For ‘the world’s biggest tech festival’, Campus Party Europe has already had a surprising number of ‘technical issues’ to contend with. A confusing website twinned with an equally baffling registration system meant we were kept queueing for an hour last night just trying to get in to see Hard Hob play the opening ceremony (which I unfortunately ended up missing).
Things seemed to be running smoother this morning, however, as I settled down to my first talk of the festival by Kate Andrews from LoCo2. I blogged about LoCo2’s beta site back in March 2011 and have been watching the development of the business with interest ever since, so was excited to find out how things were going and finally put a face to a name.
LoCo2’s ultimate goal is simple – to make trains as easy to book as flights. According to Kate, there are three factors that people take into consideration when booking travel: price, length of journey, and ease of booking. The business – owned by Kate and her brother Jamie – focuses on the latter and works backwards from there: a smooth and comprehensive booking website allows users to find their most suitable route and the best price.
It all sounds pretty simple so far. If Skyscanner can do it for flights and Direct Ferries for boat journeys, why isn’t there already the equivalent for trains? Apparently, it’s all a matter of data. More to the point, it’s about getting train companies to share this data so that LoCo2 can provide a consolidated, user-friendly pan-European train booking service.
Unfortunately, each national train provider has built and run their timetable and booking system independently, and moreover, they are tentative about sharing it. LoCo2’s challenge is to convince these companies – and rightly so – that working together will bring more ticket sales to all parties, rather than divert or divide profits. Eurostar, for example, has not only taken 80% of the market share in travel between London, Brussels and Paris, but also actually increased the market.
Then there’s the environmental benefits of travelling by train, of which 80% in Europe are now electric. As more countries follow the lead of Scandinavia and switch to renewable energy sources, train travel will only become more environmentally friendly. Plus, as I’ve long maintained, it’s a lot more fun!
It was a breath of fresh air to hear Kate speak about these issues, as I find myself having the same conversation with people who are already sold on the idea of slow travel, but stumble once they start looking to book. (Apparently only 2% of people fail to make a flight booking, compared with 67% for trains). I often end up offering to do the painstaking research on behalf of others, but this of course is no solution. The answer, in 2012, is surely technological and, ideally, instantaneous. That’s why I’m glad LoCo2 are taking on the challenge and, it seems, – slowly but surely – conquering it.
A looming, Berghainianformer power station set the perfect scene for one of TEDx’s biggest events to date, as local and international guests and speakers entered awestruck to mutters of that familiar phrase: ‘only in Berlin’.
Out back in the blogger lounge, the retro post-industrial vibe continued in a room that could have been a sixties sci-fi film set.
On to business. We were treated to an introduction and Q&A with some of the speakers before they rushed off to centre stage and the main event began.
First up was Jeff Chapin of global design consultancy, Ideo, who deglamorised design with his story of bringing a latrine to market in rural Cambodia, increasing toilet hygiene and saving hundreds of lives. Jeff stressed the importance of locally tailored solutions to suit specific cultural and physical environments. Through astute anecdote, we learnt how design, though unglamorous, has the power to enable longer and deeper conversations about the things that really matter, such as health, family and security.
Next, a call to action from MEP and German Green Party member, Sven Giegold. Sven explained the link between the global financial crisis and our ongoing addiction to oil. The financial crisis is, however, not one of scarcity but of abundance – four times the global GDP is now circulating the economy, searching for short term investments and profits and over-complex financial products. We need a new deal to solve the problem, rather than rebuilding the old system, and this involves regulation of the financial markets in combination with a genuine commitment to renewable energy.
Despite disagreeing with Sven on the nuclear question, his talk was compelling and I was encouraged to hear informed and insightful reference to the interconnectedness of the environment and global economy – a key perspective on the Big Picture.
Theo Sowa is CEO of the African Women’s Development Fund, and delivered an impassioned speech about the consultation of women (or the shameful lack thereof) in discussions about development issues. Her point was poignant in its patency and moving in its manifestation: a profile of some of the thousands of women who could provide invaluable solutions to some of the continent’s most pressing problems, if only they were asked. Theo’s standing ovation was certainly well deserved, however, from the Twitter feed it appeared that many in the audience inadvertently proved one of her main points: Theo pointed out that we don’t ask victims for solutions, and that we need to stop treating all African women as victims; but the phrase that got repeatedly retweeted was that ‘we need to start asking the victims for solutions’.
After a moving performance from Senegalese singer/songwriter, Baaba Maal (which he dedicated to all the world’s women), Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, who organised this event, delivered the final presentation of the evening.
Having already heard a taster of Melinda’s topic in our earlier Q&A, it was clear that she is wholly devoted to the Foundation and their causes; the top four being polio elimination, vaccination, family planning and agriculture.
