The final countdown

Did you know that you can tweet the @metoffice for a forecast for your location? Here’s what they said for today over the Northcott:

@TEDxExeter Hi. The forecast is for frequent heavy showers with a cold Ely wind. 8°C ^JLH 6:49pm – 26 Mar 14

My experience cycling here was grey, drizzle, cold wind. So the forecast, if not the weather, isn’t bad so far.

Registration is open downstairs, and I can imagine that there’s a real buzz building. But it’s the calm before the storm in the auditorium. The lighting is set. We’re holding one final speaker rehearsal, of Sonia Livingstone, who couldn’t be with us yesterday. 

So here we go…

… with introductions to the day from top-class organiser Claire Kennedy. The theme of the day is “Ideas Without Frontiers”, because great ideas know no boundaries, and global issues affect us all. There are about 900 TEDx events each year, and 11 events today, so TEDxExeter is part of something huge.

I’m blogging live, so bear with me re typos, misrepresentations, missing chunks and other infelicities. My main purpose is to give you something to remember while the videos are prepared for release in about a month. Enjoy!

Vinay Nair talk

Vinay Nair featureOur first session is about international themes, and our first speaker is Vinay Nair from Acumen.

Five years ago, he found himself in remote NW Mozambique, sitting down and buzzing about budgeting and planning for a social enterprise selling jam, run by women who were HIV positive. They were managing to generate an income, and become active agents in their own futures. One was asked by the Red Cross to set up similar enterprises across the country.

Vinay had a sense that the work was about dignity not dependence, choice not charity. But he’s not a good Samaritan, he’s a former investment banker – his joke! And yet, that experience helped him in the position he is now in, and he wants to explore those interconnections and interdependencies.

A few years ago, he visited Robben Island in South Africa, where he tried to get inside the head of Nelson Mandela. On the way home, he bumped into Gordon Brown at the airport, thanked him for his work on debt relief, and was then surprised when they had a conversation about economics and finance as vehicles for reducing poverty and improving social justice.

Before the financial crisis, Vinay took a sabbatical and spent some time in India. He met Muhammad Yunus, the pioneer in microfinance. He thought initially that microfinance was a silver bullet, but realised that often the goals of social justice had got lost in the push for a financial return. 

So he left the world of microfinance and ended up in Mozambique and then the Clinton Foundation, before studying for a masters at LSE. He got involved in Acumen, and began to work with its founder Jacqueline Novogratz.

Acumen’s model is to take donations, bypass governments and conventional finance, and invest ‘patient capital’ in social enterprises. The returns can then be recycled again and again. It also has a strong focus on ‘how’ it makes decisions, in a difficult and messy area of work. Listening and humility are core, but there is also a need for leadership, audaciousness and accountability.

Vinay found himself back in India, in the rice belt, working with a renewable energy company which was burning rice husks to generate electricity for sale at £1 per month. Because it wasn’t free, people demanded customer service etc – dignity not dependence. There were also improved health outcomes, through not inhaling kerosene fumes, and improved education, through better lighting – not just the financial bottom line.

He’s now leaving Acumen to set up a new initiative in the UK, to tackle poverty and inequality here. There is a need to understand what and how investment can support innovative social enterprise and charities. There’s a lot that can be learnt from Acumen and other organisations, because of the interconnections. As they say in Bantu South Africa: Ubuntu, I am because you are.

Sarah El Ashmawy talk

Sarah El Ashmawy featureSarah is a minority rights activist and Egyptian. In recent years she has been trying to reclaim her sense of identity as an Egyptian, instead of listening to the pernicious message that she should pursue her rights as an individual, not as a member of a people.

As a student, she was talking to a friend about the revolution in Tunisia, and didn’t think it would happen in Egypt… but of course she was wrong. She left the country one week before the revolution, and then had to watch from the sidelines, and had a love-hate relationship with it! She realised she had been disconnected from her country for 20 years, and decided she would return and have random conversations about the revolution. She discovered others also had this bitter-sweet response. One contact described how the government took him in for his anti-regime writings. Until the uprisings in Tahrir Square. 

Before the revolution, everyone was stuck in their categories in a pyramidal structure, and everyone else was excluded. Everyone felt excluded, not matter where they were in the structure. So all agreed they wanted the end of the regime. But the revolution didn’t mean the end of exclusion. The military took over, and trades unions and other groups responded violently. Sarah’s own government (her mother, in the audience!) didn’t want her and her friends to join in. But they went to Tahrir Square and shouted and screamed anyway.

