Two words, six letters (and one punctuation mark) that have sparked discoveries and produced innovations for centuries. The wheel, the compass, the light bulb, the airplane, the iPod. What if the minds behind these world-changing inventions hadn’t first wondered . . . what if?
The question still intrigues, evidenced by the rapt crowd at the second annual, daylong TEDx MidAtlantic conference last November in Washington, D.C. The event is an East Coast spinoff of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference introduced 25 years ago in California. Now an annual event in Long Beach, the California TED is celebrated for its roster of internationally known figures such as Bill Gates, Al Gore, Sir Richard Branson, Tim Berners-Lee, and Jane Goodall, each discussing a favorite idea for about 15 minutes before an audience. The franchise also includes TEDGlobal, held yearly in Oxford, England.
The TEDx attendees mostly filled the 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall on D.C.’s F Street to hear 27 speakers from various fields pose, and try to answer, their own what-ifs. The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School was a lead, or “visionary,” sponsor of the event, and Dean Yash Gupta was one of the presenters. His query: What if our enterprise system could find ways to combat the poverty—and, worse, the “poverty of thought”—that blocks many of our youth from claiming their share of the American dream?
Not all the big thinkers from such an event could be squeezed into the limited space of one magazine article. (For video of all the presentations, go to tedxmidatlantic.com/talks/.) What follows is a selection of speakers, representing a range of the ideas one is likely to encounter at any event bearing the TED brand. Here, then, are 10 from TEDx.
The speaker: Albert Yu-Min Lin, research scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and Emerging Explorer of the National Geographic Society in the field of technology-enabled exploration.
The idea: What if a “collective consciousness” of Internet users could be developed to examine large amounts of data related to specific problems and then, via the Net, offer insights to solve those problems?
It sounds like the subject of the next Indiana Jones movie: the search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. Except Albert Yu-Min Lin and his colleagues in the Valley of the Khans Project weren’t digging with picks and shovels. For their high-tech, noninvasive search for Genghis Khan’s burial place in Northern Mongolia, Lin and company were relying on some 85,000 high-resolution satellite images.
And one other tool: input from regular folks on the Internet. The project team posted the satellite images and invited the public to study them and offer suggestions of what the images showed. What’s that series of dots? A herd of sheep? Or is it a circle of stones marking a burial site? And that line over there—is that a road or a river? Over two months, the public supplied nearly 2 million “tags” that the researchers then examined and used as prompts for investigation in the field, heading out on foot or horseback to locations suggested by the public’s speculations.
With the collective intelligence of the public, the scientific team found and mapped more than 55 burial sites dating back 3,000 years. But not Genghis Khan’s. His tomb remains unfound, for now.
The quote: “So we had a crowd doing incredible things, very simple things, looking at data and telling us where to go. . . . But it could be any [topic]. You could imagine looking at other problems, like massive amounts of photos of bees and try to do bee counts for colony collapse disorder, or look at images of long-line fishing boats and try to regulate this illegal type of fishing, and . . . looking at California wildfires and trying to map these things in real time. All you really need is data and a problem. Now what if that data starts coming from you guys? From your iPhones or your mobile devices, and it’s geotagged, and you start to introduce this data into the system? And what if the crowd picks the problem, where it’s able to manipulate the system and change it and augment it? . . . What if the Internet evolves into a collective consciousness?”
The speaker: Sandra Postel, director of the independent Global Water Policy Project, and a lecturer, writer, and consultant on global water issues.
The idea: What if we drastically altered our attitude toward water, viewing it not as a commodity primarily for human use but as the basis of all life on Earth? How would that change the world’s ecology? How would it change our lives?
After working on water issues for 25 years, Sandra Postel realized that the key to healing our planet lies in healing ourselves. A large part of the effort will involve reconnecting with the essence of all life on Earth: water. “This is what’s missing from our relationship with water. We know it up here,” she says, tapping her head. “We’ve read it a million times: ‘Water is life, water is the basis of life.’ . . . But we don’t feel it down here, in our gut, deep in our bones. . . . Sixty percent of me is water. The water that’s me could have been a beetle, a hawk, a bird flying high in the sky, a lowly snake slithering through the desert, a juicy red apple, the worm in the apple. The water molecules, the H2O molecules that are me, could have quenched the thirst of a dinosaur, could have drawn a bath for Cleopatra, could have fallen as rain on [a] sleeping lion in Africa. . . . Water cycles in a finite supply across space and across time, and it connects everything. But we don’t feel this most of the time.”
In losing our emotional bond to water, Postel argues, we’ve made ourselves into master plumbers. We construct dams, canals, pumps, all manner of devices that turn water into a commodity and a tool, and wreak havoc on the web of life— particularly the animal species facing threats from the disturbances caused by the thousands of dams built during the past 60 years.
