Warwick TEDx – everything is real, there is no audience

This week on Translational Global Health, regular guest writer Alexandra Abel returns to share her experiences at the recent TEDxWarwick event. Alex embodies multi-sectoral, Global Health – with academic degrees and a deep interest in both the arts, and population health. 


Last weekend, I was fortunate enough to visit Warwick Arts Centre to attend TEDxWarwick.

Empty seats before the doors open. Image via @Zena_Agha.

Empty seats before the doors open. Image via @Zena_Agha

Having hosted its first event in February 2009, TEDxWarwick is easily one of the most respected and long-standing TEDx events in the UK. Since inception, the event has grown in scale and scope year-on-year into the 8-hour programme, 1,200-strong audience, and 17-speaker line-up of 2014.

Hiba from our team tells people about Imagining the Future of Medicine

Hiba from our team tells people about Imagining the Future of Medicine


Aside from its reputation as a must-see show, I was keen to attend TEDxWarwick because I am part of the team organising a somewhat similar event called Imagining the Future of Medicine to be held at the Royal Albert Hall on the 21st of April 2014. The Warwick team kindly invited us to tell attendees about our own event during the breaks at theirs.

As we queued to enter the magnificent Butterworth Hall, where the 2012 and 2013 events were also held, we encountered an impressive piece of art, a large oak and metal sculpture, which read, EVERYTHING IS REAL. THERE IS NO AUDIENCE. In 2009, artist Mark Titchner was approached to make this work for the newly refurbished Butterworth Hall, and he developed the text as an allusion to three things…

Oak and metal sculpture outside Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre

Oak and metal sculpture outside Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre

Firstly, the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which states, “All the world’s a stage”, spoken by the melancholy Jaques in Act II Scene VII. The speech compares the world to a stage, and life to a play. Secondly, journalist Steve Lamacq’s questioning of the authenticity of the Manic Street Preachers. In an interview with NME, Steve confronted the band, questioning their authenticity and their true dedication to punk-rock ethics. Welsh lyricist and rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards tried to convince Steve the band were ‘for real’, and eventually used a razorblade to carve the phrase “4 REAL” into his arm, requiring 17 stitches. And thirdly, the broader cultural question of the digital age regarding the relationship between audiences and live performance.

Recordings of the talks from TEDxWarwick should be available to view online in a few weeks time. Until then, here’s what happened throughout the day…

The TEDxWarwick audience await the start of the show. Photo credit: Dana Muntean

The TEDxWarwick audience await the start of the show. Photo credit: Dana Muntean

The first of four sessions was called Crafting a Vision, and opening the show was statistician Nic Marks with his talk ‘Happiness Works’. Nic previously gave talk at TEDGlobal 2010 on The Happy Planet Index, which tracks national wellbeing against resource use – an alternative to GDP as a measure of progress. Nic estimates that unhappiness at work in a 100-person business costs $1 million per year, and convincingly made the case for happiness promotion as a cost-effective investment.

Second speaker of the day Maria Saridaki made us all feel more playful with her talk on games. Maria organised the international street games festival Athens Plaython, and reminded us that the freedom of public space is a beautiful thing – every city can be a playground.

The Sensory Homunculus

The Sensory Homunculus

I managed to resist the urge to initiate a giant game of tag; but only because it was time for third speaker and doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab Gershon Dublon. Gershon showed us caricatured depictions of the ways we interact with the world around us: Smartphone Homunculus had one giant eye, and one giant finger (for texting etc.), whereas Sensory Homunculus had large hands and mouth, showing what the human body would look like if built in proportion to its sensory significance.

