TEDx Vancouver: Some Thoughts on the First Edition

Photo by Kris Krug.

The best conferences are like legal drugs.  They change you on a molecular level, you see and feel things that you’ve never experienced before and your body is charged by mysterious energies.

The first TEDxVancouver Conference, held at the sprawling Electronic Arts campus in Burnaby, was one of those experiences.

Cyrus Irani. Photo by Kris Krug.

It wasn’t a perfect day.  There were some flaws in the program but overall the successes of TEDxVancouver vastly outshone any of the problems that occurred during the day.

Cyrus Irani, the rest of the TEDxVan organizing team, the army of volunteers, camera men, technical wizards and whoever it was that made the call on the freshly bagged popcorn all deserve highest praise for putting on the show.

The theatre looked great.  The videos and the personal presentations were all of a very high quality, and a few technical issues aside, came across with a high degree of professionalism.

The location itself possessed a certain fluid feng shui as well as a pool table and lots of arcade style video games.

The crowd of conference-goers was a good mix of people.  On a few occasions I heard people happily comment that ‘it wasn’t another conference populated by the usual suspects’.  I met a bunch of new friends.  I also got to hang out with Monica Hamburg for the better part of the day.  This was great because we’d recently met and hadn’t yet had time to get to know one another.

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Cris Derksen. Photo by Kris Krug.

The day was broken up into 3 separate but thematically linked sessions containing 3 or 4 speakers each.

The sessions were organized like this: Session 1: Playfully Young – creativity, imagination and expression.  Session 2: Globally Young – environment, ecology, natural world.  Session 3: Emotionally Young – passion, emotion, transformation.

Each speaker was given roughly 20 minutes for their presentations and there were a couple of lengthy breaks that allowed people to meet, mingle and share ideas.

The second and third sessions were accentuated by live musical performances.

Before the second session began the attendees experienced the beautiful and sublime Cris Derksen accompany herself on cello with a digital tape loop and drum machine.  It was pretty amazing and I really hope that I can get an audio file for that.

Human beatboxing machine, Shamik kicked off the third session with an epic organic throwdown that dabbled in aspects of jazz, hip hop, techno and trance.  It was also excellent.

Cris and Shamik performed an impromptu duet at the end of the day that was capped by a standing ovation.  Kris Krug caught the last bit of it with his camera but you’ll want to watch their whole performance for the maximum effect.

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Terry McBride. Photo by Kris Krug.

Terry McBride was an excellent choice to speak first and set the conceptual framework for the whole day.

Terry introduced context as a theme that would come to permeate the day.  Context impacted almost every talk and several of the speakers actively spoke to it in their presentations.

One of the things that Terry does better than anyone else – and the reason why it was a good idea to give him the floor at the beginning of the day – is that he speaks clearly to the fundamental concepts and ideas behind the commercial aspects of art and music that are often butchered for public consumption by the language of accountants and corporate executives.

Context has deposed content in the kingdom of commodified creativity, according to Terry.  If you’re selling music or movies or books in the digital age you would be wise to step away from the illusion of control, the false promise of DRM and from any plans to litigate the fans of your artist or product.

You need great artists to create compelling content that will provide the unique context that you can capitalize upon.  In this case the context is the enthusiasm and the relationship that the fan has with the artist or work.

Every fan will experience the content in their own way and generate a relationship with the artist and the work that is unpredictable.  The publisher or studio will be in the business of facilitating that relationship and providing high quality opportunities for the fan to embrace that relationship and build upon it.

You cannot prevent behaviors that younger generations have developed by using the technologies that the older generations helped to create any more than puritanical lawmakers could prevent the birth of rock n roll in the 50’s.

And when the technologies of production are easily accessible to any creative person the map for traditional creative content publishers to remain relevant going forward runs right through the land of remaining completely transparent and adaptable to the artist/fan relationship.

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The best TEDxVancouver talk of the day came via video from Neill Blomkamp, famed graduate of the Vancouver Film School and director of the movie District 9.

Neill’s presentation was  brilliant in many ways.

Two things set it apart from the other TEDx talks that day: 1) Truly visionary subject matter.  2) Next level imaginative story telling technique.

The presentation was essentially a long answer to a short question and was framed like this: a journalist in Chicago had once asked Neill whether the aliens as depicted in his film District 9 were an accurate representation of what he truly believed aliens to look like.

Thus begins a long and fascinating trip through space and time that touches on distant planets that might potentially support life and how these life forms face a struggle against impossible odds to develop to the point where they can leave their home environments and seek to explore or conquer other worlds.

I won’t even try to approximate the whole story here.  It’s just too mind blowing and it leaves you with a harrowing picture of our current place in that cosmic evolution.  It touches directly on our current environmental problems and the deepening dangers of our geopolitical nightmare situations all over the world.

It is not a message of hope.

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Tech dudes. Photo by Kris Krug.

I will leave it for others to discuss at length the session entitled Globally Young since the accurate language needed for those conversations is beyond me.  It’s a highly specific dialogue that is too emotionally charged and contentious for me to want to wade into here.

However, I was most impressed by Bryan Slusarchuk‘s presentation on new green ideas in the venture capital space.  I think that he should be applauded for bringing new ideas to the discussion and for showcasing practical ways that people can be involved in investing in innovative environmental projects.

The other three presentations during the Globally Young session – by Guy Dauncey, Patrick Moore and Marc Stoiber – were each very well done in their way.   None of them struck me as particularly visionary or progressive, though.

Two of those presentations were crafted to promote/showcase polar (pun intended) ends of the environmentalism debate, book sales or both.

