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TEDx Berlin 2011: High Energy

Posted by Natalie in Events - 21 November 2011

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:

The earth is bleeding - J Henry Fair - Industrial Scars

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.

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