Yet, she says, she’s encouraged by efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Nature Conservancy, and others to examine the necessity of certain existing dams, with an eye toward restoring natural water flow in selected areas.
The quote: “We hear a lot these days about the water crisis, and it’s always extremely despairing. But when I add up all the good things that are happening, all the ways we can begin to restore rivers, all the ways we can begin to do just as well with less water, whether it’s in agriculture, in industry, in our homes, in our own communities, I’m really quite optimistic we can get to a future in which we’re giving people and the natural world the water that they need to be healthy and productive. Getting there is going to be a whole lot less about big dams, big canals, and pumps and pipes, and much, much more about creativity, ingenuity, ecological intelligence, and a reconnection to this web of life of which we’re all a part.”
The speaker: Robert Martin, entrepreneur and co-founder of the Global re-Vision Network.
The idea: What if a system could be organized to collect and accurately match used eyeglasses to the approximately 2 billion people worldwide who need but can’t afford corrective eyewear?
Robert Martin gets a nice laugh from the TEDx audience when he describes his work providing eyewear for the needy as “kind of a Match.com for eyeglasses and people.” It’s actually more practical than it is romantic. Since 2007, Martin’s organization has provided used eyeglasses at no charge to tens of thousands of indigent people of all ages in the Mexican state of Yucatan, through an arrangement with the state government. Most of the glasses are collected by Lions Clubs in the United States and shipped to Mexico. There, local workers electronically catalog them by prescription and store them in a warehouse, where they await matches with patients.
Aiming to replicate this success around the world, the Global re-Vision Network has begun the “Specs and Bucks” project to collect millions of pairs of glasses and financial contributions to make the expanded effort self-sustaining. As Martin tells it, helping the poor and illiterate to better eyesight is an important step toward opening their eyes to a whole new world of knowledge and opportunity.
The quote: “Despite all the books and computers and money that we send overseas, illiteracy is increasing. Many people simply can’t see what we’re sending them. And without eyeglasses, illiterate poor people who can’t see are going to stay illiterate and poor. . . . Between 500 million and a billion pairs of used eyeglasses are available in this country right now to be donated and recycled, and the number is about twice that when you factor in Europe and the developed countries in Asia. In the United States annually, we collect less than 1 percent of that total. Global re-Vision, then, is the first large-scale, systematic solution for correcting refractive error, the need for eyeglasses. It’s an easy- to-implement, turnkey answer that works, and it’s helping people as I speak.”
The speaker: Esther Dyson, writer and investor in technology startups, many of them related to air and space travel.
The idea: What if we all had access to our genetic information? What would our genomes tell us about ourselves? How useful would the information be?
Within the microscopic realm of our genes is a universe of information. The problem, Esther Dyson explains, is that we don’t know yet how to make sense of all the data, what it might mean, what it might not mean. To put it another way, she says, a genome today is like a book in a foreign language; maybe we could make sense of a few words or phrases, but the bulk of it is gobbledygook. We’re still working on a full translation.
Our genomes “do not tell [us] as much as we’d like to know,” says Dyson, who, at the start of her TEDx talk, offers the disclaimer that she’s on the board of a company called 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer provider of genetic testing for more than 100 traits, diseases, and DNA ancestry.
People, like Dyson, who have had their genomes “done” are, at this stage of the game, acting “more as benefactors than as beneficiaries,” she says, learning relatively little but contributing to the body of research that will enable scientists to get a better read on all that genetic data.
The quote: “This stuff is fundamentally useless and endlessly fascinating. . . . The reason this is slightly more interesting than sheer narcissism is, I think, we’re going to find that Jews and Arabs are related. . . . It’s going to be clearer and clearer how much we are one single species. . . . It’s worth finding out more about yourself. Beyond that, it’s worth understanding statistics, so that you understand not just the numbers but the meaning, and how much your own behavior—your health behavior, your activities, whether you take up skydiving—is far more important to [your] future than just the genes you were born with.”
The speaker: Dickson Despommier, microbiologist, ecologist, and professor of public health at Columbia University.
The idea: What if the human race decided to behave as if it’s part of an ecosystem and not treat the planet as one big disposable resource? What if we initiated this shift by switching from outdoor farming to indoor methods such as hydroponics, aeroponics, and drip irrigation?
About 10,000 years ago, man got this groundbreaking idea: Let’s farm.
It was like “a miracle,” Dickson Despommier says, “like some space guy came down and showed us how to do it.” Until that change, the Columbia professor explains, humans lived much like other members of the ecosystem, taking only what was readily at hand. But agriculture started us on the road to where the process of feeding ourselves gobbled up more and more of the planet’s resources. Our “agricultural footprint,” the amount of land needed to feed the world’s 6.8 billion people, is the size of South America, and that doesn’t include grazing land, Despommier says.
