We are excited to share the schedule for our TED2014 TED Fellows Talks happening on Monday, March 17th! Three hours of presentations, demos and music by our incredible Fellows and Senior Fellows. You’ll see amazing physics, paleoncology, cutting-edge technologies, photojournalism from the Middle East, animal rights journalism, astronomy, contemporary classical composing, bionic humans and so much more. Don’t miss these talks!
The talks will take place on Monday morning, March 17th in the Vancouver Convention Centre East, a 3 minute covered walk from the main TED conference location at Vancouver Convention Centre West.
*After the Fellows talks there will be a one hour break and then the Inside TED Session will begin at 5PM in the same theater.
If you haven’t booked your travel yet, don’t forget to arrive on Sunday, March 16th so you can catch both sessions! Otherwise our sessions begin too early to fly in Monday morning and catch both. If you are coming in Monday AM be sure to come to Session 2. Also, make sure you register and pick up your badge on Sunday when you arrive, or no later than 9:45 am Monday morning soon so you have enough time to get to the talks and get a good seat. You must register and pick up your badge to attend the talks. Registration takes place in VCC West, the new building.
Check out the new class of TED2014 Fellows to read about a few of the Fellows that will be speaking. Can’t watch the conference in-person? Register as a TED Live member to watch the Fellows and the rest of the conference from your home, school, or office.
Growing up in the UK and coming of age in Pakistan, TEDIndia Fellow Asher Hasan observed a vast discrepancy: those with and without access to basic healthcare, and the devastating social consequences of this disparity. He tells TED Blog the story of how he witnessed a single health disaster ruin the hopes of his childhood friends, and how this compelled him to attempt to transform a broken healthcare system with his Pakistan-based health micro-insurance company, Naya Jeevan, which offers not only quality, affordable healthcare to the urban poor, but also the financial and social inclusion the rest of us take for granted.
What does your organization do, and why?
The name Naya Jeevan traces its roots from Sanskrit, and means “new life” in modern Hindi and Urdu. We are committed to bringing low-income families in the emerging world out of poverty by providing them with affordable access to quality healthcare, financial inclusion and socio-economic opportunity. This is important because in many developing countries, catastrophic medical events trigger financial shocks that can decimate low-income families, especially as they have no public support system or safety net.
We collaborate with large, multinational corporations, and cascade our health plan up and down their value chains, essentially targeting low-income businesses and workers — mainly informal workers, domestic workers, factory workers and so on — who are either on the supply side or on the distribution/retail side. We encourage corporate executives and managers to enroll their informal domestic employees. So, for example, you could be a small-hold farmer supplying milk to a dairy company. You could be a retailer — or a micro-retailer, in some rural village — who happens to be selling a basket of products that includes products by Unilever, P&G, and so on.
For example, Unilever, which is re-launching our domestic worker plan this year, encourages its officers and managers to enroll their domestic staff — their drivers, maids and those workers’ families — in our healthcare program. The premiums are deducted from the payroll of the Unilever manager or executive. Or a corporation might directly finance the healthcare of micro-retailers who are selling their products.
The beneficiary can make co-payments, typically by mobile phone, using mobile financial services now widely available in South Asia. Enrollment in a mobile bank account will soon be part of the health plan we offer, because the people we typically serve are also unbanked. This way, they get the additional benefit of building up a financial transactional history that serves as a de facto credit report for them.
Naya Jeevan addresses socio-economic empowerment as well, tackling the informal system of what I call socio-economic apartheid in many developing countries, where there’s a rich, elitist class, and then there’s the other 90% that serves them. The rich get so used to this social dynamic that they almost start treating those who work for them like subhumans. I’ve seen many instances where even friends and family, in certain instances, have abused their domestic staff — yelled at them, beaten them, and so on. It’s absolutely disgusting, and it has to stop. Because this master-servant mindset is still pervasive, employee benefits of any type have never before been extended to these informal employees. Prior to Naya Jeevan, nobody ever considered the possibility of giving health insurance to their maid, or to their driver, or to their driver’s child, for example.
There’s a personal hook to this story…
There’s very much a personal hook to the story. My father was born in India, but some of his family members were raised in Pakistan. As a young man, he went to the UK, so I was born and raised there until I was 11, when my dad passed away from cancer. My mom, who was also born in India but raised in Pakistan, brought us back to Karachi, and I finished my schooling there.
