Speaking at TEDxCanberra

Kristin: This morning I spoke at TEDxCanberra. Here is the text of the talk I prepared, though I can’t promise it’s exactly the same as it was delivered!

We’ve been set a challenge at TEDxCanberra today – to “think way beyond”. Yet I’m not convinced we’re very good at imagining and articulating future vision, especially a vision big enough and rich enough to lift us beyond the ordinary. I think between the “idea” and “action” we need to create better stories for effective change.

As a futurist and science communicator, my currency is scale. The timescale of “way beyond” is thus tricky to assess. For it cannot be in 10 years, or even 40 years – that is what I deal with in the everyday. Futurist Richard Slaughter talks about a multi-generation “present” of 200 years spanning my grandparents and my grandchildren. So thinking way beyond in both scientific and futures terms means deep time: thousands and thousands of years.

Think in deep time and sooner or later you reach our own extinction; the extinction of all human life. And at a time when biodiversity loss is one of the big issues we are facing, it’s all too easy to imagine that our reckless approach to our planet will be the cause of human extinction. That our inability to be sympathetic to the needs our environment, and to heed the warming signs will mean we will be unable adapt to climate change and other environmental dilemmas.

Jim Lovelock (of Gaia theory) thinks that it’s too late to do anything about climate change, and that by 2100, 80% of humans will be gone. He hopes he’s wrong though.

And I hope he’s wrong too. But I’m also an optimist that finds signs of hope for our survival in deep time all around us in the present. And all of us already know what needs to be done.

At my house, we’d already changed over all our light bulbs for energy efficient. But a couple of months ago we installed solar panels on our roof. And planted the beginnings of yet another vege garden – each one of these actions an attempt towards a more sustainable future. This is not a new story. And it’s hardly exciting enough to inspire others to change. These small ideas and actions though are reflected in the larger stories we share amongst our communities, like these ones:

We need to be more efficient.

Here is a LED. This is an example of how we’re finding ways to be more efficient – a light-emitting diode (LED), Compared with the type of light we’ve used in the past LEDs have lower energy consumption, a longer lifetime. From that perspective, a small LED becomes a symbol for sustainability.

But sustainability is not the only story in the LED. In fact there are lots of ways we might be able to frame ideas using the LED.

(and in here, the whole audience made LED glowies and I do promise I will upload the photo!)

In other work I’ve done on conjunction with Flinders University, the LED is a tool for science outreach. We’ve used different coloured LEDs to explain to students and the public the relationship between energy and light. In its simplest form, attaching an LED to a battery demonstrates its forward bias, connect it in the right way and you switch it on.

When an LED is switched on, electrons recombine with their opposite holes, releasing energy as light. As well as using LEDs to explain topics of energy and light, we’ve also used them to go beyond the mechanism of the LED to illustrate effects at the nanoscale, where size can be measured in lines of atoms. Quantum dots are an example. They are semiconductors, but with a further constraint around the electron-hole pairing that changes their properties. Unlike LEDs that emit different colours based on different materials, quantum dots of the same material can emit different colours based on their size. These optical effects can be used in a range of applications include high-speed computing and medical diagnostics.

Understanding science is critical, which is why in the work we’ve done with Flinders we get people to make circuits with the LEDs and to test them and discover how things work.

But if I’d gotten you to add a magnet instead of a clip, you’d have made a “throwie”. A throwie is an invention of the Graffiti Research Lab, a collective based in New York who’ve perfect the merging art and technology to challenge the notion of what’s legal and who owns public space. They’ve developed a process for projecting laser writing on buildings, covering trains and other structure with LEDs – temporary tagging.

And so a throwie, or that story of the LED becomes a symbol of counter-culture.

I’ve enjoyed playing with the throwie, turning it into a glowie by removing the magnet and raiding craft stores for scrapbooking touches that render it as adornment – a feminine subversion.

