Inspiration for a go-get-’em generation

Charged with all the enthusiasm of a religious revival meeting, this year’s TEDxCopenhagen was sickeningly positive – even if it often failed to answer the question of ‘how?’

There’s an oven on stage with Claus Meyer. During his talk the bread inside it is rising, the smell filling the theatre. He talks about how he learned to love good food, develop the New Nordic Kitchen and open the Michelin-starred restaurant Noma before starting his food revolution in Bolivia. His talk ends, he pauses, and behind him the oven chimes. The bread is ready to be served and the crowd goes wild.

Bremen Theatre is full to capacity for this year’s TEDxCopenhagen conference. TED stands for technology, education and design and is the name of an annual conference held in Long Beach, California. TEDx events are  independent offshoots held across the world that retain TED’s format – in talks of about 15 minutes or less, speakers present “ideas worth spreading”.

And spread they do, far beyond the thousands that attend TED and the hundreds of TEDx conferences every year. The website has video of over 1,300 talks available along with subtitles in almost 40 languages. In this online learning trove there are talks by Al Gore, Steve Jobs and Jamie Oliver. With over 12 million views, the most popular talk is by Sir Ken Robinson explaining why he believes schools kill creativity, and why we should care.

In Bremen this Tuesday, some 600 attendees sat in rapt concentration through the 20 live talks and four performances over eight hours. For some, this sheer volume of information was too much to handle.

“I’m totally overwhelmed,” Magnus Kirchheiner, co-owner of Copenhagen art gallery Vess, said. “I didn’t think it was possible to experience information overload.”

Kircheiner was especially taken with architect Kasper Guldager’s talk about how nature was inspiring new types of building materials.

“I thought his idea of thinking a building through cradle-to-cradle was really inspiring.”

‘Inspiring’ turned out to be the word of the day. Whether it was Kirsten Elskov Jensen calmly recounting how she defeated cancer by running, or Jakob Silas Lund explaining how he used football in Sierra Leone to heal relationships that were torn apart during the bloody civil war, almost every person the Copenhagen Post spoke to that day said the conference had left them ‘inspired’.

Some of the speakers described ways in which they had tried to improve people’s lives. Lars AP started the F**king Flink (F**king Friendly) movement to get Danes to open up and just be a little nicer to each other.

Eman Osman tries to build bridges between Somali and Danish societies (Photo: TEDxCopenhagen / Claus Randrup)And Eman Osman established Somali Mothers to build bridges between the Danish and Somali societies. In the process, she questioned the traditional understanding of integration. “Some people look at me and the way I dress [with a headscarf] and think I am not a modern woman,” she said. “But what’s important to me is to take where I am, and where I am from, and blend them.”

Others wanted to share scientific discoveries. Birger Lindberg Møller explained how “biohacking” plants could enable us to solve many problems facing us today. And Troels Petersen helped us understand how discoveries at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN had confirmed the existence of an all-permeating quantum field and the elusive Higgs boson that give particles their mass, 40 years after it was first floated as a solution.

Host Michael Colville, a former TEDx speaker and co-founder of urban consultancy Copenhagenize Consulting, explained how the selection of speakers was designed to be as varied as possible.

“It was such a rollercoaster,” he told The Copenhagen Post after the show. “Every emotion was elevated. And that was the point, we wanted to push all your buttons.”

Colville was not the only person to say they were moved during the conference, particularly by Joseph Hamoud. A Syrian refugee, he had travelled to Denmark under a false name to speak of the unspeakable horrors committed over the years by the Syrian regime against its own people.

“Help the Syrian refugees,” he pleaded, his hands clenched into tight fists, his anger palpable. “For they are too proud to ask for help.”

Hamoud recounted stories of young men forced to wear military uniforms, of regular torture for dissidents and the consequences families feared in case they accidentally crossed the regime. Hamoud’s message was powerful, and it wasn’t challenged, only applauded.

As were the rest of the speakers. Not that all their messages were convincing. How exactly does reducing food waste in Denmark improve the availability of food where it’s most needed in the world? Selina Juul didn’t elaborate. And how precisely are we to take the money that is currently 'wasted' on political lobbying and spend it on creating new floating countries where new forms of governance can be tested, as Lasse Birk Olesen suggested?

Kimmy Bolke travelled from Sweden for TEDx. Here he makes the most of the freebies and tucks into lunch (Photo: Peter Stanners)Attendees hadn’t forked out 500 kroner just to sit and nod in agreement, however, and the occasional wacky talk was refreshing. As Kimmy Bolke, a digital media student at Hyper Island who had travelled from Sweden for the conference, put it, you can learn as much from people's attitudes as you can from their ideas.

“It was incredible watching Claus Meyer be so passionate about something that I’m not,” he said. “It makes me realise how passionate you can be. For a moment there I felt what he felt.”

And sometimes the talks help you realise something you've known all along. Casper Laurent, co-founder of the recruitment platform Mploi, said watching Sir Ken Robinson’s online TED talk about education validated similar feelings he had while in school.

“Being here inspires you to act. People will leave here with some extra passion. It pushes you over the edge to follow your aspirations.”

TEDxCopenhagen was sickeningly positive, naively ambitious and religiously optimistic. But that's the genius of TED – it has given millions of people the opportunity to spend their time geeking-out on fantastic ideas instead wallowing in the depths of human misery that is reality TV. And after watching a few talks, it is difficult not to feel buoyed by human ingenuity and our ability to improve each others lives. How many people went on to make a change because of something they saw on TED? I don't have a number, but it must have happened.

It's not always about action, however. Sometimes it's important just to sit back and learn about a discovery or idea for its own sake. Troels Petersen admitted that the discovery of the Higgs boson – that Forbes estimate cost about 75 billon kroner – won’t be used for much. “So what,” he said on stage, “it’s just pretty cool.”

But was the discovery of a theoretical particle really worth all that time and money? My guess is that if you spend your spare time watching TED talks, you probably think it was. You might even say it was inspired.

This article was corrected on 21/09/12. Jakob Silas Lund's football charity works in Sierra Leone, not Rwanda.