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TEDx Manhattan Beach Offers Inspiring, Challenging Ideas

Nov 15, 2015 09:23PM ● By Jeanne Fratello

Photo Credit: Abby Hacohen

By Abby Hacohen

What does our near future hold – not only technologically and scientifically, but personally and collectively as we wade deeper into the 21st century?  What ideas and innovations will help us reap the most meaning and fulfillment, and who are the innovators that will take us there?  These and other questions were explored Saturday at the 6th annual TEDx Manhattan Beach, aptly titled “What’s Next?” 

TEDx refers to independently organized TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) events created to inspire conversation and connection at the local level. TED’s motto is “Ideas worth sharing,” and indeed Saturday’s 12 dynamic speakers ranging from scientists and entrepreneurs to artists and students shared personal journeys, insights and technological advances that inspire us to rethink how we approach ourselves, our communities, and in turn make our world a better place.

Moderator Paul Silva opened the morning session with a moment of silence for the victims of the recent terror attacks in Paris, noting quite poignantly that the power of diverse ideas is ultimately and thankfully much stronger than the power of any one ideology. Sponsored jointly by the City of Manhattan Beach, MBUSD and the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation (MBEF), and hosted by the Manhattan Beach MIddle School, the event welcomed over 600 attendees. Indeed, community support for TEDx has led it to outgrow its home at MBMS, and it will graduate next year to the larger Mira Costa High School auditorium. 

Asked how this year’s TEDx compares to previous years, organizer Kate Bergin said, “We get better and better. An event planned, attended, and ultimately made successful by a community shows that it is a part of our fabric. It shows that we are more diverse than one might think.  This event is a true reflection of who we are.”

“TEDx,” said Silva, “is about human potential,” and indeed the innovations on display were spectacularly life-changing. Mark Lengsfeld of Build It Workspace showcased a lightweight prosthetic hand he & his team created on a 3D printer to replace a 7-year-old girl’s heavier and more cumbersome prosthetic. Caltech engineer Julia Greer demonstrated the uses of nanotechnology in creating small, lightweight materials as strong as their larger counterparts, with implications for wider applications as inifinite as they are exciting.   

More innovation was on display in the Expo Hall, abuzz during the breakout sessions, where participants perused interactive exhibits while enjoying refreshments donated by The Source Café, GROW, and other local in-kind sponsors.   While some worked on the giant community weaving loom that will soon take up permanent residence at Mira Costa’s Math & Science building, others played a life-size game of giant Jenga.  Some explored the world of nanotech via microscope while others raced orb-like LED sensor robots across programmable color-mapped tracks coded by students of Los Alamitos-based OzoCodes.  In the 3D Printing Park manned by STAR Prep Academy, kids 3D-printed objects designed on site using Tinkercad software.  It was particularly exciting to see this booth manned by former MBMS student and inaugural TEDxMB speaker, Thomas Suarez, who has turned his astonishing young mind towards creating faster 3D printers. All the energy of this Expo Hall resonated against the deep, pulsating music of Brett Doar and King Volcano’s Autocalliope, a giant Rube Goldbergesque instrument that plays itself through the interaction of parts ranging from a vacuum cleaner to bike chains and sprockets. 

But as many speakers pointed out, equally important to innovation is how we approach it. RAND Corporation information scientist Nidhi Kalra noted that the first step in solving problems is getting comfortable with uncertainty. Our impulse to predict and plan outcomes ultimately narrows our lens, inhibiting creativity and progress. Instead of asking, “What’s next?” ask, “What if?” We can’t wait for a crystal ball to start solving the world’s problems, she said.

Contraptionist Brett Doar warned of the pitfalls of getting bogged down by too much planning, which hinders our ability to intuit solutions when the unpredictable occurs. “Thinking about doing something is not the same as doing it,” he professed.  “Making should be an act of discovery.  Resist the need to know how things will go. Embrace the messiness of the unexpected – there’s a lot of richness there.”  Extolling the virtues of improvisation over planning, he noted, “Sure, if you’re building a space station, you need a plan. But if something goes wrong, you need to be able to improvise.” For anyone who’s read or seen The Martian, this advice couldn’t be more prescient, and made the closing talk by The Martian’s author Andy Weir even more apropos.  Weir’s best-selling novel, now a major motion picture, was originally self-published in serial format on his personal website as well as in Kindle version on Amazon for 99 cents, showing how technology has upended the traditional channels of the publishing world.