Melinda’s talk was on family planning – a topic that is currently hugely controversial, but why? Debates about abortion and population control are both hugely emotive issues and ones that are frequently associated with family planning – making a practical issue suddenly loaded by association.
Family planning is about the freedom to decide whether to have a child. There is, in many societies and cultures, a reluctance to address or accept birth control because it removes the act of sex from the goal of reproduction, thereby condoning promiscuity. This is not about promiscuity, however, but about the freedom of choice, and women having more control over their bodies and their lives; the ability to “bring every good thing to this child before I have another”.
Despite some unanswered questions about cultural relativity, and ambiguities about where the Gates Foundation sits amid top-down and bottom-up approaches, I am impressed by Melinda’s dedication to this issue. ”I’ll keep doing this for the next thirty years”, was her zealous response to a question in the blogger lounge about how long the work would need to go on.
Answering another question, Melinda explained to us the role of a foundation, describing it as a ‘catalytic wedge’, to help drive down prices and develop new technology etc. The Gates Foundation’s funds are just a drop in the ocean, and to roll out solutions on a large scale and implement lasting, positive change, takes leadership, and is ultimately down to governments. Organising and hosting an event such as this, encouraging and enabling so many people (not just us in Berlin but the hundreds of thousands of people who tuned in live across the world) to refocus our local lens and look at the Bigger Picture, is itself an innovative display of leadership – one that can only increase the Foundation’s global influence and impact in its impressive ongoing philanthropic endeavours.
An open-source project aiming for sustainable cities by 2050, this loose but dedicated network of professionals and experts focuses on the move towards locally sourced food production, new forms of energy harnessing, and building upon what is already there rather than knocking down and starting over. Inspirational stuff. I just joined them at http://ftrctlb.com/
Or how I learned to stop worrying about social media and up my game.
Yesterday I had a headache that felt like Twitter. It was, in fact, merely a symptom of caffeine withdrawal: dilated blood vessels in the brain and over-sensitive receptors flailing furiously for their next fix. Thankfully, I’m fine now, but Twitter is still here, and it seems it’ll take more than a cup of coffee to silence this particular neurological cacophony.
2011 was the year that Twitter stole my brain. Since signing up it’s slowly dawned on me that I’ve entered into some Faustian pact, wherein I’ve exchanged access to endless information for my ability to digest it. I can’t say for sure that social media is responsible for the gradual erosion of my soul – that might be a bit extreme – and I don’t even know what I believe about how or whether it is changing our brains. Maybe I haven’t been able to concentrate for long enough to come to a conclusion, but I’ve definitely noticed some changes in my behaviour, many of which are outlined in Assisted Living Today’s excellent infographic, which you can check out below (if you’re still focused enough to bother).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to kill off my online identities and join the Luddites. We should be celebrating that we’re clever enough to invent and use these new technologies so intuitively. It’s no coincidence that 2011 was also the year that people used social media to shake up the established world order. What’s more, we adapt so well to this new online environment. Surely, if readers’ concentration wanes, writers have to up their game (really hope you’re still with me). I’m sure I’ve read more than three articles from start to finish over the past 12 months, but these are the most memorable, and for very different reasons.
Slow Travel Berlin’s interview with Ewan Pearson was captivating because of the thoughtful questions and intelligent responses, covering complex topics with rare insight and sensitivity. Pearson’s comments on gentrification and the new xenophobia have stayed with me and clarified somewhat my confusion about the topic: “…A lot of the rhetoric coming from the more anarcho-left seems uncomfortably close to that of the nastier bits of the old-school right: anger at tourists, foreigners and people who are not from Berlin. It’s pretty unpleasant.”
Okay, this is a pretty predictable and voyeuristic choice, but it kept me glued to my screen like little else. Eyes wide, heart in mouth, I read Popular Mechanics’ What really happened aboard Air France 447. I’ll say no more, except that – for all the wrong reasons – it did help solidify my ongoing boycott of the airline industry.
Talking of which, Grist’s ‘Brutal logic’ and climate communicationshoned a hugely complicated subject into the most comprehensive and logical argument I’ve yet read on climate change discourse. I won’t paraphrase because the article is worth a full read to see how author David Roberts reaches the conclusion that “everyone… no matter what role they play, could stand to push the edge a little bit occasionally, reminding their audience, whatever audience, that climate change is some genuinely dire sh*t and that now is the time for ambition and courage.”
An eclectic line-up of apparently unrelated topics came together beautifully today at TEDx Berlin, with themes curving in a topical arc through this thoughtfully curated event.