The other presentation, by Marc Stoiber, while entertaining, was a wickedly honed experiment in viral advertising.  It will be very interesting to see what happens with this particular piece – who responds to it and how – when it is posted on the site.

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Kevin 'Katalyst' Caroll. Photo by Kris Krug.

The final session, Emotionally Young, was an excellent and fun finale for an energizing day.

All of the presenters were very good and clearly Kevin ‘Katalyst’ Caroll is about as engaging and professional a speaker as is possible for the human race to produce.  His performance skills and message are exceptional.

He brought Terry McBride’s theme of context full circle for the day. He challenged everyone in attendance to find the thing that they’re most passionate about – no matter what it is – and to find a way to carry the message of that passion into the world.

To share it with others and to inspire them by your example.  It is essentially an echo of Mahatma Ghandi’s famous quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Having said that, though, I am clearly missing some crucial part of the equation that connects a Philly born, Nike-endorsed globe trotter to the emotional spirit of Vancouver.

Don’t get me wrong, Kevin was very funny, very cool and has an incredible sense of timing and rhythm but I don’t really understand why he was there.

Put another way, one has the impression that the organizing committee didn’t spend a whole lot of time selecting young voices native to the Vancouver area.  That could seem to run contrary to what’s implied by the name TEDx Vancouver and the conference’s official theme of Forever Young.

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Which brings me to the one tragic flaw of TEDxVancouver.

Not tragic in a Shakespearean everyone dies at the end kind of way but tragic in a Stan Smyl missing an open net with a chance to score the goal that wins the game kind of way.

Ideas Worth Spreading. Photo by Shaun Scholtz.

Nicholas Molnar, one of the presenters that I was most looking forward to seeing, was bumped from the first session to the last session of the day. He was then scratched right off the roster all together due to time restrictions and content guidelines specific to the TEDx license.

It was really unfortunate because I thought that Nicolas represented an original, local voice speaking on things – “using the tools of economics, statistics, and game design to make websites and online games more addictive” – that originate or at least resonate with the technology culture of Vancouver.

News of Molnar’s session had been making the rounds on the twitter for a few days prior to TEDx Vancouver.  His friends who had seen his early preparations and auditions of the piece were clearly stoked and spreading the word in anticipation of his presentation.

I think that it’s tragic that a home town voice that may have spoken to new ideas in video gaming, alternate reality game design, digital morality missed the opportunity to participate in the first ever TEDxVancouver.

It represents a significant blemish on an otherwise excellent day and I would suggest that the organizers seek to include more young, original, local presenters in their future programs.

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In the final analysis, TEDxVancouver was a huge success.  The organizing team must have worked long hours and overcome ridiculous challenges to put the day together and they deserve a lot of respect for doing just that.

They provided a vital and engaging day built around sharing ideas worth spreading and I was lucky to be a part of it.

I can’t wait for the videos to be made available online so that we can continue this conversation and share TEDxVancouver with the rest of the city and the world.

Cris Derksen & Shamik: Impromtu Duet Finale. Photo by Shaun Scholtz.

Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

7 Comments

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Angela Crocker

    Thank you, Sean. As I anticipated, you have reported a thoughtful summmary of the day and I appreciate it. I’m glad to hear that the TedXVancouver conference was a positive experience and I look forward to seeing some of what you experienced in video clips in the days ahead.
    Despite earlier dialogues about the gender mix of the speakers, the delegate selection process and the content selection, I’m certainly open to hearing what TedX Vancouver has to say/share/present in the future. They’ve put themselves on our collective radar and it will be interesting to observe what they do with the privelege of that attention.

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Nicholas Molnar

    Thanks for the kind words, Sean. I was really looking forward to giving the talk too. Never fear, it will be seen.

    You can download a short teaser in the meantime:
    http://bit.ly/7tVEXI

    We are going to be doing some sort of run-off event where I will be able to perform, and the video will make its way to the website.

    I still had an amazing time, despite the disappointment, and was absolutely blown away by the other presenters. I was really honoured just to be sitting next to those luminaries. My head is still bobbing from Cris and Shamik’s duet too.

    Today I am going to be posting a few articles and essays describing my own experiences. I’ll toss the links up here when they are ready.

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Michael Allison

    I was looking forward to what Nick had to say, as I had just met him weeks earlier.

    I’m also looking forward to the video. Judging from the tweets I saw — and this review — it’s definitely worth checking out and sharing.

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Sean Cranbury

    Thanks, Nicholas.

    It was a pretty awesome experience all the way around. Let me know when the run-off event is and I’ll spread the word among my peeps.

    Looking forward to it.

    S

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Stephanie

    Thanks for the thorough review. It sounds like the conference was great and the speakers brought some great ideas to the table. Hopefully next year’s conference is even better than this one, and I’m really anticipating hearing more news from the organizers on their thoughts about the presentation, speakers and event as a whole. :]

  • Reply November 23, 2009

    Sean Cranbury

    Hey Stephanie

    It was a great day. Cyrus Irani spoke to the pieces that you and I wrote re: the TEDx speaker announcement last week. He promised to do a better job of connecting to the community.

    The lack of communication that resulted in the online response last week was strangely reflective of the entire theme for the day, context.

    As organizers I think that they could have done a better job of providing a clear sense of context for TEDxVancouver. It would have dispelled preconceived notions of what each person contextualizes TEDx to be in their own mind and allowed people to see TEDxVancouver as a specific event realized by a specific group of people with their own agenda/vision.

    Anyway – thanks for the comment!

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