When I first travelled to Pakistan, I was really shocked to see the tremendous disparity between rich and poor — between the elites who had unlimited access to resources and opportunity, and everybody else, who didn’t. I was especially shocked about the lack of access to healthcare in comparison to the UK, where everyone, regardless of income, has access to a national health insurance system, and where, relatively speaking, people of varying incomes have a fairly comparable quality of life.
I had direct exposure to this disparity between rich and poor. My mother had a maid with six kids, who were all within my age range, between 8 and 14. I was 11 when I first moved to Pakistan, and grew very close to these kids. Essentially, they were like my siblings. These kids were brilliant, dynamic — and I’m convinced that if they had the opportunity or had they been born in a different country, they could have become leaders of our country. They were far more intelligent than I was, that was for sure. And even though their parents — the maid and her husband, who was a mechanic — were very committed to educating them, there was a glass ceiling, a predefined trajectory that their lives seemed to be taking.
The year I left for the US for college, their father had a stroke. He’d had many, many years of uncontrolled blood pressure. Typically, in the lifestyle of low-income laborers, there’s no concept of preventive health care. It’s very much crisis management. He was taken to a public hospital, not diagnosed in time, not treated in time, and ended up paralyzed and completely incapacitated.
This had a devastating effect on the family. The kids’ mother, a very proud lady, did not want to depend indefinitely on charity, so she made the rather fateful decision to pull all six kids out of school and place them in different child labor situations. Two ended up in houses working as maids, two ended up on the street selling candy, two ended up working in apprenticeships. All six of them ended up being sexually, physically and psychologically abused.
When I returned to Pakistan during my sophomore year for a visit, I was really disturbed to see the profound impact their father’s incapacitation had on their lives. These once dynamic, bubbly kids who were full of life were completely jaded and disillusioned. It was almost like their lives had been sucked out of them and they had simply given up. Rabia, who is three years older than me, said, “You know, I’m the daughter of a maid and I’m destined to be a maid. This is my ‘kismet’ (fate). We can’t expect to be treated like royalty, or to come out of poverty.” Her father’s stroke was the first trigger event that put me on the path of doing what I do.
Last Friday was World Rare Disease Day – an event launched in 2008 to galvanize public awareness and research momentum for rare diseases. In the United States, a disease is considered rare if it affects fewer than 200,000 people. Yet there are more than 7,000 known rare diseases. This ratio means that there’s little funding for rare-disease research, so even getting a diagnosis can be a years-long odyssey, never mind treatment. Rare disease patients — the majority of them children — too often fall through the cracks.
“World Rare Disease Day unites all the thousands of rare diseases to speak with one voice and raise attention to this often overlooked sector of health research,” says Jimmy Lin, a TED Fellow and the founder of the Rare Genomics Institute, which serves the needs of patients suffering from rare diseases.
To mark World Rare Disease Day, the RGI has released a free ebook — Diagnosing Rare Diseases: Giving Families Hope Through DNA Testing, Crowdfunding, and Access to Experts — for families of those living with rare diseases. Written by Ana Sanfilippo and Jimmy Lin, the 150-page resource features interviews with the first-ever patients to be diagnosed using genomic sequencing, inspiring stories of those whose lives have been saved, advice for parents, as well as conversations with respected rare-disease physicians and genomics experts.
“We hear so many amazing stories of heroic parents fighting for their rare disease children and the amazing scientific results from this work that we think it will inspire many families in the trenches,” says Lin. “Plus, we get a lot of questions about the science and thought an information guide may be helpful.”
RGI helps individual patients with by giving them access to state-of-the-art genomics sequencing technology (see video, above). It offers a crowdsourced platform to raise funding for research, pairs patients with doctors and researchers, and helps families tap into the support of other affected families. To learn more about the Rare Genomics Institute, read the TED Blog’s conversation with Lin.
David Sengeh tinkers with his design for a 3D-printed prosthetic socket. Photo: Allegra Boverman.
A persistent sight in David Sengeh‘s childhood, growing up in Sierra Leone: amputees. Losing a limb was an all-too-common fact in the civil-war-torn region. But as if the loss of a limb weren’t enough, the aftermath was almost worse, Sengeh saw, as he watched family members and friends struggle with ill-fitting, uncomfortable prosthetics that hurt too much to wear.
Here, the 2014 TED Fellow, now studying at the MIT Media Lab, talks about his idea of redesigning the socket that connects an artificial limb to a human body — and his dream of creating custom-designed, low-cost, comfortable sockets that 3D printing technology could make accessible to anyone, anywhere. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
You’ve chosen to work on one of the major after-effects of war and help those who have lost limbs regain some quality of life. Why?
