Water and flow: The focus of TEDx Cape Town

South Africa may have a digital divide, but more importantly, it has a cognitive divide. Too many of us grow up in households where great ideas are not discussed and we never really learn to think deeply about the world. These were the sobering words of Patrick Kayton, co-founder of Cognician, at TEDxCape Town on Saturday 16 April.

Thinking is hard work, and it requires time, context and concepts. The more quality concepts we are exposed to and engage with, the more ammo we have in our minds to mash up new ideas. And that, essentially, is the purpose of TED; to stimulate and inspire people to become change-makers in the world by exposing them to “ideas worth spreading”.

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a platform for sharing innovative ideas, that started in the USA in 1984. TEDxCape Town was the first TED event to be held in the mother city. The theme of “Be water my friend” flowed through the day in a combination of metaphorical (going with the flow as a way to think and exist at peace in the world) and literal (water treatment and crises) interpretations. It comes from a Bruce Lee quote that speaks of the formlessness, adaptability and power of water.

There mood was buzzing with the bright-eyed energy of people excited by new ideas and looking to change the world. There were a few technical glitches throughout the day, with some slideshows running out of control as their speakers tried to remain calm and keep time, but generally the event was smoothly, professional and expertly run. There was a sense of acceleration throughout the day, as the morning sessions were taken up by a rapid fire of short talks from inspiring youngsters that gave way to longer sessions with the seasoned and experienced.

Particularly interesting from a tech point of view, Eran Eyal, co-founder of Springleap.com and Evly.com, video-cast in from San Francisco about Technological Social Anthropology. He spoke about the evolution of humanity being driven by the fear that we felt for the incomprehensible and powerful natural world, and how we survived by forming tribes and collaborating. This social instinct is still with us and now powers many industries.

As we furiously endeavour to bring advancements in our fields, our collaborations are taking on a life of their own and creating something greater than we could have ever imagined, perhaps something as magical as the thunderstorms that terrified our ancestors. We are creating artificial intelligence, but we should not think of it as artificial; it is spawned from us. What will it learn from us as it takes on a life of its own and supersedes us? We need to take responsibility and recognise that we are driving this through our actions.

Biomimicry is definitely my favourite idea to take away from the day.

Claire Janisch spoke of the incredible genius within nature that we are only now starting to respect and incorporate into our urban, industrial and chemical design. By studying how natural systems and creatures respond to problems, we are able to replicate these solutions. This thinking is guiding the creation of an entirely sustainable new city in India, water-harvesting devices that take their cues from the shells of desert beetles that drink fog, and tiny, energy-efficient impellers that can circulate and aerate massive tanks of water because they incorporate the golden ratio into their form. The golden ratio is a ratio found all over the natural world, from the spiralling shape of shells and galaxies to the relationship of big to little heartbeats.

10 Nifty Things You Can Do with Nanotechnology” gave us an entertaining introduction to how nanotechnology can be used to waterproof everything from your neighbour’s wall, to your dog, to sand. These range in usefulness from ghost-graffiti that only appears when it rains, to waterproof layers of sand that enable people in desert regions to grow rice.

Theresa Mallinson spoke about the Daily Maverick’s creation of Free African Media as a platform to defend and support media freedom across the continent. Only 5 African countries have complete media freedom, and South Africa is not one of those five, as should be obvious from threats like the Protection of Information (from Critical Journalism) Bill. Free African Media will connect and give voice to the stories on the continent that need to be heard, provide journalists the support they require, provide citizens with free content and license their material under creative commons to make it easy to gain access to content and share it.

Anthony Turton gave a stirring speech about the environmental catastrophe in Johannesburg. He gave stats and figures to show that the water filling the mine chambers and overflowing into the water systems of the Witwatersrand is highly toxic and radioactive. The Witwatersrand is the continental watershed and, if poisoned, would poison both the Limpopo basin and the Orange River basin. Certain informal settlements around Johannesburg have tested as high for radiation as the affected areas after Chernobyl, and that our crisis will be just as horrific, only slower. He ended with a plea to not let this happen again in the Karoo, and received a standing ovation.

TEDxCape Town was an amazing way to find out about the inspiring things people are doing in this country to drive socially oriented conservation, design, social entrepreneurship, technology, urban planning and, of course, water. The #TEDxCapeTown hashtag trended globally on the day, proving the passion the audience felt for the subject.

I recommend reading up about Tsiba, I art Woodstock, the non-narcotic uses of hemp and anything else from the day that you can get your hands on once the videos and podcasts go live. And broadcast and share these as widely as possible. Let’s use our technology to start bridging that cognitive divide.



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