Sarah was in her car when she heard of President Morsi’s decree on the constitution, which protected his back.  That is, the new president had excluded her again from decision-making, and at that point she hit rock bottom. She says this is the sort of government that sows the seeds of violence. People need to find a place and fulfil their own potential, without having to trade freedoms and rights to criticise governments and get involved.

She believes that democracy starts at the margins. Countries need to look inside themselves, and even beyond inequality, to engagement of the people. We need blunt, honest dialogue about all the things we are doing wrong. As a positive example, there is now an electronic map of sexual harrassment. So yes, she still believes that the revolution will succeed.

TED Talk – Pico Iyer

Now I get a bit of a break, can kick back and watch a talk from TED Global in Edinburgh last year.

Home for Pico Iyer is more about soul – what he carries around inside him – than a piece of physical soil. There are 220 million people now living in a country not their own, a great floating tribe representing the fifth largest nation on earth.

But you can watch the video for yourself…

Karima Bennoune talk

Karima Bennoune featureKarima Bennoune seeks to give a voice to people who are living under Islamist fundamentalist repression.

One day, when she was a student and staying with her father in Algiers, she woke up to pounding on the front door. She found herself wondering whether she could protect him – a teacher of evolution – with a paring knife. Luckily, the potential attacker went away. Her father refused to leave the country, and continued to write.

Her book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” contains many untold stories from the peaceful fight against Muslim fundamentalism, based on interviews with 300 people.

The dark decade of the 1990s showed that the popular struggle against fundamentalism is one of the most important but overlooked struggles in the world today, and that these local people need our support.

Many people of Muslim heritage are staunch opponents of fundamentalism and terrorism, for good reason… they are much more likely to be the targets. Only 15% of Al Qaeda’s victims in 2004-08 were westerners.

Karima uses the definition: Fundamentalisms (note the plural) are political movements on the extreme right, which in the context of globalisation manipulate religion to achieve their political aims.

These fundamentalist movements have their diversities – some are more violent, some are NGOs, some form political parties. She’s talking about the extreme right, offensive wherever they occur. They are movements which seek to curtail the rights of minority groups and rights to practise religion, and conduct an all-out war against women.

There has been an increase in discrimination against Muslims recently. Telling the stories of individual Muslims struggling against fundamentalism will help to challenge this discrimination. She has four stories: of Peerzada, a theatre group in Pakistan staging girls school theatre; Maria Bashir, the first female prosecutor in Afghanistan; Burhan Hassan and his uncle Abdirizak Bihi, trying to counter Al Shabaab’s recruitment in Minneapolis to carry out atrocities like the Westgate bombing in Nairobi; Amel Zenoune-Zouani, a woman law student in Algiers, who refused to give up her studies, and was taken off a bus and killed in the street.

Amel’s name means hope, the hope of telling stories and carrying on their lives despite the terrorism. It is not enough just to battle terrorism. We must also challenge fundamentalism, which makes the bed for terrorism. Karima wants us to commit to support people like Amel, who peacefully challenge terrorism and fundamentalism in their own communities.

Sonia Livingstone talk

Sonia Livingstone

Most of the photos of the speakers and performers attached to these live blog posts were taken by James Millar at the rehearsals yesterday. Sonia could only join us today, so this is her own shot.

This second session is about how technology is changing and how it is changing us for better or worse. Sonia is a social psychologist, and researches how children engage with the media environment. She conducts surveys, interviews children, and observes how children engage with the media in homes and schools.

When she was a girl, TV had three channels and bedrooms were for sleeping in, but she could go out and play without her mother knowing where she was. Nowadays children have much more access to IT gadgets, but are they happier?

We need to think about the balance between the risks and the opportunities, and we perhaps need to give more thought to developing the benefits of technology.

Research into what upsets children on the internet shows the range of risks: websites for porn, violence, race hate, self harm. Children often know about these first, and they escape regulatory oversight. A national study shows that 4 in 10 children see hate messages, sexual messages, porn, nasty messages, pro-anorexia messages. There have been changes over time, but no clear trends. Not all children who encounter the risks are not necessarily upset by them. So 1 in 7 say that something online has upset them in the last year.

It’s hard not to fear for our children when we see headlines about Facebook bullies and online blackmail. But we need to find a balance, and not necessarily react by imposing more restrictions. Societies have been worried about the invention of every new technology, including Socrates about writing! 

Children who have difficulties at home also tend to have difficulties online. Even since the internet, there have been no changes in the problems, but the internet makes it more visible. The internet is generally not the problem; people are. But there are still some issues.