I wanted to be part of a generation that solved problems instead of creating them; a generation that created products, services and opportunities for our own children; a generation of action-oriented youth who could correct some of the wrongs from the generations before us.
What was your initial goal?
Originally, my dream was to build a prosthetic bank in Sierra Leone, a place where people, especially growing children, could bring in broken prosthetics and get a new one. But I had also observed that many of the amputees in Sierra Leone would not use their prostheses even though they had received them for free. The reason? They were uncomfortable. At the end of day, it doesn’t matter how powerful your prosthetic leg is, if the socket is poorly designed and uncomfortable, you won’t wear your leg.
Is that a common issue?
When I talk to my friends with amputations either back home or in the United States, it is obvious how debilitating current design approaches are. Patients are often left immobile because their discomfort is too high to use their legs. This takes away independence and that limits the ways in which they can create value in society.
What’s going on? Why are current designs so inadequate?
Because prosthetic sockets are designed with plaster molds and casts, modified based on the prosthetist’s experience, and dependent on the patient’s limb on that single day, the final socket is almost never comfortable. There is uneven pressure over the entire limb, leading to pressure sores and deep tissue injury. This subsequently leads to secondary problems, including back pain. The current carbon fiber socket or polyurethane sockets are not conducive to a changing anatomy.
Where are you at with your thinking now?
In my last year at Harvard, I met Professor Hugh Herr of MIT’s Media Lab – who works on the design of bionic products and is himself a double amputee. I told him about my prosthetic bank idea. His immediate response was that it would not work, because comfortable prosthetic sockets would need to be custom-made for each patient (two people cannot use the same socket) in a cost-effective, repeatable and reliable way.
Even Professor Herr himself faced the same problem: it takes on average three months, and often years, to get a comfortable prosthetic socket. But to me, forcing a patient to use a product that is not optimal is unacceptable in an age when we have advanced tools for imaging, design, modeling and manufacturing.
So how are you thinking about creating a new, more comfortable prosthetic?
We are using advances in medical imaging and computer-aided design and manufacturing to create custom prosthetic sockets that are more comfortable. I use MRI images to develop models for each patient — making it possible for patients to send in scans from anywhere in the world — and from those results develop a multi-material 3D-printed prosthetic socket. Because this socket could be printed anywhere, it could also be immediately delivered to the patient. The 3D printing process allows us to use flexible, rubber-based materials over specific anatomical landmarks where pressure should be relieved. These products are being tested by patients, including US veterans. In one of our trials, an active veteran who has been an amputee for over 20 years said of a socket: “It’s so soft, it’s like walking on pillows.” Another noted: “It’s effing sexy.”
What’s your hope for the design in the future?
Disability in this day and age should not prevent people from living meaningful lives that enable them to create value for society. In many cases where solutions exist, the products are developed for those who can afford the premium price. My hope and desire is that the tools and processes being created in our research group will bring low-cost and and highly functional prosthetic sockets to patients all over the world. For me, a place to begin repairing the bodies and souls of those affected by war and disease is by designing comfortable and affordable interfaces that will help them take the step that moves them from disabled to living a meaningful and productive life.
TED Fellow Lucy McRae (watch her TED Talk) is a body architect — an artist who explores how technology and the body may someday meet and merge. Her latest project is a fantastical and frothy music video for “Dream a Little Crazy” by Australian band Architecture in Helsinki. Watch the mouth-watering video above, and then read all about how McRae and her collaborators wove futuristic ideas about synthetic biology, food-as-sculpture and 3D printing technology into a mad lab full of flying gloop and powder.
How do you describe to people what you do?
I do speculative story-telling. I create parallel, alternate worlds — underpinned by science fiction. The idea is to render possibilities to how technology will change, thinking about how people will embody the future in technology. But I do it in playful ways. In a way, I’m designing the connective tissue between science and imagination. I’m not a technologist, I’m not a scientist. I’m an artist inspired by scientific thinking, and I use that to steer the narratives of my films and concepts.
How did you come to collaborate on the video with Architecture in Helsinki?
A lot of my projects begin with serendipitous encounters, and this project was no different. I got an email from the band at a completely random time when I was at the LimeWharf, a cultural innovation hub in London where I’m now doing a residency. I’d been a Architecture in Helsinki fan for years, while the band’s lead singer, Cameron Bird, had seen my work, but had no idea who was making it. Then he investigated and saw that I was Australian, too, and was like, “Huh? Why haven’t we ever contacted her before?”
