges and opportunities that New York City may face heading into 2050.  Sonali Sridhar shared some compelling maps that highlight the challenge of educational and racial disparity, and the promise of integration.  Molly Wright-Steenson raised the issue of obsolete infrastructure, and the opportunity offered by ubiquitous availability of data, which can be visualized and communicated to lead to productive decisions. Jackrit Watanatada spoke about the importance of small scale change at the local community level and taking small steps towards positive change, as opposed to relying entirely on large-scale institutions. Sarah Rich talked about the uneven distribution of fresh, healthy food and the opportunities presented by mobile devices and innovative distribution mechanisms to connect people with food. Aaron Koch concluded the panel with the City’s predictions of impacts of sea-level rise and the need to design and develop solutions for the challenges ahead.

Following the rich future overview by the panel, we led the audience into ‘NYC Wizard’ an interactive planning exercise focused on brainstorming improvements to the five boroughs inspired by plaNYC.  Participants were asked to highlight their top three priorities among the 10 goals outlined in plaNYC, and then to consider projects they would initiate to address and deliver on the goals.  Stuart Candy, who provided great support as a facilitator and time keeper- asked participants to report back their ideas in short bursts, or ‘Future Flashes’, in the form of public service announcements or news reports. The outcomes ranged from focusing on the efficient treatment and delivery of water to the creation of an indoor living machine in Central Park which would produce 20% of food for city residents. One group looked at creating incentives for interdisciplinary teams to address future housing needs in new, original ways.  Another group decided to take on the earlier climate change predictions by creating a sea wall with ecological benefits and heat island effect improvements around the five boroughs, fully equipped with new transport networks which included barge and kayak alternatives. Finally, one presenter caught the attention of the audience and drew impressed sighs when he announced that in 2050 the air quality, and light pollution would be greatly improved within the city: “its 2050, I’m standing in Times Square, and I can see the stars”.

Organizers of NYC2050 (Francesca Birks, Mayra Madriz) hope to host more focused thematic workshops which continue to draw on the rich professional talent and social capital of the cities where Arup has a presence. Change in New York and other cities will be driven by the intersection of various professions.  As a leader in integrated design, Arup can play a key role in designing and setting up a framework to facilitate and guide the creativity which leads to better cities in 2050.

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Capital vs Talent: The Future of Business in the US

Yesterday I attended a talk hosted by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Reuters and the Harvard Business Review. The panel included Rotman School’s Dean Roger Martin and cultural theorist and commentator Malcolm Gladwell. The talk was about the battle between capital and talent and the future of business in the US.

The panelists discussed the emergence of Michael Jensen’s agency theory in the 1970s and drew parallels to baseball and how the introduction of free agents changed the whole economic landscape. A transition occurred in which talent was calling all of the shots and incredulous capital – in the form of Regan and Thatcher – was left to wonder how they had taken their eye off the ball. There was speculation about how far talent could push for more compensation when the Gini coefficient in the US seems to be getting closer and closer to 1 – deep inequity. Malcolm Gladwell seemed mystified that there hasn’t been any social uprising or backlash to the huge disparity. And he wondered why the US was so different from Sweden and Canada; two countries which also are experiencing globalization but where the income extremes aren’t so vast.

Towards the end of the panel one audience member’s comment caught the attention of the crowd when he observed that he wasn’t certain about who he should be angry with: capital or talent. He reflected on how he might actually straddle both sides of the argument since he too gets annoyed with extreme forms of talent compensation, but at the end of the day, as the talent, he pushes to get as much as he can from capital. Which begs the question: have we created a social context in the US which makes considering less impossible?

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Campus of the Future workshop in Washington DC

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On December 3rd and 4th the Americas Social Infrastructure Market and Education Business hosted a Campus of the Future workshop in Washington DC at the Georgetown University Hotel and Conference Centre. The workshop, hosted by Leo Argiris and Mahadev Raman, was part of a larger series of workshops on the theme of campuses (corporate, medical, academic). Attendees included architects, planners, facility managers and academics from Carnegie Mellon, John Hopkins, U Penn, Cornell, American University as well as globally recognized architect talent Toshiko Mori, and Tom Kennedy and Raj Patel from Arup. Participants were encouraged to think about how the emerging trends of resource constraint and demographic changes might impact the future design of universities.

The workshop speakers included Cisco’s Director of Education, Michelle Selinger, who spoke about the impact of technology and design on learning and collaboration as well as Senior Sustainability Consultant Karin Giefer who drew on her experiences at the Pentagon and at Arup to describe two very different stories of sustainability.

Organized by Arup Foresight’s Francesca Birks and hosted by Global Director for Foresight & Innovation, Chris Luebkeman, these series of workshops are mechanism to facilitate open dialog between Arup and our clients – learning about their concerns as they relate to STEEP (social, technological, economic, environmental and political categories and looking towards the future.

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Visual pollution and visual literacy

While doing research on sustainable parks and community involvement in the maintenance of them, I came across the Dunn Foundation and their 25 minute movie entitled “Community of Choices”. The film focuses on the environmental, social and economic benefits of preserving the local character of a place and bemoans the prolifertion of commercial development as a blight and eyesore on the visual environment.

The Dunn Foundation goes as far as saying that “a major factor in the decline in the appearance of America’s communities is widespread illiteracy on the visual environment.” They believe that a better understanding of the visual environment and the forces that shape it will strengthen the connections that people have to places and reinforce civic values which are vital to healthy, sustainable communities.

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