Dr Conor Purcell blogs about Dublin’s TedxFulbright 2016 which took place on 6 February with speakers discussing climate change, STEM, and the arts, under the selected theme of ‘Old Myths and New Realities’. The event’s hosts, Ireland’s Fulbright Commission, teamed up with TEDx to host a day of talks from some of our greatest thinkers, both home-grown and from abroad. Among the 15 speakers this year were 7 Fulbrighters. Since the early naughties TED talks (meaning Technology, Entertainment, Design) have become a global phenomenon. (Videos of all talks will be available at www.tedxfulbrightdublin.ie shortly.)
“Smock Alley Theatre is calm and quiet. The venue alight with classic red, and the pre-TED environment tense, but optimistic. Producers, communicators, and speakers, all shuffle about the place, awaiting the day ahead; a day which for many will be their first encounter of such an event.
Soon come the public and the noise of chatter gradually rises. The venue fills, sold out due to overwhelming demand. The early morning staff and volunteers now disappear behind the masses of paying public.
Then, out of nowhere the noise drops off again, the lights reduce, all red, all silent. There is absolute silence, and then the tumble of fast, heavy, feet. Darting on stage is MC Chris Gordon – the glue who will bind it all together – immediately alive with charisma and humour, heralding in the beginning of the 2016 TEDx Fulbright talks. He exclaims to the crowd, ‘How’s it goin’ Dublin?!’, and they roar back an enthusiastic response, clapping their hands, and stamping their feet. The much awaited talks commence.
Up first is MIT’s Marguerite Nyhan, a former Fulbright scholar, with a no-nerves delivery of her topic ‘How sensors and data are transforming urban life’, incorporating stunning visuals to show us how a future utilising real-time, dynamic, sensors across our cities will allow us build a more sustainable, knowledge driven, future.
The next talk comes from Patrick Paul Walsh, a former Senior Adviser to the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network at the Earth Institute, Columbia University, entitled ‘UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda’, which advocates for reviewed energy use in our daily lives. Next Ciarán Pollard tells us ‘How nature is on our side’, calling for increased protection of global biodiversity and expansion of marine conservation zones.
Triona McGrath of NUI Galway gives a foreboding talk on ‘Ocean acidification – the evil twin of climate change’, where the challenges facing future oceans are outlined. She asks the audience ‘Why do we care?’, and in answer states that ‘ocean acidity is happening faster than any time in the past 55 million years. In the past such acidification events coincided with mass extinction events.’ Triona provides us with a clear message that we need to act now in order to affect positive future change, maintaining a healthy global marine system.
At this stage of the day social media is alive and the twitter machine is on fire, with #TEDxFD trending 3rd in Ireland. The talks move on to inspirational stories, a staple of the TED style.
Starting us off is Gillian Murphy, PhD candidate in Applied Psychology at UCC, speaks of her research into the myths which our memories often generate. Such false memories are a consequence of our dynamic, non-static, memory system.
Next is the inspirational Ruairí McKiernan, a social campaigner, with a talk entitled ‘How hitchhiking gave me hope for humanity’. Ruairí is a presidential appointee to Ireland’s Council of State. He explains how the uplifting process of hitching across the world gave him a sense for people and the depth of humanity – of joys, of problems – and how in a time of crisis setting off again to meet people, he was able to save himself. Stating that ‘community is the medicine to heal us’ ultimately Ruairí is advocating for a world of courage, kindness and compassion.
Ruairí is followed by Grainne McKeever, a PhD student and comedian, who asks the audience ‘who has heard the rumour that women aren’t funny?’. She goes on to describe how these myths develop in our societies, and only by challenging them can we make for positive change. The talk is motivational and inspiring, informing us all that we must do our part in advocating for change.
After lunch we are graced with beautiful guitar and banjo picking, stunning harmonies, and haunting lyrics from musical duo Ye Vagabonds. Playing two extraordinary pieces they hold the attention of the audience, who now with their bellies full are psyched for the next session of talks.