So he wrote to me and said I’d love for you to interpret the song. They had no brief, except that they wanted a surreal, infectious, absurd clip, and to have a strong synergy between the album artwork, made by this Finnish illustrator Santtu Mustonen, who hand-crafts analog, globby, dripping illustrations over sharp 3D geometries.
How did this lead to the concept of the biological bakery?
Our concept was to explore how synthetic biology might enter the home, but in a humorous way — using music as a superhighway to illustrate quite a complex idea. My collaborator Rachel Wingfield and I were interested in synthetic biology and the way food is industrially mass-produced, the way balloons or candies are made. We looked at how we could merge these industrial machines with the representation of the body. We started experimenting with the concept of printing the band’s faces with multicolored bacterial strands — using different-colored edible liquids composed of flour and water to symbolize this.
Everything in the film was edible. The band were scanned in Australia with a medical-grade 3D scanner, all the files were sent over to us in London, 3D printed and made into miniature versions in pop-confectionery.
There’s a scene where Cameron’s face-planting the band’s faces into corn flour. This is the way that candies are molded in factories: they create huge, big trays of corn flour, and they emboss, for example, Haribo shapes into the corn flour, and then the liquid is poured in. We piggybacked some of these confectionary techniques and made them for an installation gallery setting.
Two days after the music video, we re-created and built the whole set for a live event. We invited the audience to enter into this world, and we performed the scenes from the music video, exploding the liquid and painting this sort of fantastical tattoo skin over the body. In the end we were merging film and experiential art into the gallery setting.
Did the audience actually get to eat the props from the film? What were they made of?
Yeah, we worked with a chef at the LimeWharf and used the 3D-printed molds to make edible faces with a Prosecco, pear and thyme jelly. The audience members were eating the band. We made chocolate versions of the band as well. Everyone was asked to wear white, so it was kind of like this Willy Wonka–esque experience. Cameron was playing music, it was sort of like this chamber where this liquid was overflowing and spilling everywhere, and people were eating the props.
Now, back in Australia, the band has collaborated with a confectionery company, so the molds we made are being turned into lollipops, which they’re launching as part of their album release. It’s interesting how the evolution of this project started as a conversation, became a music video, then an experiential installation, and now a real-life biological bakery!
I’m interested in transforming materials, and food is a great material to sculpt. By representing the anatomy through food, it’s a way of experiencing sculpture in a different way. You can touch it — eat the contents of a gallery — breaking down the barrier of just being a viewer.
And you’re ingesting into your anatomy the anatomy that was represented by the food.
Exactly. And this points to the bigger picture of whether, in the future, we actually will clone ourselves, or eat ourselves in order to enhance our senses. So it’s kind of tapping into those different areas of research, but in a playful way.
Probably the most famous pyramids in the world… those at Giza, near Cairo, shown here in a high resolution satellite image. By studying such images, archaeologists can be very precise about on-the-ground research, saving both time and money.
Strange as it may seem, archaeologists often look to the sky to discover sites buried deep beneath the earth. Space archaeology, as it’s called, refers to the use of high-resolution satellite imaging and lasers to map and model everything from hidden Mayan ruins in Central America to specific features on the ancient Silk Road trade route in Central Asia. The process saves research teams years it would have taken to do the same work using ground-based survey techniques.
Archaeologist, Egyptologist, University of Alabama at Birmingham professor and TED Fellow Sarah Parcak makes extensive use of this technology in her work, and she has done much to popularize space archaeology. She wrote the world’s first overview book on the subject, and gave a riveting talk at TED2012 to explain how borrowing the tools of space exploration helped her identify an ancient Egyptian city that had been hidden for thousands of years. Here, she tells the TED Blog more about how it all works — and how she applies it to her on-the-ground explorations.
How long has space archaeology been around? Who figured out that this could work?
Archaeologists have used aerial photographs to map archaeological sites since the 1920s, while the use of infrared photography started in the 1960s, and satellite imagery was first used in the 1970s. But it wasn’t until a seminal conference held at NASA in 1984 by my friend Dr. Tom Sever, whom I call the father of space archaeology, that we started to see more peer-reviewed papers on the topic. Tom introduced the field to a number of influential archaeologists — and then things really started developing when those archaeologists trained their graduate students, and those students started getting positions ten years ago.
Today, space archaeology is fairly standard practice. Conventional excavation and survey are crucial to confirm any satellite imagery findings, but analyzing the images saves time and money and allows projects to focus on specific locations at archaeological sites.
How do these technologies help to identify objects buried in the ground?
