Conference spreads new ideas

Last Thursday, Kitchener’s Centre in the Square played host to the first Canadian female in space, a performance involving the hurdy gurdy and just about everything in between. What brought such a wide range of topics, which also included lectures by a man who climbed Mount Everest, one of the pioneers of virtual reality and the co-publisher of The Walrus, together? The second annual TEDxWaterloo.

TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — is a non-profit organization that’s main focus is promoting “ideas worth spreading.” In addition to the extensive series of online videos, known as “TED Talks” and hosting conferences around the world, TED also supports TEDx events like the one in Kitchener on Friday.

TEDx events are locally organized conferences that still carry on the TED mantra of simply bringing together different people with unique ideas and promoting interaction and innovation.

“We’re interested in bringing great ideas and experienced people to enlighten us with their experiences,” said Alain Gauldrault, one of the event’s organizers.

“We wanted to foster ideas and innovation and bring thinkers to our area.”

This year’s TEDxWaterloo almost tripled in size compared to its inaugural year in 2010, with the number of people in attendance rising from approximately 300 to nearly 1000, making it the largest TEDx event in North America.

While an event such as TEDx seems more suited for a larger city such as Toronto, those in the Kitchener-Waterloo community aren’t surprised that that theirs is the continent’s largest.

“This is a community that’s always looking for new ideas, it’s never rested on its laurels,” said Waterloo city councillor Jeff Henry, who attended the event. “I hope it will inspire everybody in the room to think new things, express new ideas and invest in innovation in Waterloo and Kitchener.”

Ramy Nassar, the event’s host and one of its lead organizers, echoed Henry’s sentiments about KW being the perfect place to host an event such as TEDx.

“Waterloo’s a community that’s built around innovation,” he said. “We thought it was the right type of event to have in our region…. And when we told [the conference’s speakers] about what the Waterloo community is all about, it really got them excited about the opportunity to be a part of it.”

The conference featured 12 speakers, who, staying true to the nature of TED, all came from various disciplines, experiences and backgrounds and instilled various messages into the attendees.

From experimental musician Ben Grossman’s unique performance on the hurdy gurdy, to Roberta Bondar recounting her experiences in outer space, to Jean-Francois Carrey telling his story of climbing Mount Everest at just 24 years old, there was, as Henry put it, “something for everyone.”

In addition to higher profile speakers such as Carrey, Bondar and co-publisher of The Walrus Shelley Ambrose, there was also a local element to the lectures.

Virtual reality pioneer Vincent John Vincent, a University of Waterloo (UW) graduate, told the story of how he, along with his research partner Francis MacDougal essentially created modern virtual, reality simulation at UW in the late 1980s. Current UW professor Colin Ellard also gave a speech at the conference, discussing the psychological relations human beings have to the space they occupy.

As a professor, Ellard saw just how important an event such as TEDx can be to students.

“When I told people that I was doing this, the most excited have been university students, including my own children,” he said.

“They use the TED videos for mining for ideas for papers, sometimes they use excerpts in presentations, so I think it’s a fantastic format for inciting new ideas, particularly in young people…. And these days we need every reason to be optimistic about our future and I think an event like this does that for us.”