U of T’s own TEDx Conference, an independently organized event licensed by the TEDx initiative, is most definitely a community-centred event. It comes with a sense of familiarity, like seeing students whose faces you recognize from classes as conference coordinators or hearing professors you’ve admired silently from across a lecture hall speak about their passions.
The theme of the 2017 conference was OPEN, which was broad enough to encompass the wide variety of topics discussed by the speakers. Seven of the 12 speakers were academics at U of T, from graduate students to professors, giving attendees the opportunity to see what those in the offices around campus are up to.
In addition to academics from across the spectrum of breadth requirements, TEDxUofT also featured performing speakers from around Toronto and a variety of energetic musical acts.
A spotlight on academia
Many people in the audience recognized speaker and computer scientist Sanja Fidler from press coverage in outlets such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Toronto Star on the algorithm she helped developed that evaluates fashion sense.
Fidler’s presentation, equipped with interactive displays and humorous graphics of a personified robot, was friendly even to those without any knowledge of her field, taking the audience through the many steps necessary to create a cognitive agent.
Other audience members cheered for Human Biology Professor Bill Ju. The reasons behind Ju’s popularity became clear when he explained his conscious effort to improve learning by connecting with his students through social media.
Computer Science Professor Raquel Urtasun explained to the crowd why self-driving cars are the future and outlined affordable solutions to mapping — the financial obstacle to self-driving transportation.
Urtasun suggested that self-driving cars would be incredibly beneficial to society, lowering the risk of accidents, decreasing pollution, and providing mobility for the elderly and disabled.
Organic chemist Patrick Gunning got the most laughs of the day with the line “biologists call us cooks.” This was an impressive feat considering Gunning’s attempt to guide the audience through the complicated process of building a cancer-killing molecule.
TEDxUofT also featured presentations geared towards provoking the audience into thinking about the roles they played in their local communities and on the global stage.
Joe Wong, the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs, brought the latter into perspective, with the clear message that we must reach out to those who are hardest to reach in our community. Explicitly, those who are born in city slums — the undocumented, the uneducated, the unvaccinated and the forgotten.
His talk was a call to action for the younger generation, which Wong hopes will use innovative thinking to overcome the obstacles that have faced previous generations.
Speaker Paul Hamel offered a local arena for change, proposing that the first stage of global health work is here in Toronto, where we can engage in strategies to end poverty, inequality, and ultimately, ill health.
He identified the stereotypical conceptions surrounding global health, a term that prompts images of far flung, impoverished villages and challenged them by arguing that we must think of issues of global health as transnational.
Photographer Yannis Guibinga turned his sights internationally as well, presenting his efforts to fight one-dimensional representations of Africa. Guibinga’s work seeks to highlight diversity and the intersections of gender, culture and socioeconomic status, in order to remind us that Africa and African identity are not monoliths.
Individual and artistic journeys
Another theme of the conference was individual journeys and choices. This was best underscored by actor Rajiv Surendra, beloved for his role as Kevin G in the cult classic Mean Girls.
Drawing on his personal six-year journey to become the protagonist of the film adaptation of Life of Pi, Surendra highlighted the importance of embracing the possibilities of success or failure. Surendra remarked that it is better to have embarked on a journey than to have played it safe.
Researcher Liza Futerman described the moment she showed old photos to her mother, who had been diagnosed with dementia, to trigger her memory. Instead of sparking her mother’s memory, it sparked her imagination, and she began to tell stories, opening her mind up to her daughter.
By connecting through storytelling, Futerman was able to find a way for her and her mother to transcend the ‘patient’ and ‘caregiver’ roles. This experience gave way to her work to create programs to improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The tiny houses movement is one of the trendiest alternative living choices, but Cristina D’Amico’s presentation explained why it only offers an individual, market-based solution to the systemic housing problem. Comparing it to renting an apartment, D’Amico stated that living in a tiny home is not a socially transformative act — though it may be an Instagrammable one — and that to make housing a social right, “we need to think bigger than tiny homes.”
Performing speakers also brought an artistic flair to the conference. Will and Matt, a duo of magicians, incorporated the audience into their masterful tricks all while exploring how to make a living doing what you love. Their secret comes from a combination of business sensibility, understanding the difference between customers and consumers, and never allowing something you love to become something you regret.
Finally, spoken word artist Tobi Ogude from Black Canvas Gallery painted a beautiful picture of the love and mutual respect that governs the underground community in Toronto, underlining the need for the city to work with communities where culture is built and crafted in order to allow them to flourish.
TEDxUofT aims to be an immersive experience, which entails a nine-hour day. Despite the long day, the event is structured to maximize the information audience members can absorb, with breaks occurring after every set of three speakers.
While not a seamless day, with technical glitches impacting almost every performer and a touch of corporatism provided by the tables of merchandise for sale, TEDxUofT remains a day that showcases remarkable talent and accomplishments that are meant to inspire rather than intimidate.