Last week I was at TED Global in Edinburgh. The event felt different to previous years in Oxford, it was bigger, seemed to have a broader mix of nationalities and a larger contingent of TEDx’rs.

TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a global not-for-profit organisation which aims to bring together inspiring, energetic, extremely smart or renowned individuals from different disciplines – art, business, politics, science and much more – to generate “ideas worth spreading”.

Stuff of Life

The mix of talks this year were themed around the Stuff of Life. Here are my five favourite speakers that I want to remember and recommend that you look up.

Maajid Nawaz - Age of Behaviour - 2
Maajid Nawaz [talk already online at TED]

Maajid Nawaz was the first speaker who got my mind racing thinking about the how the implications of what he was proposing might influence me. He spoke about the ‘Age of Behaviour’ and how transnational behaviours are influenced by ideas and narratives. Maajid grew up in Essex and as a teenager was recruited to the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir, rising into its leadership until being sentenced to 4 years in an Egyptian prison in his early 20’s. He left prison feeling that Hizb ut-Tahrir was hijacking Islam for political purposes and in 2009 founded Khudi, a counter-extremism social movement working to promote a democratic culture in Pakistan.

What struck me about his talk was the leadership role he had created at young age based upon a new technology base for sharing ideas. His talk provides some interesting insight into the potential for creating bottom up movements in an environment that thrives on cultural belief. Why do I find this interesting? I am curious to explore ways of building a new way of working within Arup focused on the organic development of the “new generation” in the firm. I suspect that a bottom up, activist based approach would work well in our culture. [,]

Niall Ferguson - ideas and institutions - 1
Niall Ferguson

I found Niall Ferguson’s introduction to the “great divergence” between east and west economic development fascinating. The ‘apps’ listed in the photo above were an interesting way of looking at the ‘ideas and institutions’ that provide the vehicles for our societal development. He also raised some interesting questions: are we deleting some of our apps? is the sequence in which we develop the apps important? can China do without the third app? Why do I find this interesting? I like the idea of thinking about how ideas are stored, shared and passed between generations. This is particularly relevant in a growing organisation and raises interesting questions around size, structure and leadership.

Mikko Hypponen - internetpol - 1
Mikko Hypponen [talk already online at TED]

Putting the excellently geeky presentation skills to one side (he ran most his presentation from the command line and ended his show using an overhead projector) this was a funny and scary presentation. Mikko walked onto stage and showed us code from the boot sector of a 5 1/4 inch floppy that contained one of the first computer viruses – ‘Brain-A’. In that boot sector he showed us the names and address of the hackers – Basit & Amjit – and then showed a photo of himself standing outside that address a couple of years ago, introducing himself to Basit & Amjit, brothers who still lived there. Why do I find this interesting? Viruses like STUXNET have come to my attention recently [see ‘open source weapons’ video] since they are starting to move into the world of PLC’s and by implication will soon start to become a bigger issue in the world of Internet of Things. Mikko was championing the creation of an ‘internetpol’ to support the defence of our networks from largely criminally driven hackers who create viruses – another example of the need for agency beyond borders.

Todd Kuiken
Todd Kuiken

I loved this talk for the ingenuity that only someone with training as both Doctor and Engineer plus 20 years of hard earned experience could deliver. Todd introduced a bionic arm created by ‘stitching’ nerve endings from an amputated arm into muscle tissue on the pectoral. This technology called targeted muscle reinnervation allows the brain to control the arm directly but also had the unexpected effect in some patients that not only can they move their new limb, they can also feel with it. Why do I find this interesting? I am intrigued by the combination of body and technology, and find the adaptability of the brain to ‘fix’ its understanding of the world in which it operates fascinating.

Rory Stewart - Afghanistan
Rory Stewart

This one was unexpected. I guess the label of ‘conservative politician’ made me jump to some conclusions. But his talk about his experiences in Afghanistan were insightful, articulate and at the same time made me frustrated. I was intrigued by his experiences of the light touch (he walked across Afghanistan in 2001/2002) vs the role of international aid and (the very funny) ‘7 decisive years’ by 7 different leaders. Why do I find this interesting? He spoke of a ‘mountain rescue’ approach to problem solving where experts need local context and knowledge, plus they can intelligently adapt to the environment when it changes. I am not sure if we give enough focus to the right person being in the ‘right’ job.

In some ways it is hard to pull out a favourite 5 so here are a bunch of other talks to look at.

Justin Hall-Tipping – Nanoholdings – technology to drive the future energy neutral building.

Geoffrey West – Santa Fe institute – on bounded growth, sub-linear scaling (meaning as things get bigger they need relatively less) and why do cities live but companies die?

Kevin Slavin – Area/Code – on our new ‘Algoworld’, an increasing trend which sees various aspects of our lives being run algorithmically and with a complexity that we can no longer meaningfully understand.

Tim Harford – Undercover Economist at Financial Times – great talk on our ‘God complex’, our belief that we are right and a call for more trial and error experimentation in the workplace. Talk is already up at TED.

Mark Pagel - language - 3
Mark Pagel – evolutionary biologist – on how language provided the mechanism to allow cooperation in cooperative societies.

Joe Castillo - sand artist - 1
Joe Castillo – amazing sand artist

Ben Goldacre – Guardian – Bad Science author, really funny, slightly alarming, frenetic talk – definately worth 18mins of your life.

Daniel Wolpert – neuroscientist and engineer – on the brain, movement, sensory processing and tickling robots.

Nadia al Sakkaf – editor of Yemen Times – when she took over as chief editor in 2005 she sacked half of the senior male staff and replaced them with ‘women and younger men’ – diversity in the workplace, leadership and a VERY brave woman.

Bunker Roy – barefoot college – inspiring talk about making your own destiny and two of my favourite quotes: ‘a dignity of labour’ and ‘these [hand] puppets are made of recycled worldbank reports’

Alain de Botton – writer – on religion

Alison Gopnick
Alison Gopnik – child development pyschologist – on kids sphere of exploration rather than focus of attention (interesting ideas on play and innovation here).

Michael Biddle – MBA Polymers, plastic recycling – on waste, recycling of plastics and over ground mining.

Harold Haas – Edinburgh University – wireless communications via LED light using orthogonal frequency division multiplexing. Geniunely impressive live demo that falters to show that it is real.

Markus Fischer – Festo – smartbird is a project to create an artificial bird capable of flying like a real bird. Inspired by the herring gull and inspiring factory automation products for Festo, this creature is awesome!

Links to all the speakers above will eventually emerge on

And finally, links to other resources that caught my imagination are tagged on pinboard with TEDlobal2011 and photos are on Flickr