TED Global 2010 – Day Three

My last Day in Oxford owing to work commitments – that old problem of prioritising the urgent over the important – and a corker as far as I’m concerned.

Its definitely worth a passing look at the work of Christien Meindertsma and her Pig 05049 project where she followed one pig from Netherlands to its final resting place in hundreds of products as diverse as military ammunition and bone china. This work is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But the talk that ignited the morning was without doubt that from Marcel Dicke who is an Ecological Entomologist. He passionately believes that we need to start eating more insects progressively replacing the protein in our diet with that derived far more efficiently from animals that have six legs. Insects already contribute $57m to the US economy by pollinating the plants we need, removing dung, controlling pests and kicking off the food chain – they now need to be a big part of our diet. Not only did he encourage the moderator of the session to eat a worm covered candy but all the venues for the coffee break that followed offered bug snacks alongside the pastries and fruit.
One of the best quotes of TED Global has to have been that from Tim Jackson the sustainability scholar. He described the sort of consumption that provides the engine for current global economic growth and is destroying our planet as the act of “spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”. Something to ponder on plannerkind!
To say Jessica Jackley rocked the place would be an understatement and this would be my top tip for the TED Talk to watch above all the others from Global 2010 once it is released online. She is the co-founder of Kiva the online micro-lender that after only 5 years now lends over $150m a year to entrepreneurs in over 200 countries. She is a passionate advocate of micro lending over aid not only to help real people kickstart their businesses but to foster greater empathy between the people of the earth. A donation as she said allows us to “buy our distance” a loan creates an ongoing dialogue and love. That she was overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment – telling her story on the TED stage merely acted to bring home the enormity of what she is up to some of which is captured in this story of one Kiva loan.

A Fistful Of Dollars: The Story of a Kiva.org Loan from Kieran Ball on Vimeo.

Then two scientists fighting to change the way we see ourselves and the world. Herbert Watzke is a food scientist an challenges the idea that we are omnivores, preferring to regard us as cocktivores, animals that eat cooked food. He maintains that cooking was the most fundamental technology of early man and unleashed human potential feeding both of our brains. Yes, that it this is a tale of two brains where one is in our skull and the other in our gut. Indeed our ‘small brain’ as he calls it is about the same size interns of nerve cells and neurones as a cat’s brain and performs many brain like functions not least the start and stop signals for consumption of food that don’t come from our large brain.

Stefano Mancuso
, the plant neurobiologist, is cut from the same cloth. In as much as he is challenging the orthodoxy that surrounds our understanding of plants. For him plants are not inferior creatures to animals and exhibit both movement and sensing characteristics that we have long thought separated simple animals from plants. He shows that not only do plants sense light and gravity they also exhibit sleeping and playing behaviour all without a brain. For Maneuso the tip of the radial behaves in exactly the same ways as the brain of lower animals.
And so to education. Word to the wise, find out what Sugata Mitra is up to. He is creating self organised learning environments for kids around the world believing that Education is a self organising system in which learning emerges when you leave kids to their own devices and armed with a computer and the internet. The idea of education without schools, or importantly teachers, is important since in every country there are places where good schooled cannot be built or good teachers cannot or will not go. This thinking is based on some breathtaking research like whether 26 Tamil speaking 12 year olds left with a computer and lessons in English could teach themselves biotechnology. Contrary to popular belief he maintains that learning is more successful when the adults go away, with the exception of what he calls the “granny cloud” that kids can call upon (a bit like phone a friend) and which is staffed by a bunch of global grannies who mainly seem to dispense admiration as only Grannies do. One of the longest standing ovations of the conference from where I was sitting and then standing.
Conrad Wolfram, a mathematician, is similarly enthusiastic about computers in education and maths specifically. He is a passionate advocate that we should stop demanding that kids learn to calculate by hand and leave this to computers so that maths education can concentrate on posing the right questions, turning real problems into mathematical problems and then converting the computer calculated solutions back into the real world and verifying them.
Tom Chatfield is a games theorist. he is doing brilliant stuff trying to understand how compute games transfix and motivate us as a basis for changing the way we educate kids and much more. His work is perhaps more readily applicable to the stuff we do both in his understanding of real engagement (wanting + liking = engagement) and in the lessons from games he has developed. These include the power of experience bars that measure progress, the establishment of multiple long and short term aims, constant reward for effort, rapid and frequent feedback and teaching during periods of enhanced attention. As Rory Sutherland commented to me afterward this is gold dust in the whole behavioural economics and advertising debate.
And finally, after all these are the mere highlights of Day 3! TED’s curator Chris Anderson. Looking beyond the almost messiah like reverence in which he is held by TEDsters I thought his talk was excellent and not just because of a rather cute use of Prezi. In part because of the stellar success of the TED Talks online he is fascinated by the idea of Crowd Accelerated Innovation where the presence of a large audience, the ability to shine light on a particular endeavour and the desire amongst the crowd to learn and participate leads to rapid learning and new ideas . And he believes that the critical technology in this is, guess what, the power of online video. Apparently this is already noticeable in the dance community where new ideas can be introduced, learned and improved upon in ways that simply didn’t exist before video became easy to upload, stream and download online. And in science he talked about the online service Jove which allows scientists to publish papers for peer review using online video, the principle benefit begin the speed with which experiments can be replicated when you show other scientists how to do it rather than describe the procedure in a journal.
So that’s your lot. I bet Day Four was awesome too but alas I was not there to suck it all up.

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