And the reason I can alter the design to replace a magnet with a lapel badge is Creative Commons. A symbol of a legal system which allows me to use their idea, and to change it, as long I as offer you the same chance to alter my design as well. Another story in the LED

So far I’ve presented you with three views about what’s important in thinking about the future:

  • That the environment is of utmost importance
  • That it’s our use and application of technology that sets the scene
  • That’s its ideas and social construction that matter

So what is important? What will drive our future and how do we avoid extinction (at the worst), or sub-optimal futures in the short-term?

We can start by avoiding the narrow view. Which is why we get fed up when you only see a glimpse of what are complex issues and problems in the search for a media soundbite, or headline. Which is why we work to build better narratives, to find framework that are mutlifaceted, to build better and more nuanced models of how the world might work, now and way beyond.

I’ve just submitted a paper. I scanned the academic futures literature and was surprised at the dislocation of the images of the future. On the one hand, the sustainability images promised a return to self-sufficiency, to wholefoods and a wiser way of living, what I call “organic” where technology was either not mentioned or call forth for renewable energy and public transport. No mention on communication or health technologies.

On the other hand, the technology-based futures were full of machines and the promise of data-logging our consciousness, without a thought how that affects our future as humans and how we connect with the natural world.

And we see the same dislocation when we try and integrate discussions between science and spirituality. I heard a radio interview with the author AS Byatt who said she’d attended a workshop on creating cultural policy outcomes, which broke down because the biologists refused to listen to the theologians. Not that they disagreed – but they were so opposed to the idea of religion that they refused to listen.

Are we so opposed to different views that we refuse to listen? And if so, how do we ever propose to bring isolated ideas into a world full of contradictions?

I want to see the creation of more integrated vision of the future that sits between our ideas for change and the actions we undertake. For if we fail to create rich visions based on a better understanding of a range of people’s views and beliefs, then we are sabotaging our success. Like this:

  • We fall into the trap of successive technological issues, as illustrated in this article, Gendercide from The Monthly
  • Or the trap of believing in the so-called balanced debate in the media as we see in climate change reporting
  • But taking perspectives does not mean empty community consultation and tick the box stakeholder meetings
  • And it doesn’t mean clumsy compromise where a little bit is distributed and everyone ends up unhappy, with hope for a plan for the Murray Darling Basin

One of the best examples I’ve seen recently is in reading the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Affecting, emotional stories that put technology, the environemtn, community and connection into context. But it’s a story of the past.

To create lasting and transformational change that avoids the trap of setting up our own extinctions (even metaphorically), yes we need an idea. And you’ll hear lots of them today. And we need people to act. And yes, action is often a hard slog and it requires leadership and persistence.

But to be successful, I propose a middle step – the creation of a robust vision between the idea and action, one that welcomes the tension from opposing views and seeks to create something new, one that recognises the complexity in the wicked problems we face and one that seeks to build an adequately complex response.

And the glowie you’re made – may it be a reminder that although yours is represented by one symbol, there are a myriad of stories that sit within that object and to fully use that object to its more interesting and effective potential, those stories need to be found.

Not just a story. There is no capital F future anymore (according to William Gibson). We need better stories. Better to develop the idea so it becomes more robust, but also better to inspire others. Between the idea and action we need to build better a better vision from a multiplicity of perspectives. Go and create better stories.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by franksting, The Bank Channel, Mitchell Whitelaw, Mike Seyfang, Corinne Paterson and others. Corinne Paterson said: RT @kristinalford: Here's the link to the transcript of my talk at #tedxcanberra today: http://bit.ly/9Euur8 […]

  2. Bridge8 says:

    […] As I’ve previously reported, a couple of weeks ago I spoke at TEDxCanberra. The videos of all the talks are now available on […]

  3. […] Point Melbourne, TEDxAdelaide and TEDxCanberra, where she gave this wide ranging talk (video, and words at Kristin’s blog) covering quantum dots and semi-conductor LED lights, sustainability and biodiversity loss, New […]

  4. […] Better Stories of the Future’ at the independent TED event TEDxCanberra; click here to read a written version, or watch the presentation on YouTube. In the meantime, Kristin was also […]

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