Recap: TEDxEdmonton 2011

More than 200 people attended the second TEDxEdmonton which took place on Saturday in the intimate Rice Theatre at The Citadel in downtown Edmonton. TEDxEdmonton is an “independently organized TED event” (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading.” It’s pretty likely that you’ve seen a TED talk at some point – more than 900 have been made freely available on the TED site. The idea behind TEDx is simple: stimulate dialogue at the local level by adopting the 18-minutes-or-less format and creating a TED-like experience.

The theme for this year’s event was “seeds of innovation”:

We’re in the midst of an exciting era. We’re living in an interconnected knowledge economy shaped by the creative industries, information technology, and globalization. And we’re seeing a new generation of connected artists, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs emerging who can transform seeds of new ideas into bold new works, companies and products. At TEDxEdmonton 2011, we’ll meet some of these remarkable people, some from abroad, others from right here in our hometown. We promise you another dizzying day of inspiration, wonder and curious delight, as we experience the stories, visions, and passions of these bold individuals through the art of live presentation.

After last year’s edition, I’d say the bar for TEDxEdmonton was set extremely high. The production quality, the excellent speakers, and the time built-in for discussions were just a few of the reasons that so many people thought last year’s event was superb. Matching or exceeding that success was a tall order for the organizing committee this year, but I think it’s safe to say they nailed it.

First impressions are everything, and TEDxEdmonton did not disappoint. Upon registering, attendees were given a lanyard with a nice big nametag that had space on it for a photo. The next step was to have a mini-Polaroid photo taken that could be taped onto the nametag. It’s kind of strange to have a photo of yourself on your nametag (I mean, you can see my face, can’t you?) but the nametags were indeed a great keepsake from the event. More importantly, it was an opportunity for people to have some fun and to get creative. And they did!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Last year’s stage was created by the University of Alberta’s Student Design Association and it was, in a word, remarkable. It was colorful and visually interesting, and was going to be difficult to top this year. Once again the SDA was tasked with creating the stage for TEDxEdmonton, and the design they came up with was just as impressive as last year’s. Less colorful but more vertical, the stage provided the perfect backdrop for the day’s presentations. It sounded complex too – they took inspiration from Edmonton itself and used light to plot points of interest from around the city on the design. You can see some work-in-progress photos of both stages at the SDA’s Flickr page. You can also follow them on Twitter!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

The day’s presentations were broken up into three sessions: Transformation, Unstoppable, and Provocative. There were ten presentations in all, plus three TEDTalks, one for each session. Local power-couple Ryan Jespersen and Kari Skelton were our hosts for the day, and they did a wonderful job of keeping things moving.

Ryan Jespersen & Kari Skelton

TEDxEdmonton 2011Vik Maraj, co-creator of Unstoppable Conversations, kicked things off with the first presentation. His talk centered around the idea that we need to be game-changing. He used the metaphor of a child learning to walk to make his point, saying that we need to “start trying to walk, and stop trying not to fall” if we want to be successful. His talk was full of great one-liners, like this one: “The future derives from creation, not from surviving it.” He was a great speaker, and was the right choice to lead off the day.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our second speaker was Jessie Radies, founder of Live Local Alberta and owner of The Blue Pear restaurant. She talked about the importance of the local economy, through of mix of statistics and personal anecdotes. Her talk touched on the challenges of being a farmer in Alberta, noting that the average farm has experienced a net loss for the last 20 years. She also talked about her belief that a rising tide would lift all boats and her dedication to sourcing things locally. She issued a sort of challenge to the audience, saying that “by shifting a portion of our spending we can significantly change what our community looks like.”

TEDxEdmonton 2011Todd Babiak of the Edmonton Journal was up next to talk about the importance of story. Without question his talk was my favorite of the day, a sentiment echoed by many in the audience. His talk was the right mix of serious, funny, and thought-provoking. He talked about his kids, noting that children instinctively understand what a story is. We unlearn that knowledge as we get older, without even realizing it. Todd stressed the importance of having a story: “If you haven’t built your story, the most you can hope to achieve is mediocrity.” He also poked fun at cliches and jargon as he touched on authenticity, a section of his presentation that made everyone laugh. “You have to find the higher spiritual truth of your story in order for it to be effective,” he said. Finally, he got everyone thinking about writing their story by reminding us that “the longer you wait to tell your story, the more difficult it becomes.”

Our first TEDTalk of the day came next. We watched Steven Johnson’s talk titled Where good ideas come from. It was filmed in July 2010, and introduced the intriguing concept of the “liquid networks” found in London’s coffee houses. The key idea was that connecting ideas is more important than protecting them, because “chance favors the connected mind.”

Colleen Brown closed out the first session with an awesome musical performance. She’s a fantastic singer/songwriter and more than a few people in the audience proudly proclaimed that they were new fans as a result! It was a great way to end the morning.

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Lunch was next on the schedule and as with the rest of TEDxEdmonton it was anything but ordinary. Instead of individual lunches, groups of five or six people were given a wooden box filled with sandwiches, salads, drinks, and treats and were encouraged to eat together. Most groups ended up outside where the sun was shining and the streets were packed for the Edmonton Pride Parade. It was great to see discussions happening all over the place. Kudos to Elm Café and Duchess Bake Shop for the delicious food and the creative presentation!

