Photo of the TEDx University of Glasgow 2020 stage

TEDxUniversityofGlasgow 2020 sent a time capsule to the year 2120. A travel trunk, placed opposite that famous red carpet, held ten letters; one from each of the ten speakers, addressed to the world of both the present and the future. For the future world, they were a snapshot of now, of the conversations we have about the problems we face. To the present, they were a call to change. 

According to the first letter, we need the confidence to stand up and make our voices heard. Russell Wardrop, professional speaker and founder of Kissing With Confidence, told us how to get there, although warned us that confidence is hard-won. It takes work, and failure, to develop the skills associated with that thing you want to do. And when you do fail, you need self-awareness to figure out how you can get better. Confidence is developed through practice. 

When we do speak up, we must be careful about the words we use. Several speakers pointed out that language is one of the most powerful tools we have to shape the world around us. Fourth-year psychology student Alejandro Serrano spoke about the language of mental health and how continuing to use stigmatising words – to “commit” suicide, like it’s a crime – perpetuates self-stigmatisation and prevents people from seeking the help they need. Instead, we need to use our words to make sense of what has happened to us. He reminded us that humans are innate storytellers. The stories we tell about our lives are essential for us to understand how to move forward. 

One word proved to be particularly powerful. So much so that it couldn’t be written in its full glory on the slides. C*nt. (I feel like I can’t even write it here!) But Dr Kate Lister made up for its censorship by projecting to her audience every conjugation of c*nt. Dr Lister – sex historian, Lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, and creator of the sex-positive research project Whores of Yore – pieced together a history of why c*nt went from having connotations of creation, knowledge, and queendom to topping the polls for dirtiest word. Her words made us consider what it means that women struggle to take ownership of their bodies and what it would mean for the future if women claimed the power of c*nt. 

Every speaker giving a TED talk understands the power of well-delivered words, but a spoken-word poet lives and breathes this idea. Gray Crosbie’s poetry reminded us about what words mean to real-life people. Much of their poetry speaks about gender and sexuality and how a richer vocabulary is necessary for a future in which the happiness of everyone matters. Their poems about period sex and crumbled jammy dodgers reminded us of messy, feel-y life outside the walls of academia and conferences – where actions must match words. 

Jaime Toney, Professor of Environmental and Climate Science at the University of Glasgow, did the same. Her talk on climate change added to the chorus of voices shouting across the globe that we need to take action – now. Like any experienced scientist, she presented the facts calmly and convincingly with evidence. She showed charts of emissions and images of ice cores but the most striking evidence has been right in front of our eyes, constantly, endlessly, for the past several weeks: rain. In Scotland, we often complain about how often it rains and this February was the wettest on record. Professor Toney warned that it’s only going to get wetter. I stared at the time capsule sitting on the stage and wondered what kind of world the year 2120 would be. 

Apparently some people call this kind of wondering ‘Futurology’. Dr Alena Kostyk, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Glasgow, suggested that this type of thinking is missing in several sectors of the economic landscape that ultimately form our world. She highlighted a lack of consideration by businesses for the ripples of impact they will have when they decide what technology does and doesn’t make it to market. Her talk was peppered with futurology jargon, intended to give businesspeople a vocabulary to speak a better kind of future into being. 

Business and psychology student Ana Isabel Bacallado has acutely experienced what it’s like to speak your ideas into reality. She credits her family’s prosperity and her own athletic success in no small part to visualisation. She instructed us to say to ourselves what we wanted to achieve. We had to say what we wanted in the present tense while engaging all of our senses. Somehow, this made our dreams feel entirely possible and just within arm’s reach. Like the many others who have revealed “The Secret” before, she showed compelling conviction for this psychological trick. When matched with support and the right resources, a little faith in yourself can go a long way. 

Psychology was by far the most represented discipline. This is perhaps unsurprising since mental ill health continues to be a focal point of concern for society in 2020. Dr Marios Philiastides is a Reader at the University of Glasgow Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology who is interested in studying the brain to understand how we make decisions. His talk discussed some of what is known about decision-making and his team’s work to identify neurological biomarkers to improve treatment for people with depression. Dr Felix Economakis is a clinician and a leading specialist in the treatment of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) – a disorder in which individuals restrict how much they eat not because of a concern with weight gain as in anorexia nervosa, but because they’re afraid of consequences like being sick. Although very different at face value, both are ultimately interested in studying and speaking about the same idea. Our perception of the world and ourselves determines our experience. If we buy into our fears and doubts as being categorically true, then we’ll be stuck in the same cycles of self-destruction that keep us miserable. In sharing their work, they gave the audience a taste of how psychology researchers and clinicians are helping us to overcome our greatest obstacle to change: our own minds.

However, Sophia Smith spoke beautifully about how imposing constraints encourages creativity. Maris, Niles’ wife who we never get to see on the 90s sitcom Frasier, frustrated fans yet moved them to create their own very different interpretations of her through fan art. Dr Seuss’ timeless and much-loved children’s book Green Eggs and Ham was written on a bet and uses only 50 words. Alongside studying English Literature at the University of Glasgow, Sophia is an artist who found herself in a creative slump at the start of her degree and got out of it by settling rules for what she could and could not draw. She began a project in which she could only draw faces, and only the black parts, and what came of it was a series of minimalist, dramatic, and most importantly interesting works that changed the way she looked at faces altogether. I’m someone who loves to draw yet would get frustrated by exercises in which you weren’t allowed to rub out mistakes, but Sophia’s talk suggested that challenges are often a blessing in disguise. After all, every great invention or piece of art was born from some struggle, big or small. No matter what we face in getting to 2120, we will almost certainly see some of the best of what human creativity can dream up along the way.

Finally, Dr Ciara McGrath, Research Associate at the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, spoke of how a need for sturdy reliability in satellite tech has limited exploration through the use of outdated, heavy, and expensive technology. But we have an opportunity to completely change the way we use space to live life on Earth by applying the same design thinking we use for smartphone design to make small, lightweight satellites that will soon cost about the same as the newest model of the iPhone. Dr McGrath urged us to consider what we would do if we could send up our very own satellite into space. What would we do if this tiny satellite was part of a democratic network of satellites that we could access to see any part of the Earth at any time? Although this raises ethical questions about surveillance, the potential to monitor the sustainability practices of big corporations or even just avoid heavy traffic on our way to work and school is exciting. Creativity and progress will undoubtedly raise questions as well as provide answers, but our world and those beyond it are becoming increasingly accessible to all. The duty we have to consider social responsibility and equity is at the centre of conversations across all areas of life. 

The world we live in is troubled. We’re scared and we’re angry. But we’re also hopeful. What this year’s conference showed was that we know where we’ve gone wrong and we know that we need to change. To tackle our existential threats, we need to make use of our uniquely-human skills: our ability to share ideas and comfort one another through language and our ability to imagine and shape the future.  

This article was copy-edited by Katrina Wesencraft.


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