The only technology that can “see” beneath the ground is radar imagery. But satellite imagery also allows scientists to map short- and long-term changes to the Earth’s surface. Buried archaeological remains affect the overlying vegetation, soils and even water in different ways, depending on the landscapes you’re examining. So, for example, buried features in desert environments appear different from buried features in floodplains. When a wall is slowly covered over by earth, the materials it’s made from decay and become part of the soils around and above it, sometimes causing vegetation above and next to the wall to grow faster or slower. Satellite imagery helps archaeologists to pick up these subtle changes.
If you find a series of linear shapes in the same alignment as known archaeological features, and they match excavated examples, you still need to excavate to confirm, but you can be fairly sure that the imagery is accurate. Often discrepancies are much more readily apparent in the infrared part of the light spectrum, since vegetation and other changes to soils appear more strongly in infrared.
When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.
What happened with the FBI?
At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.
A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.
Did they not realize that you were a journalist?
They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”
And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.
Did they bother you after that?
Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.
Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.
How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?
I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.
So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.
TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.
The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.
It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.
We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?
The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.
Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.
In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.
For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.
One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.
More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.
My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and Doen Foundation.
The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.
All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com
Meklit Hadero’s voice is earthy and soulful, sinuous and untethered, and she’s about to unleash a new album on the world. She has just launched a crowdfunding campaign for her second solo recording, We Are Alive, and is currently touring the East Coast of the United States.We caught up with her between shows to ask about her musical vision and her latest news, including an exciting new initiative promoting food sustainability in the Nile basin.
You’re often billed as Ethiopian-American singer. Did you grow up in Ethiopia? Tell us about your journey to becoming a singer-songwriter.
I grew up all over the place. I was born in Ethiopia, and left when I was about 2. We went to Germany briefly and from there to DC, Iowa, Brooklyn, Florida, Seattle, now ten years in San Francisco! I like to say that my upbringing was a good training for life as a touring musician.
I studied political science at Yale, but I always thought of a liberal arts education as developing a relationship to language, writing, and complexity, learning to take streams of thought from multiple disciplines and develop your own opinions about the world, to engage with information and culture in a present-time way. Even though I’m no longer in the field of political science, those meta-ideas are ones I put into play every day.
After college, and after a few years in Seattle, I moved to San Francisco and found the Red Poppy Art House. That tiny little arts and culture hub was my introduction to artists and musicians from around the world who were thinking big and making work with substance. I started organizing there, and ended up co-directing the space for two and a half years. The community around me really supported me in making the transition to being a full-time artist.
Do you identify strongly as both African and American?
Yes, absolutely — I feel deeply African and deeply American. I was born in Ethiopia, my parents are Ethiopian, so I grew up in many ways steeped in that culture. At the same time, I was raised in Brooklyn, equally surrounded by early hip-hop, street-level jazz, and Ethiopian classics. I like to say I walk the road of hyphens. That’s actually where I’m most comfortable, in between and celebrating it. I grew up always wondering where home was, especially because we moved so much. It became a wonderful driving question in my music, especially early on.
I remember the first time I went to Ethiopia as an adult. It was me and my mother. Growing up, she always referred to Ethiopia as “back home.” Then when we were in Addis Ababa together that first trip, she kept referring to the States as “back home.” It was then that I realized just how fluid that phrase and idea were. It didn’t mean a place — it meant a state of being. And that freed me in a way to both accept the searching, and let go of it too. Culture is funny – there are no firm lines, only fine ones.
Above: Watch “Leaving Soon” — a music video from Meklit Hadero’s first album, On A Day Like This.
You’ve just launched a Pledge campaign for your new album. What is it about, and how is it different from your previous work?
We recorded in November and the new album, titled “We Are Alive,” will be out March 18. The PledgeMusic campaign just launched earlier this week. We really had fun creating the campaign and got as creative as we could with the perks, including visual art, homemade covers, songs written just for you, all sorts of stuff!
The concept that ties the whole thing together is simple. As hard as life gets, and as sweet as it gets, we are alive. It is the through line in all our experiences. It’s an anthem that celebrates the ups and the downs as equal parts. Sugar and salt. Rock, paper, scissors. After my first solo album, On A Day Like This, I spent a lot of time on side projects. You see, every artist has their whole life to write their first solo record, and they usually have a year and a half to write their second one. I didn’t want to fall into that trap. I wanted to take a few years to explore and experiment. We Are Alive brings all that time of experimentation together into one cohesive sound. I’m really proud of how this turned out. It feels really good.