Up first is Finbarr Murphy with an inspirational talk on ‘Driverless cars – the road ahead’. Finbarr believes that ‘we will have autonomous cars in our showrooms in ten years’ and that through embracing this technology ‘by 2015 we can reduce car accidents by 90%’. He makes some compelling arguments as to the benefits of such a system, including cars driving children to school while parents go to work. Finbarr’s vision for the future is certainly bright.
Next are Kathy Murphy and Dympna Casey, researchers at NUI Galway working in the field of assisted nursing technologies. Together they introduce the problem of ageing, specifically dementia, and look at robot companionship as a solution for loneliness; a compelling idea.
Monica Zawadzka, in a talk entitled ‘Your senses, to trust or not to trust’, speaks about her scientific mission to develop low cost sensors which can to detect health threats. Such sensors may some day be embedded into the fabric of our daily lives, from clothing, to cars, to our homes.
In a talk which combines the philosophical and technological worlds, Ciarán McMahon speaks of how social media may be rewiring our minds. In a fascinating manner he looks at how, in the past, western societies moved from externally focused thought processing to more internally focused individualism, the stage we are at today. He says our engagement with social media and the internet will modify this perspective in the future, in ways which are hard to imagine.
Banishing the Myth
The arts are well represented at this TEDx event, with Teresa Lynn telling us ‘How social media breathes life into minority languages’. She says that ‘to date there have been over 1 million tweets in Irish’. In an awesome visual Teresa shows that the occurrence of the Irish language on social media is equally spread throughout the nation. Teresa shows fascinating data which suitably destroys the myth that the Irish language is confined to the west of the country.
An American tap dancer, Alexander McDonald, speaks about the history of tap dance and how the internet is changing the way in which people learn their art. He says that ‘a young artist today can learn immediately via social media, and that the ability to learn a skill has been enhanced dramatically in this way.’ He then proceeds with a combined dance and talk, aligning the emphasis of his words with each tap. To conclude he states that while ‘science and technology make life possible, it is the arts which make it worth while’.
Finishing the day, and with rapturous roars from the MC and crowd alike is Daniel Ramamoorthy, speaking about life as an international resident alien: a man who cannot say he is from anywhere, yet feels comfortable everywhere. Donning something resembling a Star Trek Romulan suit to emphasise his point, he tells a fascinating story of growing up across multiple countries and continents and how being an alien has many advantages, including holding a wealth of ideas, and a musical ability which he and his choir share with us.
The Future of TEDxFulbrightDublin
A common theme throughout today’s TEDxFulbright talks has been motivation. The speakers have wanted to inspire their listeners to embrace positive change; to encourage people to work together towards a more sustainable, humane and compassionate future, where world poverty is eradicated and the quality of life is improved for all.
Closing the proceedings, US Ambassador to Ireland Mr. Kevin O’Malley speaks of the labour of love between the US Embassy and the Fulbright Commission, and pointed towards the value of TED talks in envisioning a better future.
And what about future Fulbright TEDx events? Executive Director of the Fulbright Commission in Ireland, Dara FitzGerald, said that ‘TEDx and Fulbright have a fantastic synergy. Both organisations are about the exchange of ideas, and the transfer of knowledge’. He adds, ‘considering thousands of ticket requests were made this year I certainly see no reason why we can’t host another even larger event next year’.
Judging by the crowd in attendance today, future TEDxFulbright events would certainly be welcome. These talks engage in ideas worth spreading and are ultimately ambitious towards driving humanitarian causes. To end on an optimistic, and motivating, message from one of today’s speakers, ‘we can’t just wait for hope to come, we need to get out there and make hope happen’.”
Dr Conor Purcell is a postdoctoral researcher at University College Dublin’s Earth Institute. He specialises in future climate change prediction. He can be found on twitter @ClimateGuruNet and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com
Photos: Conor McCabe Photography