The last speaker of Session one was filmmaker and artist Kristina Cranfeld who challenged the concept of the ‘perfect’ citizen, and played her warmly received short film ‘Manufactured Britishness’, based on the ‘Life in the UK’ test, which examines skills for integrating into a British Society. You can watch the trailer for this film below; it doesn’t give much away, but you can get a feel of Kristina’s fictional future world, where hopeful citizens-to-be are tested on their ability to queue (of course!), remain calm and polite, build a brick wall, and hold the Union Jack steady. Largely concerned with immigration and human identity, Kristina’s art helped us remember that we are all global citizens, and that creative disciplines do have a place in political discussion.

Session two was called Roots of Inspiration and featured five speakers, all of whom have been inspired to create something new. First up was designer Jim Reeves who developed GravityLight, a $6 device that harnesses the power of weight and gravity, requiring 3 seconds charge for 25 minutes or power, instantly available with no running costs. There are currently 1.5 billion people in the world who have no access to reliable mains electricity, and rely instead on biomass fuels. This simple, but effective lighting innovation is a viable alternative to hazardous, but ubiquitous, kerosene lamps.

Alison Benjamin, Society Editor for The Guardian, and co-founder of the social enterprise Urban Bees, left the room buzzing with her talk on how urban Bee Keeping can positively affect people and communities, and change the way you see the world. Alison showed us how bees are great ambassadors for nature, with 1 in 3 mouthfuls we eat pollinated by bees”.

Green Graffiti: Starbucks logo washed onto pavement

Green Graffiti: Starbucks logo washed onto pavement. Image via @Pittachu

Next, Jim Bowes spoke about sustainable advertising, and surprised the audience with the exciting idea of monetising dirt through reverse graffiti. Reverse graffiti is the process of ‘cleaning’ text or a logo onto a surface such as the pavement or a wall, and people who write, “wash me” on particularly dirty vehicles are inadvertently participating in this art! Jim’s unconventional advertising, Green Graffiti, has a lower impact on the environment and a higher impact on the audience. I think we all looked at dirt a little differently after his talk.

Nahji Chu had the audience in fits of laughter from the start with her ‘fake’ Vietnamese accent, but swiftly brought them to tears with stories of her time spent as a refugee and her move to Australia in 1978. Nahji described her journey as a food entrepreneur and an immigrant. She even uses her refugee visa as the logo of her company, misschu tuck-shop. Nahji appreciates the role and power of humour in society, and “You ling we bling” is the slogan used to promote their home delivery service.

Session two came to a close with the powerful and poignant poetry of Zena Agha. Zena addressed the complex concept of identity, and performed a poem called ‘Writing Identities’. It is hard to believe that Zena started writing poetry only 18 months ago in a library in Warwick. At the TEDxWarwick Salon (women) event, a smaller gathering prior to the main show, Zena spoke about how Islam made her a feminist. You can watch her Salon talk, and experience some of her original performed poetry in the video below.

Session three was called Unchartered Territories, and came to an audibly powerful start with beatboxing sensation THePETEBOX. Pete demonstrated some of his characteristic vocal acrobatics before performing an impressive piece from his album ‘Future Loops’. Next up was Christian Guy, Managing Director at The Centre of Social Justice, a think tank that seeks effective solutions to poverty in Britain. Christian told us stories of a parallel Britain, and why we must put poverty centre stage. He argued that we all have a duty to engage in British politics, and not to abandon it, something with which host Siobhan Benita heartily agreed.

Kenneth Cukier, Data Editor at The Economist, spoke about Big Data dystopia. Big Data is a term that seems to be popping up everywhere in a variety of contexts, from healthcare to international security, but Kenneth gave us a better understanding of the concept itself, and the kingdom over which Big Data inevitably rules. If someone is deemed to be 95% likely to commit a crime in the next week, what should be done? Could someone really be arrested for statistical culpability?

Will the legal standard of probable cause become probabilistic cause?” – Kenneth Cukier

Martin shows different stages of human regeneration

Martin shows different stages of human regeneration

Session three ended with Martin Birchall, one of the world’s leading Otolaryngologists, who co-led the pioneering research team that carried out the first transplant of a human windpipe reconstructed using stem cells. Anyone looking to gain further insight into Martin’s fascinating work (highly recommended) can watch his Royal Free London NHS Trust talk Building organs from stem cells.