The solution, he argues, lies in the concept of “eco-cities,” where inhabitants get the food they need through indoor, vertical farms that use hydroponics, aeroponics, and drip irrigation. Land and water bodies would be freed from many of their agricultural uses and returned to their natural states, and the vagaries of the weather wouldn’t matter, so farming could be continuous and crops wouldn’t suffer damage.
The professor and 105 of his graduate students have examined the subject for the past decade and designed a prototype for Newark, New Jersey. About a dozen other cities around the world have expressed interest, says Despommier, who adds that he hopes federal backing, along with research from both the public and private sectors, will help fertilize the idea.
The quote: “You’re not looking at a communist or a socialist; I don’t know anything about politics. But I know what it’s like to be a human being who doesn’t get enough every day. Why? Because I’m a public health person, and I’ve traveled enough to see the haves and the have-nots. I think everybody can be a have. And here’s how: We can create an urban agricultural system that at least starts with the premise that everybody deserves [daily] 2.3 liters of clean water and 1,500 calories of food that’s safe. . . . Before that happens, we’re not ecologically balanced, and we’re not fair to each other, either.”
The speaker: Adam Pruden, research fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab.
The idea: What if scientists could create a new way to clean oil spills, an invention that would vastly improve current methods that manage to scoop up only a small percentage of a spill?
“What if?” was the official theme of the TEDx event. The BP disaster, one of the biggest news stories of 2010, emerged as an unofficial second theme. To one degree or another, the remarks of several speakers touched on the spill. One of them was Adam Pruden. “We’ve learned a lot from the recent oil spill,” Pruden says. “We’ve learned that over the past 20 years, drilling technology has made huge advancements, while skimming technology has fallen way behind. In fact, [during] this past oil spill, over 800 skimmers were deployed to collect the oil, but they only collected 3 percent, leaving most of the oil to [be treated with] harmful dispersants.”
Since the BP incident, Pruden and his fellow researchers have been working on an invention they call Seaswarm, a solar-powered floating robot partly consisting of a nanofiber that soaks up spilled oil and collects it in a chamber. The high-tech Seaswarm swimmers also soak up information about their locations in the water, including where they are in relation to other robots.
The team drew inspiration from how ants work. “Just like ants,” Pruden explains, “the robots can operate as a single entity, or they can come together as a swarm, and they can share information with each other”—information such as weather patterns and oil-spill locations. The more they share, the smarter they become, and so they can make more intelligent decisions about how to form teams for the job at hand, how to find the quickest path to the spill, and so on.
The quote: “We see Seaswarm as a future skimmer, something that’s smarter. And with a fleet of autonomous vehicles constantly surveying the surface of our water, we can hear with more clarity than ever before exactly what the ocean is saying to us, and we can quickly respond and then adapt to its needs.”
The speaker: Diana Laufenberg, teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-based, project-driven high school established in 2006.
The idea: What if we could change our education philosophy by spending less time on the dissemination of facts and figures and more on an experiential, project-based method that enables students to engage more fully with problems and to embrace failure as a learning tool?
Diana Laufenberg opens her TEDx talk by describing how her grandmother and her father were educated. They went to the local schoolhouse every day and received information. It made sense because the schoolhouse was where the information was contained. Today, thanks to laptop computers and smart phones, kids carry virtual libraries in their backpacks and hip pockets.
In Laufenberg’s view, the education system must adjust by showing students what they can do with all this readily available—and at times overwhelmingly abundant—information. Rote learning of facts must give way to experiential learning. For example, when Laufenberg was teaching American government to 12th-graders in rural Kansas, she asked them to organize a forum for an upcoming election in their town. The students dived right in, producing publicity materials about the event and a booklet about the candidates, and tackling the numerous logistical details in advance of the forum. The night of the event, all 90 students showed up, well dressed and full of enthusiasm, recalls Laufenberg. “It was theirs. It was experiential. It was authentic. It meant something to them.”
The quote: “You have to get comfortable with this idea of allowing kids to fail as part of the learning process. We deal right now in the education landscape with an infatuation with the culture of one right answer that can be properly bubbled on the average multiple-choice test. And I am here to share with you, it is not learning. That is the absolute wrong thing to ask, to tell kids to never be wrong. To ask them to always have the right answer doesn’t allow them to learn. . . . If we continue to look at education as if it’s about coming to school to get the information and not about experiential learning, empowering student voice, and embracing failure, we’re missing the mark. And everything that everybody is talking about today [at the TEDx conference] isn’t possible if we keep having an educational system that does not value these qualities.”