TEDxEdmonton 2011 TEDxEdmonton 2011

The second session of the day began with another TEDTalk, Adora Svitak’s presentation rom February 2010 titled What adults can learn from kids. Her message is a powerful one, and I think everyone really enjoyed the talk. It’s definitely worth watching!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our fifth speaker was Laura McIlveen, a chemical engineer at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures. She started out with a provocative statement – “You probably think that engineers aren’t sexy” – then proceeded to explain why engineers are in fact, sexy. Laura encouraged everyone to “think about the possibilities that don’t seem possible, because that’s what engineers do.” She outlined four key steps: ask questions, dream big, build a team, and make it happen. To help illustrate her point, Laura talked about natural fibers like straw and said “we can spin straw into almost anything!” She then showed of a longboard, made of hemp!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Veer Gidwaney, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of DailyFeats.com, was our next speaker. He said “we need to change how we live” and talked about some of the major challenges we face, such as “Mr. Couch and Mrs. Potato Chip”. Veer’s key message was that small acts make a movement, and he encouraged the audience to “go do good”. He also shared a big idea: “What if we as a nation were to commit ourselves in ten years to match our national debt in positive actions done?” Veer was a really strong speaker, clear and powerful.

After another “conversation and refreshment” break, we were back for session three. Anthony Atala’s TEDTalk titled Printing a human kidney kicked things off. It was filmed just a few months ago, and documents some of the incredible advancements that have been made in bio-engineering. Truly fascinating.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our next speaker was Sheetal Mehta Walsh, a champion of microfinance and founder of Kuuja.com. She talked about entrepreneurship through the lens of her experiences in the slums of India. For her, entrepreneurship has become a way of life, and she had some very intriguing ideas. One of them was that she wants to be known simply as an “entrepreneur” rather than a “social entrepreneur”. She explained, “we should all be socially conscious.” Sheetal also talked about the importance of networking, saying “I often call my network my intellectual property.” She also had one of the unintentionally funny moments of the day, when she asked if everyone in the audience starts their day with Tim Horton’s coffee and no hands went up. I guess we were a Credo/Transcend/Starbucks crowd!

TEDxEdmonton 2011Meagan Kelly, a journalist and filmmaker, was our eighth speaker of the day. She gave an abbreviated talk on her debut film, a documentary that examines a young girl’s struggle to escape poverty on a garbage dump in the Philippines. The sights and sounds she shared were striking. One memorable moment was when Grace, the young girl featured in the film, started singing Justin Bieber’s hit “Baby”.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Our next speaker was Aaryn Flynn, the Studio General Manager of local game developer BioWare. He used the opportunity to discuss BioWare’s approach to innovation. “Innovation relies on diversity,” he said as he talked about the cultural diversity at the company. Another key tactic utilized by BioWare is to “decide at the last responsible moment.” The most memorable mantra from Aaryn’s talk was definitely “no play, no say”. Basically if you don’t play the game, you don’t get a say in its development. It’s easy to see how this might be applied to elsewhere too. Aaryn finished with a brief demo of Kinect support in the upcoming game Mass Effect 3, noting that it opens the door to a wide range gameplay and accessibility possibilities.

TEDxEdmonton 2011Last but not least, Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania) was the final speaker of the day. His talk was titled “The Cure for Death by Small-Talk”, the same name as his upcoming book. He was a great speaker to end on, as he got the crowd laughing, thinking, and probably doing some serious self-reflection all at the same time. Instead of asking “what do you do for a living” at a party, Minister Faust suggests asking “what do you do for fun?” He touched on the etymology of “conversation”, explaining that is all about “living together” and the way you treat people. He told the audience to “ask people questions that will connect you for life.” Minister Faust’s talk ran slightly over time, and after he left the stage our hosts had to skip through another thirty slides or so that he didn’t get to – he could have talked all afternoon!

TEDxEdmonton

While some of the day’s presentations were definitely better than others, all succeeded at inspiring and sparking a dialogue. The entire day was streamed online for free, and while some technical glitches made it difficult to watch during session one, many people tuned in for the rest of the day. Twitter was active all day long using the hashtag #TEDxEdmonton and the discussions are still ongoing!

TEDxEdmonton 2011

Before the day was finished, Ken Bautista took the stage to make some announcements:

  • TEDxEdmonton 2012 will take place next spring. The larger Maclab Theatre, which seats 500-600 people, has already been booked as the venue. Tickets will go on sale for 2011 attendees in the next few weeks.
  • The TEDxEdmonton Salon Series will be launching in 2012, a series of smaller scale TED-like events.
  • A new event is being planned for fall 2012 – TEDxEdmonton Education, focused on building and inspiring a learning revolution.

Stay tuned to the TEDxEdmonton website and Twitter for updates.

I think it’s safe to say that TEDxEdmonton 2011 was a big success. The organizing committee deserves a ton of credit for making such a world-class event happen here in Edmonton. Well done everyone!

TEDxEdmonton 2011 TEDxEdmonton 2011 Organizing Committee

You can see the rest of my photos from TEDxEdmonton here. Watch for video and other updates to be posted on the TEDxEdmonton website over the next few weeks.

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