Futurist Ted Schilowitz of 20th Century Fox cited Virtual Reality as the next giant leap in how we visualize the world, noting that with the mass rollout of consumer VR gear, the coming year will reveal much about how this wearable tech is received. “Change is always happening,” he said, as a not-so-distant film still of Michael Douglas talking on an early brick cell phone flashed across the screen. Change indeed is seismic and relentless. It disrupts the world as we know it and turns everything we know on its head. How do we keep pace? And how do we reconcile technology with what he calls “the creepiness factor?” Given the pitfalls of wearing anything from Google Glass to giant black VR boxes on our faces, we can’t ignore the human factor. Yes, the virtual world does indeed allow for social interaction, from gaming to virtual chat rooms to virtual karaoke. But it is ever more important that we take breaks from technology and stay connected to our past. “Read an actual newspaper,” Schilowitz implores.  “Write a letter on paper.  Read a real book.  Listen to a turntable.  Reset your brain.” 

Much of the second session addressed how we integrate emotional connectivity with our increasingly device-saddled world. A video of TED speaker Rana el Kaliouby featured developing technology designed to read human emotion. Perhaps one day cars will sense when we’re too tired to drive. Maybe iPads will be able to detect a student’s confusion and repeat a lesson. 

The day was rife with perspectives on personal transitions as well. Ellen Sloan, a successful businesswoman and single mother facing uncertainty after being laid off stated, “It’s time to care less about being good and more about being bold.” Unshackled by the need to follow prescriptive paths, she returned to school in her 60s to learn coding, and has founded Social Rhythm, a mobile app start up designed to help people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and the elderly. Former NPR news anchor Tess Vigelund spoke of her midlife career change and the courage needed to jettison the linear life trajectory we are programmed to seek.  Her new book, Leap, explores the psychology and implications of leaving a job without a back-up plan, and diving into the unknown.  Citing what she calls the “Etch A Sketch model,” she stated, “sometimes you need to shake it up and start over again.”

Lula Washington, founder and artistic director of the eponymous Dance Center in Los Angeles, described how early exposure to choreographic powerhouse Alvin Ailey changed her life and prompted her to create an inner city community arts space. Seeing people of color on stage renewed her sense of purpose. The arts, she reminded us, are as important as technology in changing our mindsets, and by extension, our lives.

George Esquivel, an artisan shoe designer known for his unique handcrafted wares, warned of the time wasted seeking perfection in one’s craft. “Shoes are like life in that they will always have flaws and inconsistencies. That’s what makes them perfect and beautiful," he said. "Celebrate those imperfections. They tell a story.” 

The day was punctuated by breathtaking performances. Orange County High School of the Arts sophomore McKenna Wells belted out a soulfully relevant Miley Cyrus song, singing “There’s always gonna be another mountain… but it’s all about the climb.” And a powerful solo dance performance of Donald McKayle’s “Angelitos Negros” by a Lula Washington Dance Theater student queried why, in all the world’s cathedrals, there are no images of black angels. 

And lastly, there were the speakers who seek to change the world through healing and empowerment. Teo Alfero’s organization Wolf Connection rescues endangered wolves and employs them in the therapeutic rehabilitation of at-risk youth. Pooja Nagpal, a Mira Costa senior & second degree Tae Kwan Do black belt traveled to small rural villages in her family’s native India.  There she encountered women & girls who had endured horrors ranging from sexual abuse and domestic violence to the denial of education. Moved to find more direct and immediate ways of empowering these girls, she spent a combined 11 weeks in India teaching them self defense and empowerment. She credits the transformative power of giving these girls the fighting spirit with her ability to make a difference in such a short time.  Back at home, she started a nonprofit organization designed to equip girls across Los Angeles against domestic and sexual violence.  Pooja is part of TEDxMB’s tradition of including student speakers each year. Once again, TEDxMB has proven to us that with youth such as Pooja, our future rests in good hands. 

So what IS next?  

From climate change to microscopic nanostructures, from personal journeys to the power of global connectivity, TEDxMB  has once again unshackled us from the confines of perspectives that limit how we leap towards tomorrow. We may not know what’s next, but we do know that with an open mind, a bold receptiveness to diverse ideas and advancements, and robust discussion, we’ll be ready to handle it.

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