The speaker: Ted Leonsis, chairman and majority owner of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards, and Mystics.
The idea: What if a company were in the business of happiness? What if it tried to succeed financially by focusing on the happiness of its customers?
Ted Leonsis was 26, a millionaire, and unhappy with his life. Then, as he puts it at TEDx, “I got on the wrong plane.” The aircraft developed engine trouble, and the consensus on board was that everyone was about to die. Leonsis tried to pray, but not a deeply religious man, he felt the prayer seemed insincere. So, being a salesman, he quickly cut a deal with the big CEO in the sky: Get me out of this, and I’ll try to leave more than I take.
He got out of it, and Leonsis, now 54, has tried to keep up his end of the bargain. Certainly he has done well for himself financially, amassing millions through his involvement in the tech and entertainment industries, including AOL. But along the way, he has tried to adhere to what he calls a “happiness index” that keeps him focused on successful business endeavors that also do good for others. Above the Harman Hall stage, Leonsis projects a giant slide listing several of what he calls “steps to happy business building.” For example, embrace the big “reckonings” of your life (in his case, the airplane scare) for the clarity and insights they can provide; envision a meaningful future by compiling “life lists”; make a habit of personal expression, through writing and art; volunteer for a helpful cause.
The quote: “This has all led me to this concept of the double bottom line. I’m at a time of my life where I won’t get involved in a company that can’t do well by doing good. I [studied] business plans from all of the organizations that [rate] high on product, on financials, and on giveback to the community. And I found that the more you’re giving back, the better the financial performance. . . . Not all successful people are happy. Pursuing happiness, however, makes you more successful. Which path will you choose?”
The speaker: William James, computer software expert and founder of JPods.
The idea: What if a network of small, computer-controlled, solar-powered vehicles called JPods could be introduced as a form of wide-scale transportation that would displace 70 percent of the current urban, oil-powered transport by 2022?
William James has big plans for his little JPod. In his vision, a transportation network based on the Beetle-sized vehicle would supplant most of the cars in our cities during the next 11 years. He describes the idea as “a physical version of the Internet.” You’d hop into a JPod, enter your destination into the onboard computer, and ride the vehicle via overhead rail to your stop.
At first, the network of rails would be integrated within existing transportation infrastructure in urban and suburban areas, James says. Ultimately, he adds, the automobile with its fossil fuels, congestion, pollution, road rage, and other toxic elements would ride off into the sunset.
The quote: “I don’t know how many of you have seen this [television ad] for CSX railroads, where they talk about how they can move a ton of freight 423 miles on a gallon of fuel. That is an example of a commercial network driven by efficiency. So if we know we can move a ton at 400 miles per gallon, why do we move a person at 18 [mpg]? . . . If we want innovation, we need to do exactly what we did in 1984 with communications and throw [transportation] back into a free market governed by performance standards. Government needs to declare what we need instead of how to build it, and throw it back to innovators. I doubt that Steve Jobs could have invented the iPhone if he had had to get permission from a bureaucracy after his failure with the Newton.”
The speaker: Sam Shelton, designer, educator, and founding partner of the Washington, D.C., design firm KINETIK.
The idea: What if the youthful energy, enthusiasm, and skill of high school and college students could be channeled into addressing problems in the community?
Like many teachers, Sam Shelton loves the work for what his students give him: a steady source of energy and inspiration. After a decade of teaching at a D.C. art college, he wanted to tap that source for the benefit of the local community. Working through an international program called Design Ignites Change—which to date has engaged 1,200 high school and college students in 50 multidisciplinary design and architecture projects that address social issues—Shelton’s students identified two quality-of-life concerns in downtown Washington. Then they split into a pair of teams that would create projects calling attention to those problems.
One project, titled “Break the Jam,” looked at traffic in the congested capital. The students designed a website to serve as an educational tool on alternative forms of transportation. Then, donning colorful sandwich-board signs, they walked through some of D.C.’s busiest intersections during evening rush hour, catching the notice of drivers and pedestrians, and directing them to the website.
The other project—“Give Way. Alert. Aware. Alive.”—addressed pedestrian fatalities related to vehicular traffic. During the evening rush hour, the students visited a D.C. intersection that has one of the worst records for pedestrian deaths, drew outlines of bodies on the sidewalk, and lay down in them. Another student stood nearby shouting statistics about pedestrian deaths. The demonstration caught the attention of the local NBC TV news affiliate, and the students used that evening’s broadcast to spread their message farther.
The quote: “In the end, my students, through Design Ignites Change, answered my ‘what if ’ question. And the thing that is exciting for me is that they’re taking the skills they learned back into the communities where they live—actually the communities where we all live—[and discovering] that design can, in fact, ignite change.”