What we learned at TEDxColomboLIVE

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TEDxColombo is still a few months away. However, a few days back we made our way to NEXT Campus to hear a few TED talks. This was an event organized by the TEDxColombo team, but there were no local speakers. No, this was TEDxColomboLIVE; a live-stream of the main TED 2016 Conference that was happening in Vancouver. The conference featuring TED talks from famous names like A.R. Rahman, Ishita Katyal, Travis Kalanick, Adam Savage and many more.

Image credits: TEDxColombo
Image credits: TEDxColombo

Sadly, we were not able to hear the talks by A.R. Rahman, Ishita Katyal as they were part of Session 1 of TED 2016. As per restrictions set by TED, the TEDxColombo team couldn’t stream Session 1. Thankfully, we were able to witness the amazing talks in Session 2 which was titled: Radical repatterning. It may not have A.R. Rahman, but as you read, you’ll find that this session too featured talks from some famous names.

Adam Savage (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)
Adam Savage (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)

The 1st speaker of the session was Adam Savage, the co-host of the popular show Mythbusters. Adam began by sharing stories from his childhood. The first was where he would create makeshift astronaut suits from old ice cream tubs, convert his closet into a spaceship and go on imaginary space missions. The second story was about another costume inspired by the movie Jaws, a movie he loved but couldn’t see as he was too young. It was an interesting approach to the whole topic of radical repatterning. Growing up and working on Mythbusters, Adam started using costumes to express his ideas to the audience.

“The costumes are how we reveal ourselves to each other.” – Adam Savage

He didn’t forget to mention his undercover cosplaying adventure in and around Comic-Con. It was during this undercover adventure cosplaying as No Face from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, that he saw how powerful costumes were. The costumes brought people together at comic-con to create a story everyone was involved in. The beauty of costumes he said is how their makers spend time on making them as detailed as a possible.

Cédric Villani (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)
Cédric Villani (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)

After the exciting talk by Adam came Cédric Villani, the mathematician known as “The Lady Gaga of Mathematics”. Cédric opened his talk, by mentioning what French do better than anyone else is love, wine, and whining. According to him, mathematics might just be the fourth on that list. The fact that Paris has more mathematicians than any other city in the world and France having more Field Medal winners per citizen than any other country supports Cédric’s claim.

The answer to why the French love math is abstract but not dull. Mathematics is about finding the truth. It helps us discover otherwise impossible places and go beyond contemplating. For instance, the French astronomer Jean Richer identified that a pendulum swings slightly faster in Paris than in Cayenne. From this Isaac Newton accurately inferred that the Earth is flatter at the poles. Another example would be, when Sir Francis Galton’s Galton Board demonstrated how a ball, which enters from the top of a board falls into slots by going through a randomly selected path along pegs.

Google’s PageRank is a more recent example which makes randomly browsing among millions if not billions of web pages look easy. This is achieved with the effective use of mathematical laws of fickleness. Cédric went on to invite anyone who would visit Paris to come visit l’Institut Henri-Poincaré to explore their fondness towards mathematics with other like-minded individuals.

The event was then made enriched by a percussion performance, conducted by Bryce Dessner. It was performed by ‘So Percussion’ with the collaboration of several musical instruments and other objects. This performance enlightened the audience with beautiful sounds while helping to provide music’s view on the session’s title.

Joe Gebbia (Image credits: Forbes)
Joe Gebbia (Image credits: Forbes)

Following a short break, Joe Gebbia – the co-founder of Airbnb took the stage. He began by sharing the story of how he met a complete stranger at a yard sale he was holding. This stranger was bound for the Peace Corps the very next day. However, the stranger didn’t have a place today and so Joe offered him an air mattress in his living room. He spent the night panicking but when morning came, everything was fine. By trusting this stranger, Gebbia was inspired to build Airbnb, the world’s largest room-sharing service.

Gebbia went on to share with the audience, how overcoming the fear of welcoming people we don’t know has been used as a company principle to form Airbnb. The problem of being contained to one’s self-has led people to build walls around themselves and repel anyone around them with mistrust. He showed how Airbnb is built to solve this issue to create welcoming homes around the world. “What if homes were designed to be shared from the ground up? What if cities embraced the culture of sharing?” said Joe as he concluded his talk.

Travis Kalanick (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)
Travis Kalanick (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)

The next speaker is the co-founder of the latest taxiing application in the world that came to Sri Lanka a few months back. Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber came onstage, sharing an interesting fact the vast majority of us did not know about. It was none other than the existence of an Uber before the Uber we love and know about. It was a ride-sharing service called Jitney all the way back in 1914. This service eventually died out thanks to public transportation giants providing tram services at the time.

Kalanick then spoke of how traffic jams can be considered a considerable contributing factor towards global carbon emissions. Not only does it pollute our environment but also makes travelling difficult. This is very evident to anyone travelling in Colombo and other major cities during peak times.

He then showed us how UberPOOL has contributed to reducing the carbon footprint made by cars. In case you’re lost, UberPOOL is a carpooling service by Uber. It allows people who summon an Uber to share the ride with other people travelling along the same route. The statistics gathered from LA shows almost 8 million miles of travelling being taken off the roads for good.

However, UberPOOL is but the first step in Kalanick’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. The next part of the plan is UberCOMMUTE.  Launched in China, UberCOMMUTE is a similar carpooling service aimed at people travelling long distances. To conclude his talk, Travis made the strong statement “we can turn every car into a shared car and reclaim our cities today.” Chris Anderson then questioned how autopilot cars can change things for Uber drivers. Travis answered by showing how it would not be an issue in the next few years but is ready with solutions to take on the problem in the future.

Haley Van Dyck (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)
Haley Van Dyck (Image credits: Bret Hartman/TED)

The session was covered by entrepreneurs, mathematicians and even musicians providing their own fair share. Now it was time for the audience to meet someone to learn about the topic from a different side. The final speaker was Haley Van Dyck, co-founder of the U.S. Digital Services. She was an energetic speaker that showed us how government offices take ages to process the paperwork to provide services for those in urgent need. A disturbing example Haley pointed out were war veterans who need their medical benefits.

She also shared statistics which showed how $86 billion was spent to develop and introduce federal IT projects. What’s shocking is that 94% of these projects are either above the budget or just behind schedule. Even more shocking was that 40% of these don’t even succeed. They are either terminated or simply ignored. Haley went on to discuss how she and team, are working from within the White House to make the US federal government services faster in order to provide for the people. The secret? Thinking more like a tech startup.

After Haley’s speech, it was time to finish off session 2 of TED 2016. With the conclusion of the stream, we had an open forum to see how the ideas we saw would be applicable locally. It was during this session that we saw everyone share their personal thoughts. The most popular topic during this session was how we could build IT infrastructure on government offices to provide better service to the public. This idea was easily based on the final talk by Haley.

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Image credits: TEDxColombo

Once the open forum came to an end, Safra Anver – the TEDxColombo licensee delivered the vote of thanks. And with that, the TEDxLive came to an end. The event was much smaller in scale to the usual TEDx events we’ve become used to. But as always, the TEDxColombo team was able to treat us to a stunning set of talks from amazing speakers. Now we begin the waiting game until TEDxColombo 2016, where we’ll see local speakers of the same caliber.

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