Don't worry too much about the future. So says Andy Miah, Director of the Creative Futures Institute at the University of the West of Scotland. Throughout history, innovation has been accompanied by political and social anxiety but, he says, prospects for the world's future are no more alarming now than they've been at any other point in time. He does suggest, however, the intriguing idea that the scientists propelling us forward should consider themselves bound by Isaac Asimov's famous three laws of robotics: don't harm (other) humans, obey (other) humans, and protect your own existence, provided that doing so doesn't conflict with the first two laws.
The collective "woah"
Miah's thoughts come as part of a talk at TEDx Warwick 2013, which took place in early March. TEDx events are independently organised spin-offs from the California-grown and now world-famous TedTalks phenomenon, and this one has been set up by students at the University of Warwick. Miah is the first speaker in the day's series of 15-minutes talks entitled "Reimagining Science". Following his talk, material scientist Luke Bawazar tells us why growing machinery out of biological matter makes economic sense, and chemist Stefan Bon explains how nanotechnology could give the chocolate business a boost by enabling it to make its products healthier by infusing them with tiny bubbles of fruit juice.
After a break, the day continues with three more sessions. The next set - entitled "Visualising the Intangible" - is all about different ways of seeing things. NASA engineer Bob Bishop explains why economists need look at Earth and its problems in a holistic way, something that, he argues, only really became possible after the Apollo space missions beamed back the first pictures of the whole of our planet from space. We're also treated to some visualisation in a literal sense as experimental photographer Fabian Oefner puts sound waves, iron filings and poster paint under his lens to create some amazing images live on screen. As one attendee tweeted: "The collective 'woah' at #TEDx Warwick never gets old. Happens every year."
In the afternoon, the focus is on the politics, economics and science of cities in the "Evolving Spaces" session. Bob Nameng speaks about his work empowering Soweto street children to benefit from South Africa's increasing prosperity, while Kate Cooper discusses urban challenges in Birmingham, just a short hop away from the University of Warwick's campus. And in the final session, the day ends with some big hitters: President of the International Paralympic Committee Philip Craven speaks about the ability of sport to effect social change, and we're treated to a performance from percussionist and Young Musician of the Year finalist Molly Lopresti.
Some food for thought for anyone planning a presentation of their own: it was personal stories and human details that got the speakers' social, political and economic ideas across to the audience best, from Ben Yeger's tales of his time in the Israeli army, to the piano-playing of "human iPod" Derek Paravicini , to the video of one speaker's small son breakdancing. And despite TED's ostensible focus on speaking, non-verbal elements made a big impact - particularly a slightly scary mass hand-holding exercise initiated by actress Nikki Smedley, best known for her former role as Teletubby Laa-Laa.
The Warwick undergraduates who created TEDxWarwick 2013 worked hard all through the year on preparations for the day, sorting out speakers and the venue, working to get media coverage and sponsors (investment bank Credit Suisse and engineering group Tata Technologies) and, of course, arranging lunch. As with most events, a couple of issues arose in the days and hours leading up to the start of the event - a last-minute speaker cancellation, some Wi-Fi problems - but the team resolved these with aplomb. The team's efforts should give them plenty to put on their CVs and were certainly appreciated by their audience. Student attendees tweeted enthusiastic comments throughout the day, and one third-year student said the event had far exceeded her expectations and that she only wished she'd found out about the event, now in its fifth year, earlier in her university career.
You can experience TEDx Warwick too, as all the talks from the event will be available online soon at tedxwarwick.com/2013. And if you like the idea of attending an event like this one in person, look out for TEDx Warwick 2014 - or what about organising a TEDx event at your own university?
What The Gateway learnt at TEDx Warwick
Cities need to learn to feed themselves
The world's population is becoming ever more urban, said microbiologist, ecologist and public health expert Dickson Despommier - 70 per cent of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. So feeding urban populations is an increasingly severe political and economic challenge. Despommier suggests we build "vertical farms" in giant skyscraper greenhouses to turn cities from "parasites" into self-sustaining and stable ecosystems.
Computers can be better at making economic predictions than humans
Jasper McMann works at Now Casting, an independent economics forecaster, and in his talk explained how he and his colleagues believe that their computer systems can perform macroeconomic analysis that's not only just as accurate as that of the best human forecasters, but which, crucially, produces verdicts much more quickly.
Organisations need both structure and chaos
Is it better, asked War Child chief executive Rob Williams, to organise aid operations centrally through a body such as the United Nations, or to allow them all to act independently? That is, does making sure resources are deployed in a structured way override the need for swift responses to a crisis? His verdict? NGOs - and other organisations - need co-ordination, but to be truly effective also need to permit some chaos in their operations.