Katherine Lucey, CEO of Solar Sister, ignited our imaginative kindling with a moving account of the power of electricity to change lives in rural Africa. Her company provides people with solar lights that cost a one-off price of $20, making it a more financially viable option than the toxic kerosene lamps that cost $2 a week to run. Working with local women in hardest-to-reach communities, the solar lamps improve quality of life and can kick start cycles of increased prosperity and self-sufficiency. Katherine argued that energy poverty and energy prosperity are gender issues – an angle that seemed to cause controversy amongst the audience, judging from post-presentation conversations.
Next, Alexander Voigt, CEO of Younicos, talked us through the potential of renewables, in particular photovoltaics (PVs). He showed that the challenge lies not with technology but our relationship to it. Solar panels are increasingly efficient and affordable, so why aren’t we all installing them?
It may have been due to the moving start that the first TED video talk seemed particularly overwhelming. Using biomimicry, Markus Fischer and his team created their SmartBird, an achievement that has to be seen to be believed:
Design duo Mischer’Traxler create products based on the history visible in the rings of a tree. A solar powered machine threads and dyes cotton around a mold, so that rings are produced and different colour intensities depending on how sunny it is (thus how fast the solar powered machine feeds the thread). A time lapse video and examples of their work demonstrates the ingenuity perfectly.
To end the first session, climate engineer and director of Trans Solar, Wolfgang Kessling, complemented Voigt’s earlier points well by showing that only 20m2 of PV panels is required to supply a family’s energy for a year. This would cost just €5000 and, of course, reduce energy costs significantly. Another 20m2 would be enough for 15,000km in an electric car.
As we shivered uncomfortably through the session, Kessling talked about ‘high comfort’ and making a building comfortable by controlling the air temperature and the radiant environment. We often underestimate the importance of ensuring the passive efficiency of a building before investing in energy to heat it. What’s more, he said, “We overestimate what we can do in the future and underestimate what we can do today.”
Things warmed up in session two as we were told we would be part of a real time experiment in ‘high comfort.’ Fittingly, Nils Lindell was next up to divulge his experiences of attempting to live a One Tonne Life with his family in Sweden.
Martin Cordsmeier of Million Ways, then called for creative tenders to help society move towards a more person-focused system. There are surely few more focused people than Lewis Pugh, who is widely regarded as the world’s greatest cold water swimmer. His efforts at swimming in a lake left by a melted glacier at 5,300 metres aim to raise awareness of climate change, “The Mount Everest of all problems.”
Verena Delius, CEO of Young Internet, delivered a thought-provoking analysis of dynamism within companies and that dangers facing those that do not adapt to evolving markets. Despite its focus on industry, we agreed in chats afterwards that such approaches can be equally applied to interpersonal relationships. Strike while the iron’s hot!
After a musical interlude from Studnitzky, Rune Nielsen, co-founder of Kollision, clarified what is meant by ‘media arcitechture,’ and how it can be used to make the invisible, visible; the abstract tangible and the boring playful. Projecting interactive light shows onto the sides of buildings provided opportunities to engage the public in a conversation about the facts of climate change, and their interactive nature encourages communication between strangers.
Closing the loop on session two, Lehna Malmkvist of Swell Environmental Consulting, brought us back to the biomimicry theme by arguing that we need to reject one-way systems of resource management. Ecosystems are the most complex and efficient systems on earth and we should take a leaf from nature’s book and move towards integrated systems where one stage’s waste is another’s resource. Swell’s project at Dockside Green near Victoria, BC is a work in progress that practices what they preach, and they are learning by doing whilst implementing an economically and socially viable urban design project.
A glance at the programme for the third session indicated a sinister aside that seemed somewhat off-topic. Axel Peterman, criminologist and consultant to cult TV series Tatort, began with an advocation of interdisciplinary criminology that includes profiling suspects’ personalities. Interspersed with gruesome photos and more captivating than an episode of CSI, the talk was a rare, if somewhat tenuously fitting insight into a world we all find so morbidly fascinating.
Of all the amazingly inspirational and industrious people that spoke at TEDx today, magician Thimon V. Berlepsch, taught me the most valuable lesson; something new about myself. He showed us that our human need for routine also has a detrimental side, in that it can blind us to childlike wonderment. Breaking the patterns of mundanity brings the magic back to life. For Berlepsch, this break comes in the form of travel, adventures into the unknown. I’ve always wondered what that feeling is when travelling; that unique euphoria which melts into an elusive sense of homecoming perspective. Some people tell me the urge to travel is a sign of instability, unwillingness to settle or a means of escape. They are right, but that’s not a bad thing.