We are always on. The plethora of communications choices – online or offline, public or private, anonymous or idenitified – is a preoccupation. Everything online leaves a trace. Posts can be edited, shared, search and found. They can go viral, and problems escalate quickly. The platforms continually change, being updated by commerce looking for business, governments looking to shape education and work, technologists looking to make new connections.

The opportunities are positively correlated wth risks: more opportunities bring more risks, and vice versa, just like the wider world. So restricting opportunities restricts risks, and hence the development of children’s resilience. There are between-the-lines dramas between the risks and the opportunities. For example, children like to make new friends; we worry about them meeting strangers.

There are organisations looking at redesigning the internet to better serve the needs of our children. We need to be listening to children, and can’t assume they react to the internet in the same ways that we do. It’s important to them that we don’t over-react to their problems.

The internet has great benefits; the world of information at our fingertips. But the top 10 sites that children visit are the likes of Google, Youtube, BBC, Facebook, Yahoo and Disney, which tend to be a bit branded and/or targeted at adults. Creative and participatory chances are not in their grasp. Can anyone think of 10 great websites for children, as you could think of 10 great books for children? Can we explore a journey of possibilities, rather than lock children into walled gardens? Yet nowadays we’re not good at letting children outdoors or even walk to school alone. So children tend to take their acting out online.

Of course, the internet is here to stay, but can we make it a place where children can explore and create?

Simon Peyton Jones talk

Simon Peyton Jones featureAt school, we teach children about applicable skills using artefacts that date quickly, like MS Office. We also teach them foundational disciplines and techniques that don’t date, like physics. In IT, we’ve lost sight of the underlying discipline, resulting in focusing too much on technology and not enough on ideas. Simon wants children not to consume technology, but to be creative with it… as a parallel, to be writers of books as well as readers.

Computer scientists are viewed as geeky, but the subject should be thought of as foundational for all. Computer science is about information, computation, algorithms, re-usable skills, communication, coordination, programming, abstraction, modelling, design. All abstract words, so Simon is showing a video of children each holding a number and learning how to sort. The exercise encouraged children to ask questions about doing things better. Now about communication. Can Simon and a friend have a public conversation to agree on a private key that can be used to encode conversation and make it private to them? It’s possible online using what’s known as Diffie-Hellman key exchange.

Why computer science for every child? All children learn science, but not all will become physicists. It’s about learning about the world around us, so we become more empowered. Similarly with the digital world that we inhabit. Computer science has helped us understand the natural world too, such as distributed computation in termite nests, or how human cells decide whether to become kidneys or lungs. And computer science also provides generic applicable skills. (All subjects say they provide generic applicable skills; it just happens to be true for computer science!)

As of 2014, there will be a new school subject and curriculum in England, from primary age onwards. It is being observed around the world in other countries thinking about the same issues. The new challenge is to encourage and equip existing computer science teachers to deliver the new curriculum. Many of them don’t have enough background in computer science, so they need help from the IT sector, including anyone in the audience today. The Department of Education is consciously standing back, so this is the big society in action.

Simon chairs the Computing at School group, a grass-roots organisation, which is at the centre of the challenge of training teachers across the country. If you are an IT professional, get involved. If not, at least talk to your schools.

What are we hoping to gain for our children from this? [Simon’s talk follows well from Sonia’s] That they are engaged, curious, playful, creative, empowered, informed, and employed(!).

Harry Baker performance

Harry Baker featureAnd now for our first performance, from world champion slam poet and maths student.

Harry’s starting with a love poem about prime numbers, called 59. In summary: 59 loved 60 from afar, but 60 thought 59 was… odd. And then 60 met 61, who was like 60, but a little bit more. Together, 59 and 61 combined to become twice what 60 could ever be. A prime example of love!

Through writing this his first poem, Harry discovered poetry slams. Poetry slams are a way of tricking people to attend poetry readings by putting an exciting word like ‘slam’ on the end. Being slam world champion means that his next poem is technically the best poem in the world, according to five French strangers: proper pop-up purple paper people. There’s no way I can blog it, so here’s a video.

Poetry is Harry’s way of investigating worlds without frontiers. His last poem today is about the Sunshine Kid, who had a sunny disposition and had a flare about him. But the shadow people made fun of his sunspots. He struggled at school – being too bright – and his judgment became clouded, and he let his light be eclipsed. And then came Little Miss Sunshine, who was hot stuff and told him we are all stars. Not all the darkness in the world can put out the light from a single candle. Astrophysics in motion!

…and Harry got the first (I may say well-deserved) standing ovation of the day, led by none other than fellow speaker Vinay Nair!