Nicola plays some Bach on her Stradivarius violin

Nicola plays some Bach on her Stradivarius violin

The final session of the day was called Conquering Mountains, and began with the stunningly talented Nicola Benedetti, most sought after violinist of her generation, and winner of a string of awards (no pun intended), including Best Female Artist at the 2012 Classical BRIT Awards.

Nicola started off by, of course, performing, and then stepped into the red circle for her first ever public speaking appearance. Nicola related her musical journey to a delighted audience, from the moment she truly emotionally connected with classical music at the age of 6, to becoming a proud ‘big sister’ to Sistema Scotland children. Nicola ended by once again picking up her Gariel Stradivarius, made in 1717, and playing unaccompanied Bach, music of almost identical age to her instrument.

Next up was photographer Matej Peljhan who told us of Luka, a little boy with muscular dystrophy who wanted to be photographed doing the things he could not do in reality. Matej made Luka’s wish come true, taking photos from above with Luka strategically positioned on the floor, images of Le Petit Prince, and received a well-deserved standing ovation from several members of the audience.

The imaginary world is not an escape, but a part of our reality, a never ending source for our creativity.” – Matej Palijhan

George's drawing of 11 year old Halid as he told his story. Image: www.georgebutler.org

George’s drawing of 11 year old Halid as he told his story. Image: www.georgebutler.org

Penultimate speaker of the day George Butler shared his passion for drawing and the incredible stories he’d uncovered through this art. George recounted tales of his time in Syria, where he travelled specifically to location draw. He spent some time with the Free Syrian Army, and returned to record stories amongst the refugees and the field hospitals. He heard unimaginably heartbreaking accounts of conflict from civilians, including 11-year-old Halid who had witnessed the brutal killing of his entire family only two weeks earlier. I have to say, I found George’s talk particularly moving, and thought he offered a unique and under-reported look at life in a state of prolonged conflict. It is remarkable how something so simple allowed him to take a step into the lives of others and make such a strong connection.

The final speaker of the fourth session, and of the day, was Kah Walla, the first woman to ever run for presidency of Cameroon. Kah’s talk was titled ‘Daring to invent the future of Africa’. She spoke about development, corruption, and governance – telling us Africa is not poor, but poorly run – and described her personal and political struggles.

No matter what type of violence and brutalities we face, we still have power.” – Kah Walla

Kah’s passionate speech, and show finale, also received standing ovation, and she exited the stage to rapturous applause. This level of appreciation continued in recognition of the organising team, as all 26 of them took to the stage to thank the audience for their participation and thank the speakers for their time and efforts.

I always feel that one of the downsides of TED and TED-style events is the limited opportunity to ask questions, although the Warwick programme did include ‘breakout sessions’ at lunch with a couple of speakers, and superficially, this dialogue now continually takes place in the twittersphere. I’m a big fan of Q&A, but I also appreciate that this kind of event is more of a show than a conference, and the intention is to inform and inspire, rather than debate.

TEDxWarwick 2014 is over for another year. Image via @Em216H.

TEDxWarwick 2014 is over for another year. Image via @Em216H

This unique story-telling style has rapidly captured the attention of a global audience, and continues to excite and engage people of all ages and backgrounds. Only so much can be achieved in a day; and TEDxWarwick managed to achieve a lot. Undoubtedly, many people (including me) are already looking forward to 2015.

Many congratulations to the team!


Alexandra Abel is a graduate from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music. She has a keen interest in both Global Health and Performing Arts, and in her spare time, enjoys performing with her local theatre company. She is also part of the team organising the aforementioned ‘Imagining the Future of Medicine’ event at the Royal Albert Hall in London in April. From September, she will be a medical student.

Join her on twitter @alexandraabel

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