The transition to Pamela Meyer’s How to Spot a Liar video talk was surprisingly smooth. An interesting speech, whose most poignant argument in today’s context was that in order to avoid deception we must be self-aware enough to know what it is we are hungry for:
J Henry Fair’s aerial photographs make beautiful images out of horrible situations, and it is this dissonance, he claimed, that makes them affective and therefore effective:
Nik Nowak’s presentation, entitled ‘Sound as Weapon’ was not as menacing as it sounds. The title related more to the recent Occupy events where microphone bans were subverted with creative and peaceful innovation in the form of human mics. Nowak then demonstrated his Soundtank during the break before the final session.
If we were becoming fatigued by this deluge of inspiration, Benedikt Foit and Habib Lesevic woke us up with a start. Their game, Energy Streetfight, uses play as a way of engaging people to make real reductions in their CO2 footprint. Passionate critics of the ‘consumerism virus’, the pair advocate the importance of individual action in combatting simplified but currently dominant notions of progress as economic growth. Consumerism affects our perspective and leads to psychological passivity and the logic of taking. While culture spreads the virus, it is also culture that can cure us, one revolutionary mind at a time.
Johnny West is a journalist, transparency activist and proponent of a direct citizen dividend for oil-producing countries to combat the resource curse.
Finally, Daniela Schiffer’s highlighted the need for energy-saving efforts to be visible and tangible. Her company, Changers, is an ingenious scheme that makes combating climate change an individual, measurable, comparable process with results that mean something in the real world. An antidote to the sense of helplessness in the face of this mammoth issue, in a playful format with visibility and economic viability, where the individual feels a sense of worth and community, Changers is, I realised with pleasant surprise, the culmination of today’s discussions.
These ideas have been whirling around for a number of years now, and to see them form into real solutions delivered by remarkable and passionate people gave me hope when I’d almost given up. As John Perry Barlow pointed out in his closing address, via video from California, today was consistently inspiring and in some places depressing. The climate crisis is lacking in hope, and events like TEDx are essential for momentum to gather and positive change to occur. As we teeter on the edge of the tipping point, these aren’t just ideas worth spreading, they are ideas that must spread if we are to overcome man’s greatest challenge yet.
TEDxChange, an initiative of the Gates Foundation, will be in Berlin on 5th April 2012.
My train bends serpentine into St. Pancras and I am intoxicated by the familiar homecoming cocktail of awe, comfort and ennui. Stepping into the newly refurbished international terminal, that sense of awe is temporarily heightened to the detriment of those other, more mundane emotions. As the gateway to London from the continent, St. Pancras railway station puts the dreary peripheral airports to shame, so arriving here is well worth the extra travelling time.
These days, the notion of a transport portal being anything more than a necessary but insignificant part of our travels seems widespread, yet we’re often told it’s all about the journey. My impending stay at the St. Pancras Renaissance hotel seems all the more magical because I’ll finally get to live the reality of that vague but overused cliché.
Railway stations have historically been “our gates to the glorious and unknown”, as E.M. Forster once wrote. The hotel, first opened in 1873, was surely built in this spirit of adventure. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the project symbolised with gothic grandeur the sanguinity of the age.
Surrounded by this movingly restored splendour, we ascend one floor from the Eurostar platform in a glass lift and walk straight through the old Booking Office, now a stylish bar and restaurant buzzing with locals and visitors alike. At reception I am distracted by the stunning attention to detail of both the restored, original features and the unique modern touches. The staff are welcoming and friendly, with endless patience for their entranced new arrivals.
Although not in the original Chambers section of the hotel, ours was a club room in the converted Barlow train-sheds. I was not disappointed for long – the room was magnificent. Dominating the space was an original ecclesiastical window overlooking the concourse and providing an odd frame for the futuristically streamlined noses of the Eurostar trains that arrive keenly and protracted, like greyhounds in the traps. No expense has been spared in this restoration, even down to the decor and furnishings, which manage to stay true to their era whilst exuding an unmistakably contemporary extravagance.
The St. Pancras Renaissance is a dream come true for trainspotters and architecture fans alike, but its charm reaches many more than the already converted. Indeed, this hotel will make an impression on anyone looking for luxury and inimitability at the heart of London’s international hub.
As my sense of awe began to subside I was left with another of those feelings with which this adventure started: comfort. This magnificent building is a reassuring homage to a time past, an epoch of optimism about human triumph over environment. Spending time inside brings that optimism to life and I was allowed to temporarily forget the familiar pangs of modern guilt. Here in the centre of London, amid the chaos of King’s Cross, is an unlikely sanctuary that delivers an elusive brand of escapism other hotels can only dream of.
The Transition Network is a web of organised, interconnected communities from across the world, all working on varied, localised projects with one underlying objective: to work towards a life free of oil dependency. There are so many of these Transition Towns now, that if you are interested in finding out more, there is probably one in your area. Check out their website or watch this TED talk by the founder, Rob Hopkins.