TEDxUW brings together 700 delegates to annual event

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Photo by Qiao Liu

On Saturday, Oct. 28, the University of Waterloo held their sixth annual TEDx event in their Humanities Theatre.

Founded over 30 years ago, TED is a media organization that puts on conferences around the world where experts are invited to come and speak on issues related to technology, entertainment and design.

TEDx events are usually put on at a smaller scale and are independently organized by people who obtain a license from TED proper.

Wilfrid Laurier University has hosted its own TEDx events in the past, including one put on last year.

At this year’s TEDxUW, 700 people registered to become “delegates,” the designation that the organizers used for attendees.

Delegates had the opportunity to sit in the audience and watch the 10 live speakers who gave talks this year, in addition to performances by the all-male a cappella group The Water Boys and the University of Waterloo’s own AfroFusion dance club.

The event this year was a lot larger than it has been in previous years.

“We’ve only been operating under a standard university TED license. And so that caps you at 100 delegates. But we always get more interest than we have seats,” Melissa Ai Lee, co-chair of this year’s TEDxUW, said.

“I think last year we had something like 596 applications for 100 seats,” Lee said.

When asked about plans for next year’s TEDxUW, Lee said that it would be up to the new co-chairs to shape and organize the event. However, Lee did mention that some other organizers have expressed interest in collaboration.

“In order to have a bigger event, you have to go to an actual TED conference, so Taruna [this year’s other co-chair] and I, as well as the co-chairs from last year, we went to New York, we went to a TED event, we got approved for a bigger license, so our cap is actually 2,000,” Lee explained.

Despite this larger cap, Lee said that they only brought in 700 delegates because that is the capacity of their chosen venue, the Humanities Theatre in the school’s Hagey Hall building.

They opened it up to students as usual, but also allowed people from the surrounding community to register to attend and view the talks.

“This year we expanded it so that alumni and community members and all those people can come too,” Lee said.

The theme of this year’s TEDxUW was “defying conventions.” Lee described how watching a TED talk put on by Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, helped inspire them to choose this year’s theme.

“It was actually through twitter that all these strangers would always interact with her and, not tear down her faith or her religion, but they tried to understand it, and they tried to offer their opinions as well,” Lee said.

“It was these two polarized, opposite people, coming together and giving each other the space, the time, just even the respect to learn and understand each other’s opinions,” Lee said.

Hearing about this process unfolding helped bring into focus the importance of this year’s theme for Lee.“So that was a really pivotal talk for us, because it really solidified the idea of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and really challenging your own thoughts and your own opinions,” Lee said.

Another factor that inspired the theme was the fact that it is the University of Waterloo’s sixtieth anniversary.

“We’ve only been around for 60 years, but we’ve been able to accomplish so much. And so we always feel like we’re always going against the grain or there’s all these set ideas, but we’re always trying to go above and beyond,” Lee said.

Nicole Yang, this year’s TEDxUW speaker relations director, explained how consideration of the theme and other factors drove speaker selection.

“I think we had a mutual understanding of what the concept ‘defying conventions’ meant, but what we kind of had to think about was, do we want to hone in on a specific discipline, like a topic area, but we ended up saying ‘let’s represent all various topics and areas’. So that’s what we tried to do in our speaker selection,” Yang said.

“Out of the 10 people, they all represent a different field, a different idea, a different initiative,” Yang said.

One of those speakers was Amr Abdelgawad, who used his talk to discuss shortcomings in the Canadian healthcare system and potential ways to address those shortcomings. Specifically, the long wait times that those in need of care often experience.

“Well I think we’re living in an era of disruption. And a lot of things are changing around us, and they’re changing really quickly. But one of the things we’re lacking in is, I think, healthcare. And the theme is defying conventions at the end of the day, and we need to do things with unconventional approaches,” Abdelgawad said.

Another speaker was David Swart. In his talk, Swart discussed the merging of mathematics and art, and, contrary to the dictates of society, the importance of approaching things with a casual, exploratory attitude rather than a goal-directed, utilitarian one.

“If somebody can hear my talk and have fun with their hobby, and explore and create and play, and enhance their life, rather than always sledging away at things that are useful, then I’d be happy,” Swart said.

When asked about plans for next year’s TEDxUW, Lee said that it would be up to the new co-chairs to shape and organize the event. However, Lee did mention that some other organizers have expressed interest in collaboration.

“York University, their TEDx event reached out, and they’re trying to organize an Ontario university wide TEDx event. We haven’t been able to look at that since we’re trying to do ours, but that could potentially be a really exciting thing for the future.” 

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